2005 Early-Career Award: Randy Cortright

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

Tags: alumni, CBE E-Day, Engineers' Day, Randy Cortright

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Randy D. Cortright
Executive Vice President & Chief Technology Officer
Virent Energy Systems, Inc.
PhDCBE ’94
Madison, WI

Randy Cortright’s life has the quality of a classic story in which someone grows from humble beginnings to achieve great things. Like many Michigan farm kids, he helped with chores at an early age. He walked a mile and half through the snow to attend class in a one-room schoolhouse. At about age 10, someone gave Cortright a chemistry set. It was the late 60s; the country was focused on going to the moon and Cortright fell in love with science.

He attended Michigan Tech University for its chemical engineering program and the area’s ample snow for cross-country skiing. After earning his BS in 1977, he was hired by the petrochemical company UOP, which trained him to start and troubleshoot refineries.

For four-and-a-half years, Cortright visited more than 88 locations in more than 30 countries. As a young engineer, he had to prove himself each time. His work took him to Europe, Saudi Arabia, China and finally Siberia. After six months in Siberia, he decided he would like to try something else.

He returned to Michigan Tech and in 1986 earned his MS in chemical engineering. After a brief return to industry, Cortright applied for research positions at several universities. He joined UW-Madison’s chemical engineering department in 1987. With his knowledge of industry and skill as a researcher he became a valued instructor and scientist.

Cortright earned his PhD and a patent in 1994 for his work developing catalysts for making olefins. During this time, he also met his wife (Amy Krohn, MD 1993) and started a family, cementing his relationship with Madison and Wisconsin.

Former Chemical Engineering Professor Doug Cameron suggested to Cortright the concept of utilizing carbohydrates as raw materials for chemicals. With Steenbock Professor James Dumesic, Cortright’s initial work in this area led to patented technology that converted lactic acid from corn to make propylene glycol. Success there led Cortright and Dumesic to look at using biomass to make hydrogen.

Cortright suggested using ethylene glycol instead of ethanol in the investigation. “We walked across the street, put ethylene glycol into the reactor system and saw improved results,” Cortright says. “That led to the patent of generating hydrogen from sugar.”

In June 2002, Cortright and Dumesic founded Virent Energy Systems Inc. The company now has 19 employees, more than half of them UW graduates, and will unveil an alpha version of a five-kilowatt electrical generator this fall.