07 Jun Virent shows off its hydrogen-fuel plans
The prophesied “hydrogen economy” has been a little slow in coming, perhaps because hydrogen is hard to produce and harder to store in a non-volatile way. Virent, a Madison-based startup, may have the technology to solve both problems at once.
Jim Dumesic, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of chemical engineering and co-founder of Virent, explained how at the Nanotechnology Conference last Thursday. Dumesic and Randy Cortright, another UW-Madison chemical engineer, have discovered a way to turn sugar into hydrogen, right in the engine of a car.
Creating hydrogen on the go means that fuel tanks don’t have to store compressed hydrogen, which could be an explosion risk. But previous experiments have found the conditions to be all wrong – at the temperature where producing the hydrogen is efficient, it tends not to stay hydrogen but to revert back to its previous form.
Dumesic explained that a catalyst was necessary to push the chemical reaction along. He and his research team tried several. Platinum was very effective, he said, but a nickel-tin mixture worked about as well and cost much less.
Virent plans to make this technology, licensed through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, into a small device that can convert sugar-based fuel to hydrogen on the go, perhaps one day becoming compact enough to fit in place of a laptop battery.
“The systems to liquefy hydrogen and keep it that way are very weighty,” said Eric Apfelbach, Virent’s chief executive officer.
“We can conceive of situations where we could put one of these reactors in your house,” he said.
Virent’s challenge will be making the technology cost-effective. Apfelbach said energy customers would not adopt a new technology that could not compete on price with existing solutions. The reactors also need to last at least 10,000 hours, he said, but Dumesic and Cortright’s invention seems to fit the bill.
“We’re seeing some of our catalysts even increase in activity over time,” Apfelbach said.
In addition to Virent, this research has inspired Green Automotive Systems, a company started by UW-Madison engineering students who worked closely with professors Dumesic and Cortright to develop a hydrogen engine that uses excess engine heat to drive a reaction producing hydrogen from sugars and alcohols.
Green Automotive Systems won an award for a socially responsible business plan in April at the G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition. The founders’ hydrogen engine also impressed an audience at the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s Innovation Days competition earlier this year.
Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.