31 Oct Wisconsin scientists to be recognized for innovative biofuel technology
UW-Madison Chemical and Biological Engineering
Madison, Wis. — In 2002, UW stem cell pioneer James Thomson won one of these. In 2003, it was Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. This year, it might be James Dumesic and Randy Cortright.
On November 14, the two men will be honored as New Fellows of the New York-based World Technology Network, which calls itself a “global meeting ground, a virtual think tank, and an elite club whose members are all focused on the business or science of bringing important emerging technologies of all types into reality.”
Never heard of Dumesic and Cortright? That may be about to change. The two men partnered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to invent a novel new, nonpolluting method for producing fuel from everyday wastes like corn, wheat straw and sawdust. Dumesic is still a professor in the UW’s College of Engineering, while Cortright left the university to co-found Virent Energy Systems, located on Anderson Street in Madison, which is employing the new technology.
Never heard of the World Technology Network? Neither had one of Cortright’s partners, Virent CEO Eric Apfelbach. “We spent two weeks trying to figure out, is this real?” Apfelbach said last week. “We finally figured out that it looked like a pretty real deal.” One or the other of the two men may attend the ceremony, to be held in San Francisco, he thinks.
The World Technology Network (no relation to the Wisconsin Technology Network) recognizes innovative thinkers, both individual and corporate, in a long list of categories: arts, biotechnology, communications, design, education, energy, entertainment, environment, ethics, finance, health and medicine, information technology, law, marketing communications, materials, media/journalism, policy, social entrepreneurship, and space. All New Fellows, of which there are five and sometimes six, have a shot at being named overall winner in their category.
Among the organization’s sponsors are Microsoft, Wired Magazine, Accenture Corporation, and CNN.
Virent was founded only three years ago, with the long view that their new ideas would hold commercial promise. This year’s skyrocketing energy prices only strengthen that likelihood.
Hydrogen has long been dreamed about as a source of unlimited clean power. Most technologies have encountered financial or technological roadblocks, but about four years ago in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dumesic and Cortright discovered a method they dubbed “APR”—aqueous phase reforming—that allowed the economical conversion of biofuels into fuel and hydrogen. Biofuels—basically vegetable carbohydrates—can range from cheese whey to paper mill sludge and corn and wood waste, of which there is plenty.
The process uses less energy than other methods, and produces minimal carbon dioxide, which is consumed by plant regrowth the following year. Additionally, a catalyst made of nickel and tin is used instead of platinum, which is expensive.
The team patented the technology and then licensed it through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
“It represents a drastic change in how we use sugars as fuels, in a way that’s competitive with petroleum,” Apfelbach said. “APR is a whole new platform.”
The field of “heterogeeous catalysis”–the study of how solid catalysts speed up chemical reactions–has been dominated for 50 years by its applications to petroleum, said James Dumesic, one of the award winners. Applying the technology to biomass presents many opportunities, he said. “We’re excited about new directions,” he said.
A demonstration of the new technology is now in place at Madison Gas & Electric, Apfelbach said. There, a Ford internal combustion engine powered by the fuel produced in the APR reaction is hooked to the MG&E power grid. It produces enough energy, about five kilowatts, to power an average home.
“It’s the first time the system has ever been built,” Apfelbach said. “You pour sugars in one end and get electrons out the other end.”
Click here to WTN’s previous coverage of Virent Energy Systems