The new alchemy? Company makes jet fuel and plastic soda bottles out of farm wastes

Source: Jennifer Huizen, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, November 7, 2014

Last week, major players in the packaging industry expressed interest in helping the world get one step closer to a 100 percent renewable plastic product.

While many have been working on the technology for several years, a level of 30 percent renewable had been reached. But a tiny company in Wisconsin, Virent Energy Systems Inc., has figured out how to generate the missing 70 percent, gaining the interest of a powerful group: the PlantPET Technology Collaborative.

The collaborative, abbreviated as PTC, consists of industry giants like Coca-Cola Co., Ford Motor Co., Heinz Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. that have joined ranks with the goal of using 100 percent renewable packing for their products by 2020.

Lee Edwards, CEO of Virent since 2008 and former BP PLC employee of 25 years, chalks up the company’s success to the right mixture of dedicated founders and investors, but most importantly strong science. Edwards said partnerships with large companies like Coca-Cola have allowed its product to receive not only high-level performance testing but also intensive life-cycle analysis to show it truly offers long-term environmental benefits.

“We’re not in this, doing all the work, spending all this money, to come out with something that turns out to not make a real difference,” he said. “This has been great for a little company like Virent, because partners like Coca-Cola have actually been highly discriminating and committed to good science, giving credibility to the market.”

Though its product is not being produced at commercial levels, Virent has a demonstration facility in its home state, with hopes of a full-scale factory by 2018. Last week’s announcement of support comes on the back of 12 years of success with other products.

They were derived from the company’s patented process for transforming sugars into products like biogasoline and jet fuel. The company partnered with Cargill Inc. in 2001 and Honda Motor Co. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC by 2006, also receiving funding from the Department of Energy’s National Advanced Biofuels Consortium.

First, a ‘drop-in’ fuel for Shell

Randy Cortright, founder of Virent, worked with catalytic processes involved in petroleum refining on every continent before completing his postdoctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There he was joined by Jim Dumesic in patenting a novel catalytic pathway called aqueous phase reforming, or APR.

In 2002, Cortright left the university to begin commercializing their product, which then focused on producing hydrogen, initially trying to get ahead of the onset of the hydrogen fuel-cell market.

After this market proved slow to materialize, they began experimenting with another byproduct of the process, a liquid chemical extremely similar to gasoline. Virent began trials for this chemical as the basis for a fuel replacement with Cargill, Honda and Shell, growing from a company of just over a dozen in 2002 to 70 by 2008. In 2011, it successfully produced biogasoline from corn stover and pine harvest residues with the help of DOE funding.

“The [Federal Aviation Administration] approved our jet fuel, and Shell’s Formula 1 racing team has used our products,” Edwards said. “Not only were our products found to be comparable to gasoline, but in some cases actually better given its extremely high octane levels.”

Virent’s fuel alternatives also boast marketable attributes being a drop-in product, meaning existing machinery and pipelines can use the new fuel without adjustments, bypassing the blending restrictions of ethanol fuels. In addition, just about any type of vegetative feedstock can be used, so many that when asked for a list of feedstock materials the company intended to use, Edwards replied, “It would be better to name one and I’ll tell you whether we use it.”

Edwards said this allows factories to use the most abundant and economically viable stock dependent on their region, decreasing transportation and taking advantage of existing suppliers, while also helping to balance the energy life cycle of the final product by using many types of agricultural waste.

“We wanted a platform to recognize the variability and power of Mother Nature, especially as humans are presenting factors that threaten to limit this flexibility,” he said.

But this wasn’t enough for Virent. Other byproducts of its patented process mirror almost the full spectrum of petroleum-based chemicals, roughly 90 percent, offering the bare bones for dozens if not hundreds of other products.

“What we yield in our process is just as wide-ranging as what comes out of a barrel of oil,” he said. “It wasn’t long before the company itself and others began to recognize the potential we had for other applications.”

Then, enter Coca-Cola and others

In 2011, Coca-Cola decided to couple with Virent to work on one of these potential applications, a replacement for thermoplastic polymer resin, commonly known as PET, a chemical from the polyester family commonly used in plastics. While products with partial bio compositions — most around 30 percent — had already entered the market, such as Dasani’s plant-based water bottle — the technology to make these products fully renewable remained elusive.

After years of work, the team created a viable PET replacement option called BioFormPX, finally able to account for the missing 70 percent of the completely renewable PET puzzle. Last week the PTC group announced it had signed an “expression of interest” with Virent, offering its members an option of preferred access when commercial-scale production begins.

Though the product is renewable, sustainable in its energy consumption and recyclable, Edwards is clear it is not biodegradable. That’s by design.

“Packing products are designed with the characteristics to allow it to hold up on the shelf, under heat and transport, making biodegrading it energy-intensive,” he said. “After serious testing we realized that it’s not efficient to compost our product, releasing the carbon feed stocks initially absorbed back into the environment and using energy to recapture it again. By continuously recycling our products, the carbon they take out of the atmosphere is hypothetically never returned.”

While quick to point out there are many roadblocks ahead, Edwards is confident the company’s background, employees and partners will gain Virent further notoriety and industrial-scale operations in the near future.

“At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of chemical engineers trying to look at the world from an environmental perspective,” he said. “Anyone making truly renewable products needs both their workers and product to be particularly resilient, persistent and strong. Some days the storm looks pretty bad, and it’s easy to feel rather hopeless, but ultimately our support has been driven by future customers, and there isn’t really a better form of market security than that.”