How Virent Is Using Plants To Replace Oil

In this extended version of the talk from our latest issue, we speak with Mary Tilton, VP of plant operations at Virent, which is using chemistry to turn plants into fuel.

Mary Tilton | Photo by Saverio TrugliaPhoto by Saverio Truglia

"We are replacing crude oil. We're using catalytic chemistry to manipulate the carbon-oxygen bonds of sugars and other bio-derived materials to turn them into hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals. That same catalytic chemistry can take plant materials and turn them into the components of crude oil, which include the chemicals for plastics. We now have a material that is exactly like what you burn in a vehicle, which is an advantage because it can go right into the distribution pipeline. The only difference between our fuel and gasoline from crude oil is that our carbon is new, whereas the carbon in crude oil is millions of years old. The fuels we've generated have been used in Shell's fleet test."

Fast Company: How did the company get started?

Mary Tilton: The technology was first developed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison by our founder, Randy Cortright. Originally, we focused on hydrogen generation, and the company was founded to commercialize that technology. Sometime around 2005 we realized the catalytic processes we were using could be tailored to make hydrocarbon fuels. So our focus shifted and became looking into using sugars to make gasoline. That's what we really concentrated on in 2008 when we embarked on the scale-up and decided to go to 10,000 gallons a year. We found we were very successful at taking standard sugar and converting it to gasoline. We demonstrated scalability in 2009, which was an important milestone.

Where does the feedstock come from?

So far, we've purchased our feedstock from a very large agricultural supplier. We're partnering and working with various companies to further develop that source. We have partners engaged in both the upstream and downstream, which is one of our key strengths as a company. We're sort of in the middle of things: We're working very closely with Cargill on the upstream side of things for feedstock availability, and then on the downstream side we're working very closely with Shell. We have a unique technology, and we need to position ourselves to be able to work on larger projects, such as the question of where you get feedstock, and our partners help us do that.

Are there any downsides to making fuel in a lab as opposed to getting it in the form of petroleum from the earth?

We all believe in the companies we work for, but as an independent observer, I cannot think of a technical pitfall of it. I seriously, truly cannot. It's important, though, to consider using non-food materials, like corn stover, for instance, and wood products that are renewable. The challenge is always how you get the digestible materials out. Plants have been creating their barrier to destruction for many, many years, and it's going to take some very good science to be able to liberate those sugars.

Does it take a lot of energy to actually turn these feedstocks into usable fuels?

We've engaged in all the life-cycle analyses for what it takes to bring biomass materials into a facility to convert them--what the energy consumption is. Our technology process is relatively low energy, and at the end, it's energy neutral. It is definitely not consuming more energy than you would get out of the fuel. All of those energy balances are in our favor.

What will it take for people to start using biofuels?

It'll require a lot of capital for this to take off. This hasn't been a very friendly economy for large investments. The material itself for the end product needs to be competitive with the price of consumer fuel. We're looking at a commodity market, and I know consumers aren't hungry to pay more even if they believe it's a good product. The material needs to be cost competitive. The advantage of drop-in fuel is you don't have to make a lot of change in the infrastructure. Our product is just like what you're using, except it has a lower carbon footprint. It can go into the distribution pipeline and be put in pumps right now without changing tanks.

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1 Comments

  • Michael Munoz

    While I agree with the concept of biofuels or any other eco-friendly method for powering the world, I don't understand how we can pursue methods of converting crops to fuel when all the other stories being published talk about the exploding population growth and the world's inability to feed itself? Seems like biofuels would only accelerate the this problem.