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Investigating a Catalyst Structure for Converting Biomass to Fuel and Plastics

Company Name: Virent, Inc.
Program Office: Bioenergy
Location: Madison, WI
Email:  Edgar Steenwinkel, VP of Research;
Award Amount: $200,000
Project Term: 12 months
Project Status: Active
Participating Lab(s): Argonne National Laboratory


Biological materials can be used to replace crude oil not only when it comes to fuel, but also in a variety of industrial processes. Virent is commercializing a new technology that can convert any regular biological material, whether cellulosic ethanol, sugars, or biomass, into drop-in replacements for their crude oil-based counterparts. In doing so, the company could enable replacements for crude oil in any number of everyday products, including jet fuel, diesel, gasoline, solvents, fibers, beverage bottles, electronic components, clothing, films, packaging, building materials, and coatings.

The main challenge that the technology faces is finding ways to improve understanding of the catalytic mechanisms. As part of the SBV Pilot, Virent will work with Argonne National Laboratory to investigate structural changes in the catalyst during its lifetime. The company will also study mitigation strategies to prevent deterioration of the structure. To analyze these minute changes in the structure of the catalyst, scientists and engineers must utilize a significant array of tools, which are able to detect these changes on a microscopic and atomic level. Tools such as the Advanced Photon Source at the lab can be used to investigate these catalytic mechanisms. For Virent, catalyst lifetime extension could lead to lower costs and earlier adoption of the technology at scale.


 Virent's platform has many advantages over enzymatic and fermentation processes, including a catalytic technology that is significantly more feedstock-independent when compared to microbial or enzymatic systems that require specific uniform sugars. The process also produces better activity resulting in higher throughputs and easier adoption at larger scales. Higher yields are also possible because fermentation processes fundamentally lose significant amounts of feedstock carbon as carbon dioxide, whereas Virent's technology retains a significantly higher percentage of the carbon in the final product.



Bio-based replacements for oil create new markets for agricultural products, fostering economic opportunities in rural areas. At the same time, biological waste can also be converted into fuel and other products, creating new value in the agricultural supply chain.


Studies have shown that Virent's process reduces greenhouse gas emissions as much as 70 percent compared to petroleum counterparts.


Reducing oil use throughout the industrial and chemical supply chain can reduce U.S. oil dependence, positively contributing to national security.