From Ultracapacitors to Soybeans to Sludge: University Teams Pitch Local VCs

4/15/09Follow @wroush

Three local venture firms put on what amounted to a university startup fair at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square yesterday. I went hoping for a peek at a few of the companies that could be pulling down Series A rounds a year or two from now.

Now in its second year, the invitation-only University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium was organized by Atlas Venture, Flybridge Capital Partners, and General Catalyst and sponsored by Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter. The firms formatted the event so that university research teams with hot, potentially commercializable technologies had a chance to give their best 12-minute pitches to a large collection of venture capitalists and corporate representatives from all over the region. Attendees had one track to hear about nine companies in the life sciences industry, and other track for nine more infotech- and energy-oriented companies. The research teams weren’t just from places like Harvard and MIT, but represented 15 different institutions from around the country.

Eight of the presenting teams were from New England. One, Boston-based Novophage, is a company that Ryan already covered; it’s working on “engineered bacteriophages” to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. I couldn’t be in two places at once, so I had to skip presentations by three of the remaining seven local teams. But the following is a quick rundown of the four local presentations I did hear. All of these groups are in the lab-bench or seed-funding stage, and are looking for venture capital to get to the next step in the commercialization process.

Making Ethanol from Soybean Hulls—Without Destroying the Protein

Jonathan Mielenz of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, talked about a project with Dartmouth engineers John Bardsley and Charles Wyman to study soybean hulls as a potential raw material in the fermentation of ethanol.

Soybeans are used to make soy oil and other food products, and their hulls, which have a high protein content, are usually used as feedstock for cattle. That would seem to make them a bad choice as a source of biomass-derived ethanol; indeed, a lot of the effort in ethanol production these days is going into technologies, like ideas being developed at local firms like Mascoma and Verenium, that use non-food, high-cellulose sources such as wood chips or switchgrass.

But Mielenz said his group has come up with a simple way to ferment the sugars in soybean hulls without destroying the protein. The high-temperature pretreatment to which most other high-cellulose biomass is subjected before fermentation would break down the proteins in soybean hulls, Mielenz said. Simply by skipping this step, Mielenz says, his startup—which doesn’t have a name yet—found it was able to extract the sugars in the hulls without disrupting the amino acid sequences in their proteins, thus preserving their value as feed.

Selling the remains of the fermentation as feed could help bring down the net cost of ethanol production and make biofuels more competitive with fossil-based fuels, Mielenz argued.

Cheaper, More Powerful Methanol Fuel Cells

Nathan Ashcraft, a PhD candidate in the laboratory of Paula Hammond in the Chemical Engineering department at MIT, gave a talk about DyPol, a startup looking to commercialize a new, more efficient type of membrane for methanol-based fuel cells.

A methanol fuel cell works by exposing methanol on the anode side of the cell to a membrane where a catalyst such as platinum splits off protons and electrons. The electrons exit the cell to form an electric current while the protons travel through the membrane, meeting oxygen from air on the cathode side of the membrane to produce water as a waste product. DuPont makes the leading membrane material for methanol fuel cells, a polymer called Nafion. But Nafion has a few weaknesses, Ashcraft said; it’s costly to make; it depends a toxic fluorination process; and it’s easily permeated by raw methanol, reducing its efficiency.

Ashcraft and colleagues in the Hammond Lab, collaborating with a number of other labs around MIT, have devised a way to build polymer membranes layer by layer, allowing them to blend polymers that couldn’t otherwise be used together. The layers are less permeable to methanol, and can be created in a non-toxic, water-based solution. Prototype fuel cells built using the new membranes have 53 percent greater energy output than Nafion-based cells, Ashcraft said.

DyPol hopes to sell the membrane technology to companies building fuel cells for military applications such as portable radios and GPS devices. Lilliputian Systems, another MIT spinoff that’s developing methanol-based fuel cells for consumer devices such as cell phones, might also be a customer eventually, said Ashcraft.

Hydrogen from Wastewater Sludge

Chul Park, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave a talk about a new way to treat municipal wastewater that could reduce the amount of leftover sludge while at the same time producing fuel-grade hydrogen gas.

In most wastewater treatment plants—of which there are 16,000 in the United States—raw wastewater first goes into aeration tanks, which are seeded with microorganisms that digest much of the waste. The water then goes into settling tanks where the remaining sludge settles out. A small amount of this sludge is recycled back into the aeration tanks as seed material; the rest is dried as a solid that must be trucked away.

In recent years, a startup called Envirex developed a “sidestream reactor” that greatly reduces sludge volumes by cycling it back and forth between tanks full of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, respectively; the bacteria basically eat each other up, which is why Siemens, which purchased Envirex, calls it the “Cannibal” solids reduction process.

Park says his team at UMass has developed a small continuously stirred tank reactor, or CSTR, in which the anaerobic bacteria are heated until thermal hydrolysis kicks in, producing hydrogen. Not only is the UMass design simpler and cheaper than the equipment needed for Siemens’ Cannibal process, but the hydrogen produced can help pay for the new equipment in just two years, Park says—and there’s 30 to 40 percent less sludge left at the end.

Nanotube-based Ultracapacitors for Electrical Grid Regulation

Though Riccardo Signorelli won’t get his PhD from Joel Schindall’s group at MIT’s Laboratory for Electronic and Electromagnetic Systems until June, he’s already got plans to become president and chief technology officer of FastCAP Systems. The company is commercializing “ultracapacitors” with electrodes comprised of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes.

Capacitors store energy in a pair of conductors separated by a dielectric layer; “ultracapacitors” are electrochemical capacitors that store a lot more energy. They’re mostly used to smooth out the supply of electricity in situations where power supplies are variable, but they’re also starting to be seen as an alternative to conventional chemical batteries.

In traditional ultracapacitors, according to Signorelli, the activated carbon material used for electrodes has low ionic conductivity, and must go through aggressive chemical treatment to prepare the surface, which lowers the devices’ ultimate voltage. The carbon nanotube-based electrodes his team has developed have much greater internal surface area, which makes them much more conductive, with less need for surface treatment. Ultracapacitors made with the carbon nanotube material can be operated at higher voltages, giving them up to five times the energy density of their conventional counterparts, Signorelli said.

The big target market for FastCAP Systems is electrical grid regulation. The 60-hertz frequency of the U.S. electrical grid must be kept constant at all times, with fluctuations of no more than 0.1 percent. To fill in for sudden interruptions, between 1 and 2 percent of the nation’s power supply must be kept on “spinning reserve” at all times. That amounts to between 8 and 16 gigawatts, at a cost of $3 billion to $5 billion per year. Much of this online generating capacity could be replaced by ultracapacitors, which would save fuel, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and allow power producers to sell some of the spinning reserve, Signorelli said.

The market for electrical grid regulation systems, such as Tyngsboro, MA-based Beacon Power‘s flywheel power storage technology, already amounts to $1 billion a year, and will only get bigger as highly variable power sources such as wind farms and solar facilities come online, he said. FastCAP Systems wants to grab a slice of that market—but could also supply technology for hybrid battery/ultracapacitor-powered cars and trucks. The company is a semifinalist in the MIT Clean Energy Prize Competition; the $200,000 grand prize in the competition will be awarded May 12.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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    Ethenol from soy waste instead of from perfectly good corn seems like a BETTER idea. But it’s too bad one of these firms doesn’t want to tackle making a more efficient solar cell. …that combined with better batteries would solve the world’s energy problem.