Thursday, Dec. 04, 2008


You think ethanol from corn kernels is environmentally friendly? How about gasoline made from cornstalks? Bioforming, a new catalytic technique for converting biomass materials into fuels and chemicals, resembles the alchemy used to turn garbage into energy in Back to the Future. But it actually seems to work.

Co-inventor Randy Cortright was a scientist at the University of Wisconsin when he developed the process in 2001; he left the following year to found Virent and commercialize his findings. Virent can already produce small amounts of fuel from stalks, and Cortright says the process would also work with anything from wheat straw to sugarcane stalks to switchgrass. Grass in; gas out.

When he first considered applying catalytics to fuel production over a summer lunch in 2001, Cortright was working on a project for agro-giant Cargill to make antifreeze out of organic acids. Gradually, he expanded his technique. Cortright says Virent now generates about half a gallon (2 L) of gasoline a day. Clearly there's a scale issue. But the fuel has properties so similar to petroleum-based gas that you could run your car on it. The Wisconsin company, which has 76 employees, hopes to build a bigger pilot plant next year, followed by a commercial demo plant that could generate 10 million gal. (38 million L) annually. Eventually, Virent wants to go global, with each plant using local biomass — grass, cornstalks or other ag by-products — to generate gas. "Not that many people," Cortright says, "have a chance to have that much impact both on economics and the environment."

See the 50 best inventions of 2008.

See TIME's special report on the environment.