As Randy Cortright tells the story, he was a science-infatuated farm boy when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. So he knows a thing or two about imagining one’s self across the divide between the known and the unknown.
Cortright may have grown up with cows and chickens on a farm in Michigan, but ended up as a chemical engineer. Working as a technical adviser to oil refineries, he was one of the first Caucasians to enter Revolutionary China in 1980. He got his Ph.D. in Catalysis at the UW – “a little bit of a black art” – which is an essential part of the oil refining process that creates usable products like gasoline and plastics from raw petroleum.
Now, Cortright and his team at Virent Energy Systems are finding ways to replace crude oil with naturally occurring and renewable biomass.
“I have a box, and there’s a technology within this box,” says Cortright, his bright round face distinguished by thin wire spectacles hovering on the long nose like a microscope he is constantly peering over.
“This box can take crude oil and make these products. My question is: Can I change what goes into the box and still make the same products?”
So, what goes into the box now that Randy Cortright is involved?
Maybe the question is: What doesn’t?
Virtually any plant sugar – from corn husks, wood chips, sorghum, grasses, sugar cane, etc. – can be converted in Virent’s catalytic chemical process to products identical to those from crude oil: gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and plastics.
And, as advertised, this happens in a matter of hours, unlike the millions of years it has taken to form hydrocarbons since the dinosaurs sank beneath the tar pits.
Enter the sleek front office at Virent – the name is a Latin word for “green” – on Madison’s far east side, and the first thing to greet the eye is a large triptych on the wall which shouts IT’S - ABOUT - TIME across images of the sun rising above fields of corn stalks and grassland.
And clearly Cortright and his crew aren’t the only ones who think it’s about time. Visit their website and take a look at their “partners” – both corporate and governmental – and you’ll see names like Coca-Cola (for whom Virent is working on plant-based plastics for recyclable bottling), the Federal Aviation Administration (plant-based jet fuel), and Royal Dutch Shell (“They really are interested in what their business will look like in 40 years”).
So it would appear there is some agreement that “it’s about time” to start finding renewable and less exploitative energy sources.
But Cortright’s vision isn’t just that of a chemical engineer. It’s still also that of a farm boy; someone who knows that “value” has to be about more than what we extract from the ground.
“This week I met a guy from Montana,” says Cortright. “He grew up on a wheat farm that was 7000 acres. Right now, it’s being run solely by his 79-year-old dad. You go around the state of Wisconsin and you hear these stories, the aging of the rural population. The question becomes how do you incentivize younger people to get back to the land, while also making a buck?”
“We want to develop an enabling technology that will let land owners maximize the value they can get off their land,” he says, “while also generating for the market products that people are already used to using.”