Dave Goebel and Paul Dauenhauer have a classic development-company dilemma.
Dauenhauer, an associate professor, has developed a promising technology that turns organic waste into synthetic gas, and Goebel — a veteran chemical industry executive — has shepherded their nascent company, enVerde LLC, to the brink of establishing a demonstration plant.
But they need seed capital to take that big next step. “It really is at a critical point,” said Goebel, enVerde’s CEO. “We have to get across, as they say, ‘the valley of death,’ ” a reference to securing funds for a business with breakthrough potential — but no cash flow.
EnVerde’s technology would use waste as a feedstock: livestock manure, food manufacturing detritus, even plastic garbage. “Just about anything carbon-based can be used in the process,” said Dauenhauer, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.
Whatever the input, it would come at no cost since it’s waste. “We really wanted to find something with a low-cost base, and we wanted to find something that would perform well environmentally,” said Goebel, who has provided “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to finance enVerde so far.
With enVerde’s process, waste is gasified without any combustion or incineration. The output is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen known as “syngas,” which can be used as fuel or made into various chemicals.
For instance, a mobile version of enVerde’s catalyst system could be deployed at a hog farm, where it would be used to convert manure to syngas, which could then be used as fuel in an on-site electricity generator. Other agriculture waste could include everything from sugar beet tailings to potato peels from a French fry factory.
In remote areas where natural gas hookups are scarce, syngas could be used as a substitute for propane. It also can be liquefied into a “green” oil and used instead of heating oil. Since enVerde’s process produces a lot of heat, it can be integrated into combined heat-and-power systems.
EnVerde’s technology is not a biology-based process like anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms break down waste to produce methane-based biogas. Rather, waste is turned into syngas through a “thermochemical” reaction sparked by a catalyst. The proprietary catalyst is fashioned from an undisclosed metal and silica.
Compared to common methods of syngas production, enVerde’s catalytic technology uses considerably less energy and requires much less capital, Goebel said. The company could produce syngas remotely or at a central location.
Dauenhauer, a Wisconsin Rapids native who earned his doctorate at the U, developed and patented enVerde’s waste-to-gas process, working through the school’s technology transfer office. The U.S. Department of Energy helped fund his research.
Goebel, a Richfield native who earned his undergraduate degree in microbiology at the U, worked for almost 20 years at Mobil and then ExxonMobil. When he left the energy giant in 2002, he was running ExxonMobil’s specialty chemical complex in Beaumont, Texas. From 2007 to 2011, Goebel was the chief operating officer of Maryland-based New Generation Biofuels, a small publicly traded company that had developed a substitute for nontransportation diesel fuel. But it eventually folded, lacking adequate capital.
EnVerde needs more capital to move from Dauenhauer’s Amundson Hall laboratory to a commercial prototype. The company has lined up space to construct a demonstration plant in two phases, including at the Marshall, Minn., labs of the nonprofit Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).
EnVerde’s chances of commercialization are “reasonable,” said Rod Larkins, AURI’s senior director of science and technology. “Their technology is based on solid science, and [from a personnel standpoint] they have a solid team from science to business to marketing.”