Chemical engineering innovation on tap for plastic and paint production

In an industry dominated by a few massive companies, chemical startup Pyran aims to change the landscape of plastic production with eco-friendly chemicals and to help plastic manufacturers so they can afford crucial materials.

Pyran, created by a small UW-Madison laboratory, is one of 12 finalists in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest presenting during the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference today at Union South.

“It started out of the chemical engineering department here at UW in Professor George Huber’s research group,” said co-founder Kevin Barnett, who started Pyran three years ago. “Our research group received a $3.3 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to attempt to make high-value chemicals from renewable biomass resources.”

Their product, 1,5-pentanediol (1,5-PDO), is a commonly-used chemical called a diol that is less expensive than the commonly used diols 1,6-HDO, 1,5-PDO and 1,4-BDO.

Big companies such as PPG Industries, Sherwin-Williams and Valspar rely on these chemicals to create a wide array of common products such as plastic, paint, coating and adhesive.

Unlike these leading oil-derived diols, Pyran’s formula utilizes renewable resources, making it not only a cheaper alternative but also a greener one, while helping to lower the plastic industry’s dependence on oil.

Using products made from biomass resources can also help ease the plastic industry’s contribution to climate change. “We’re replacing some of the non-renewable oil we take out of the ground and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions associated with oil,” Barnett said.

The biomass used in Barnett’s Pyran process include wood and crop waste such as corn cobs, but creates a diol chemically identical to the diols that are made from an oil base.

“Biomass is renewable and carbon-neutral. It absorbs as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (through photosynthesis) as it puts back into the atmosphere,” he said.

After three years of developing the “green” diol technology under the supervision of Huber and the U.S. Department of Energy grant, Barnett’s group is ready for their diol product to enter a $7 billion annual market that is growing 7 percent per year.

Within 10 years, the team is confident they will have secured a place in the plastic-production market and be operating at two production plants.

By Margaret Seybold
Seybold recently graduated from the UW-Madison with a focus on genetics and Life Sciences Communication.