(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article in our series spotlighting start-ups founded on technologies licensed from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation. It is also part two of a two-part series updating the work of TennEra.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“Over the next six months, we will pilot our process in order to produce a sufficient number of materials for the private sector to evaluate,” TennEra’s Adam McCall says.
As the President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, LLC approaches his two-year anniversary with the company, he clearly understands where his challenges and opportunities lie.
“It’s all about the lignin,” McCall says. How do you derive value out of what is now a waste product or, at best, something burned for heat?
TennEra is the for-profit subsidiary of the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation. Its tagline says it all: “Disruptive, green chemistry for cost effective, sustainable composites.”
With new separation technologies that TennEra researchers developed, McCall’s team believes it now has two cost-effective processes that bio refineries and pulp mills can use in order to maximize value from the incoming feedstock, including native grasses, softwoods, agriculture residue, and even hardwoods.
This early-stage separation allows the lignin to be used in numerous product applications. However, TennEra knows that its competitive advantage cannot depend solely on the separation technique. Instead, it is also developing specific applications utilizing the lignin.
“We believe our success will be based on tailoring our lignin to its end use,” McCall says. “What does that lignin need to look like for a specific application?”
So what about these new materials from lignin? There’s been a good deal of discussion throughout the region about low-cost carbon fiber derived from lignin. Although this is extremely exciting, McCall says TennEra is not stopping on carbon fiber as the ultimate application.
Arising out of the Tennessee Biofuels initiative, TennEra is drawing on both UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to develop a portfolio of products from this biomass.
“We are laser-focused on finding applications that particularly use renewable energy feedstocks which can be grown on sub-optimal land,” McCall says, explaining that TennEra is determined to develop a solution that directly benefits rural Tennessee and similar regions.
Beyond carbon fiber, there are also the many opportunities to convert lignin into plastics, films, and other composites.
“We are working with ORNL and others to polymerize our lignin,” McCall says. “We believe our lignin-derived plastics will meet a wide range of needs cost effectively.”
TennEra’s CEO admits that he can be impatient at times and tries to live by advice that Tom Badgett, one of his IdleAire colleagues, gave him. It’s the acronym “TTT,” which stands for “Things Take Time.”
Yet, as he remembers Badgett’s words, McCall is also constantly recalling the airplane analogy often used in entrepreneurship. The plane has to get airborne before it runs out of runway. McCall is determined to turn over decades of conventional thought and biorefining practices in order to get the TennEra mission accomplished.