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January 06, 2014 | Tom Ballard

TennEra team focused on disruptive technology

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series focused on Adam McCall, President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, LLC.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

“When we’re successful, we will positively disrupt the world’s view of renewable energy crops and their impact on material science,” Adam McCall says matter of factly about the work of the TennEra, LLC team. “We’re closer than a lot of folks realize.”

The quiet spoken President and Chief Executive Officer of the for-profit subsidiary of the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation is clearly passionate about TennEra and its focus on commercializing biomass technologies.

After all, McCall is a product of the agriculture sector, growing-up on a dairy farm in Blount County.  As such, he knows the economic challenges that farmers face and the opportunity that biomass offers to significantly increase the value of their land as they are forced to shift from crops like tobacco on sub-optimal farmland.

But his passion and interests run much deeper. It is the major challenge of addressing the biomass economics and creating breakthrough solutions that drive McCall. As he emphasized throughout our recent interview, he loves tackling big problems.

“I understand the goals of the UT biofuels initiative,” McCall says. “It’s been a success, and we are helping put the icing on the cake, well beyond the original expectations.”

That help is directed at breakthrough research to change the economics of biomass.

“Before the world is truly able to maximize value in bio-based products, we’re going to have to find uses for the entire plant,” he says, explaining in simpler terms that this means “using the whole pig” – cellulose, lignin, and hemi-cellulose.

Cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and other renewables only uses about a third of the plant’s biomass. That leaves two-thirds for other purposes that now are largely non-revenue generating.

“TennEra is leveraging research out of UT and other labs to develop a frontend separation process to maximize value out of all of the biomass,” McCall says. This involves separating the major fractions of the plant – cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin – into purified, usable product streams for sustainable composites, fuels and other high-value materials.

McCall says that a significant focus is being placed on lignin, based on existing research at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the opportunities that it presents. Lignin accounts for nearly a fourth of a biomass plant, but it is basically a waste product, frequently burned for process heat and steam.

“Few have found ways to find high-value out of lignin,” he says. This is primarily because lignin is a very complex polymer that is not uniform from one plant to the next or even within the same plant. These two challenges – complexity and lack of consistency – present significant challenges that the TennEra work is addressing.

“Our chemical separation process will give you what you want – consistency – while treating lignin carefully on the front end,” McCall explains.

The Blount County native sees a time in the not too distant future when subsidies are no longer needed for biomass production or conversion and the crop is a precursor for products in many commercial sectors.

“We have our work cut out for us regarding the fundamental science itself. If it were easy, it would have already been implemented. ” McCall says, adding, “We are demonstrating this technology every day at the laboratory scale and will soon be moving to the pilot scale.”

McCall adamantly states, “We cannot expect people to make a choice between either ‘going green’ or being ‘low-cost.’  We must marry the two while improving or maintaining the quality of the products they help produce.”

He continues that “proving out in real terms, at scale, has been the weak link with many eco-friendly initiatives. I don’t expect any business partner or consumer to ‘just trust us.’ The proof must be commercially viable.”

McCall says the “vision remains my compass . . . replacing a host of oil-based products with a lower cost, natural, renewable plant. This is incredibly exciting to me, and I hope to others as well.”

For a guy driven by big challenges, it is clear that McCall understands this one. He says the effort will succeed, because “it’s been about motivating intelligent, driven people to embrace a common vision, and from that we will accomplish amazing things.”

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