By Wendi Wheeler and Betsey Norgard
A student’s passion for research
Brian Krohn originally came to Augsburg to study film, but after only one semester without any science classes, this lifelong scientist felt “so deprived” that he officially changed his major to chemistry.
Even so, he was unsure where the degree would lead him. “I thought with a degree in chemistry, I could only be a teacher or a pharmacist,” he said.
Then in the summer of 2006, Krohn received a grant from Augsburg’s Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity (URGO) program. It was support to conduct research, one of his passions. He and his adviser, chemistry professor Arlin Gyberg, were both interested in biodiesel, so Krohn set out to find a more efficient way to produce the fuel.
Krohn describes the research process as difficult but exciting. “You have to really dig into the whole process and read all the literature to join into the conversation about your topic before you can figure out what you can contribute,” he said. Whereas most undergraduate researchers “do what they are told, like calibrate a machine all day,” according to Krohn, he had more freedom to explore and experiment.
Eventually his work led to the discovery of a process that converts animal feedstock to biodiesel. Gyberg advised Krohn to contact alumnus Clayton McNeff ’91, a chemist and vice president of SarTec, a company specializing in yucca-based products and CEO of ZirChrom Separations, a chromatography company. McNeff, his chief scientist at SarTec Ben Yan, and Gyberg took Krohn’s idea and created the “Mcgyan” Process (from their three names), an efficient and environmentally friendly method that will allow McNeff’s new start-up company, Ever Cat Fuels, to produce more than three million gallons of fuel per year at a first-of-its-kind biodiesel plant in Isanti, Minn.
Krohn says it was his research and connections through Augsburg, not the discovery itself, that opened doors for him. In fact, he said this opportunity might never have been available if not for McNeff’s ties to the College. “It’s almost unheard of that the vice president of research would sit down with an undergraduate student and his old professor,” he said.
A professor’s connections to industry
It’s an event, says chemistry professor Arlin Gyberg, that probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world.
He’s referring to senior Brian Krohn’s research, his relationship with Clayton McNeff ’91, and the partnership that ultimately yielded the invention of the Mcgyan Process. Gyberg, who is beginning his 42nd year teaching at Augsburg, has supervised many student research projects over the years beginning with Richard Olmsted ’69, the husband of current Augsburg chemistry professor Sandra Olmsted ’69, in the summer following their junior year.
Krohn began his research by poring over hundreds of abstracts of research on biodiesel. Eventually he found two examples of projects that had been somewhat successful, which had suggested that solid-state strong acids might be effective catalysts for conversion of plant oils to biodiesel. Gyberg knew that this material was used as a bonded solid stationary phase in chromatography, so they attempted a conversion using a batch process that had been used since World War II. Gyberg summed up the results: “It didn’t work.”
Then Gyberg recalled a seminar given four years earlier by McNeff on zirconia-based stationary phases used for liquid chromatography and the ease with which it could be bonded with various substances. Gyberg contacted McNeff, and Krohn and Gyberg went to present their research to McNeff at SarTec Corporation. They asked for some bonded strong acid zirconia and again tried a batch process experiment with no success.
“Here is where the confluence of events occurred that would not likely have happened anywhere else,” said Gyberg. McNeff’s ZirChrom Corporation is a world leader on zirconia and its properties. McNeff and fellow scientist Ben Yan had been working on oven-heated zirconia-based high temperature liquid chromatography. It occurred to McNeff that pressurized, heated, continuous column catalysis using solid-state acidified zirconia might work—and it did, the very first time. The Mcgyan Process was born.
“It would appear that this is only the beginning,” Gyberg said. Research continues, with SarTec and Augsburg investigating algae growth as a feedstock source for biodiesel as well as other reactions that are possible for new types of biofuels that have not been possible to synthesize before.
Gyberg is also working on a project with a University of St. Thomas engineering professor who believes that in three years all biodiesel will be made using the Mcgyan Process. They are developing a “pickup bed biodiesel plant” that the individual farmer could use to make his own biodiesel fuel. This would also benefit Third World countries where jatropha, a weedy bush that grows on noncropland and needs only about eight inches of rain or so a year, is readily available. Jatropha can produce about five times more plant oil a year for biodiesel than soybeans, and the Mcgyan reactor is the only one that can completely convert the oil efficiently and cleanly to biodiesel with virtually no waste and no pollutants.
Rather than spend his summers on the golf course or on the lake, Gyberg supervises research because, he says, “It keeps things interesting and exciting, keeps one up with current science, and keeps the mind sharp.” He adds, “One of the great pleasures over the years is using my background and experience to work with students, some of whom are smarter than I am.” Gyberg says students are fortunate to be able to do research at Augsburg, since faculty there can spend more time working with students than at large research institutions.
A chemist on the cutting edge
In March 2008 at a press conference at Augsburg College, Clayton McNeff became somewhat of a media sensation in the biodiesel world. He is vice president of SarTec Corporation, and together with his chief scientist Ben Yan, his former professor Arlin Gyberg, and Augsburg student Brian Krohn, McNeff announced a discovery they said would revolutionize biodiesel production and lessen or eliminate the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.
This was the first public announcement of the Mcgyan Process and the biodiesel fuel it can produce more efficiently, less costly, and without harmful byproducts than existing processes. He went on to announce that the group was already successfully producing 50,000 gallons per year at a pilot plant, and even powering the plant with it. Through a new company, Ever Cat Fuels, a new large-scale production plant is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2009 that will yield three million gallons per year, using non-food grade corn oil from ethanol plants and free fatty acid waste products from the current conventional biodiesel industry.
“It can be cost effective and environmentally friendly—and it’s portable.”
In July the Star Tribune described the Mcgyan production process as immensely appealing to countries and companies around the world because “it can be cost effective and environmentally friendly—and it’s portable.” The goal is for farmers to be able to produce the biodiesel they need to run their farms completely on site. More than 35 countries have contacted SarTec inquiring about the technology.
Algae is a large part of McNeff’s vision. He refers to it as the “holy grail” of biodiesel production because it can be grown utilizing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from bioethanol and coal-burning power plants, and it can potentially yield enough oil for biodiesel to replace all U.S. petroleum needs without competing for food crops or cropland. SarTec, in partnership with Augsburg and Triangle Energy, is pursuing this research with grants from Great River Energy and Xcel Energy.
McNeff is a 1991 Augsburg chemistry graduate, who pursued his PhD in analytical chemistry at the University of Minnesota. He joined SarTec, the company founded by his parents where he first worked as a high school student, fostering his love for science.
In 1995, as he became known for his expertise with zirconia, McNeff co-founded ZirChrom Separations, Inc., along with Steven Rupp and University of Minnesota professor Peter W. Carr. Carr has won numerous awards in the field of analytical chemistry and has been announced as the recipient of the 2009 American Chemical Society Award in Analytical Chemistry.
In 2002 McNeff was awarded the Tibbetts Award from the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. This award was given in recognition of McNeff’s achievement in innovation, research, and business that contributed to the commercial success of ZirChrom Separations.
McNeff considers the success of the experimentation leading to the Mcgyan Process as “serendipity,” but it’s a success that can extend far beyond their projected goal of three million gallons per year and be licensed worldwide to companies seeking more efficient and sustainable fuels.