The company, founded by the Ohio University faculty inventor of the technology, Gerardine Botte, is a new tenant in the Innovation Center, the university’s small high-tech business incubator. E3 recently licensed a suite of electrochemical devices and technologies developed by Botte to commercialize for the green energy market.
“The ‘GreenBox’ is the first of many products we’ll be developing. I think we have the right team at the right time—energy and water issues are huge right now,” said Botte, the chief technology officer for the company who also is a professor of biomolecular and chemical engineering at Ohio University.
Through a patented low-energy electrolysis process, the “GreenBox” converts ammonia and urea in wastewater to hydrogen, nitrogen and pure water. The electric current in the device creates an electrochemical reaction that oxidizes urea and turns it into carbon dioxide, which is then sequestered in the electrolyte material in the machine. The box also produces hydrogen energy.
“It’s a synergistic technology: By reducing emissions, you also get a free, clean source of energy. As the clean energy economy develops, this could provide an attractive energy source,” said company CEO Kent Shields, who has 30 years of experience in the energy field.
Urea electrolysis also could be used as an extremely efficient process for producing ammonia for selective catalytic reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions, he added.
Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a particular problem in coal power plant and diesel exhaust
“We have received some very exciting inquiries from companies in both areas,”Shields said.
The technology also could help a wide variety of industries—from the military and agriculture to wastewater treatment operations and commercial construction companies—deal with the disposal of ammonia, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers to be a serious environmental toxin, Botte said. Ammonia in wastewater from agricultural, industrial and municipal sources impacts air quality, surface water and ground water.
The researcher is hopeful that the invention could aid farmers, who often are faced with using or purchasing additional land to create lagoons for the large amount of animal waste from hogs or cattle subject to EPA regulations. A farmer with 2,000 hogs might need a “GreenBox” that runs on only 5 kilowatts of power—the same amount of power needed in an average home—to treat the ammonia waste, Botte said.
E3 forecasts similar energy efficiencies for other uses: A commercial building with 300 employees would need a unit that requires only 1 kilowatt to operate, Botte said. The technology could reduce operational costs for eliminating ammonia from wastewater by 60 percent.
The company now plans to develop a larger-scale, commercial prototype of the “GreenBox” by the third quarter of 2011, Shields said. E3, which has received initial assistance from TechGROWTH Ohio, a small business support program funded by the state’s Third Frontier initiative, plans to seek additional investors and grant funding.
Though it’s early to predict how many jobs the company will support in southeastern Ohio, Shields said, “we anticipate being able to generate jobs that will attract people from different fields and education levels—from science and engineering to sales and marketing to manufacturing.”
The E3 agreement is one of several licenses Ohio University has signed in recent years to develop faculty technologies, ranging from an algae-fueled bioreactor and a device that detects the durability of highway asphalt to various biotechnology discoveries for the medical field.
“E3 has developed an innovative use for Dr. Botte’s promising technology,” said Rathindra Bose, vice president for research at Ohio University. “I’m pleased that we were able to help take this invention from the laboratory to the marketplace.”
The university is the top public institution in the state of Ohio for royalty income received from its research licenses, according to a recent study by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). In fiscal year 2010, the institution reported $8.2 million in royalty income.
Botte’s work is part of a larger cluster of research at Ohio University focused on creating clean, alternative energy sources, mitigating air and water pollution and developing better government policy for energy and environmental issues.
“Dr. Botte’s work was a significant part of the Russ College’s role in Gov. Strickland’s designation of Ohio University as a Center of Excellence in Energy and the Environment. It’s incredibly exciting to see the progress of these innovations. Commercialization means our society and environment can begin to benefit from this groundbreaking research,” said Dennis Irwin, dean of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University.