Cracking the Energy Problem

Rive Technology’s nano engineered catalysts make the process of refining petroleum more efficient

With all the talk these days of wind and solar power, plug-in hybrids, and cellulosic ethanol, not many people consider petroleum when they think of high-tech approaches to energy. But MIT spinoff Rive Technology says that it has a method to make oil refineries more efficient, getting more high-quality fuel out of crude oil and bridging the gap to alternative fuels.

“Our technology enables us to make more gasoline and diesel fuel per barrel of crude,” says Rive CEO Larry Evans. “Improved yield of just a few percent per barrel of crude, when you consider the amount of crude that gets processed every day, is significant.”

To turn crude oil into gasoline and other fuels— including diesel, jet fuel, and kerosene—refineries must “crack” it, breaking the long chains of the hydrocarbon molecules into shorter molecules with more desirable properties. One common cracking method is to heat the crude to high temperatures and introduce catalysts that promote the breaking of molecular bonds. The catalysts used most often by refineries are zeolites, crystals made up of silicon, oxygen, and aluminum atoms. The zeolites are studded with small pores, and when hydrocarbons enter the pores, they split into smaller molecules.

The problem with the process is that the openings of the pores are small—typically about 0.7 nanometers in diameter. Many of the hydrocarbon molecules in the crude are larger than that and can’t enter the pores to be cracked. But Javier García Martinez, who cofounded Rive with Evans, developed a method to make the pores larger.

In 2002, García Martinez, who heads the Molecular Nanotechnology Laboratory at the University of Alicante, in Spain, was working as a postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s Nanostructured Materials Research Laboratory under Jackie Ying, the Saint Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering. García Martinez synthesized zeolites by mixing their constituents into an alkaline solution and adding a surfactant, a soaplike material. The surfactant creates bubbles that the zeolites form around. The surfactant is then burned off, leaving behind zeolites with pores that have openings from two to five nanometers in diameter. Tweaking the chemistry of the surfactant lets García Martinez alter the size of the pores.

With openings that large, a much higher proportion of the hydrocarbons can get into the pores. García Martinez can’t say what proportion exactly, partly because it depends on the initial quality of the crude oil. Evans says that the company will have a better idea of just what kind of yield it can get once it’s done some testing in a new 929-square-meter pilot plant that it’s building near Princeton, NJ.

The larger pore openings also let the hydrocarbons escape the zeolites more easily. That’s important to avoid “overcracking,” in which the hydrocarbons continue to break down into very short chains, producing lighter, less valuable gases. One major by-product of refining petroleum is coke, a solid residue that can be used as fuel but that is less desirable than gasoline. Rive’s catalyst reduces the percentage of crude that becomes coke. It also helps cut down on the production of so-called aromatics, such as benzene, that contribute to pollution.

Rive calls itself a clean-energy company; Evans says that’s justified because getting more usable products out of a barrel of crude oil should help lessen the demand for crude. The more efficient process also reduces the amount of energy used by refineries. And as oil supplies are depleted, more of what oil companies exhume is heavier crude that requires more processing, making the increased efficiency of Rive’s process even more valuable.

Creating these new zeolites, which the company has named RiveCat, shouldn’t cost the catalyst industry much, because adding the surfactant is the only change in the production process of the zeolites. “We do not expect to make the process much more complicated,” García Martinez says. “This is just one simple additional step in the production stage.”

Rive’s plan is to partner with existing catalyst makers, such as BASF or W.R. Grace, and license the zeolite recipe to them; these companies would in turn sell the finished product to refineries. Before that can happen, Rive must optimize the formulation of the catalyst, which is one of the issues that the Princeton facility is working on. The zeolites, which Evans says have a consistency similar to that of confectioners’ sugar, must be mixed with clay and other materials to form pellets, much the way that drugs have their active ingredients mixed with other materials to manufacture pills.

Cracking crude is only Rive’s first project. Zeolites come in about 120 different crystalline forms, each with its own properties, and García Martinez can select the pore size for any of them. That ability opens up their use for processing other sources of fossil fuel, such as tar sands, which contain extremely dense petroleum. And as researchers perfect new sources of hydrocarbons, such as biodiesel produced by algae, the various forms of catalyst can refine those as well. They also offer a new tool for refining fine petrochemicals, a long list of petroleum-derived products that go into making plastics, lubricants, and other chemicals. “This is really a platform technology,” García Martinez says.

The zeolites could even be used to purify air or water, he says. A lot of products, from car engines to paint thinners, generate volatile organic compounds, a component of air pollution. Passing an airstream through zeolites with the right pore sizes would allow the crystals to trap the compounds, cleaning the air. Current zeolites have pore openings too small to capture the compounds.

In 2004, García Martinez teamed up with Andrew Dougherty, who earned his MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2001, to create a business plan based on the zeolite technology, and they entered the then $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. They didn’t win, but Dougherty was working at Aspen Technology, a company that makes software to optimize process manufacturing. Evans, who was a chemical-engineering professor at MIT from 1962 to 1990, had founded Aspen based on his work at MIT, and served as CEO there until 2002.

Evans and García Martinez got together and founded Rive—whose name, pronounced “reeve,” is a verb that means to split or break apart—later in 2004; the company now has an exclusive license to the technology from MIT. Based in Cambridge, MA, Rive launched with a $1.2 million seed round of financing. It has since raised two rounds of venture financing, bringing its total funding to over $22 million. Evans says that the company may look for another round in 2010. Given the economy, he’s happy to have closed the latest round last August and to have plenty of money on hand for the research and development phase.

Evans says that he expects the first commercial applications of the zeolites will be ready sometime in 2011. Rive employs 18 people and may add a couple to that number by midyear.

Tim Woodward, managing director of venture-capital firm Nth Power, in San Francisco, says that Rive’s technology could improve the yield of crude oil by 8 to 10 percent. (Nth Power is one of the primary venture investors in Rive.) Since the oil-refining industry has been around for so long, yield improvements of 0.5 to 1 percent are usually enough to get it to adopt a new technology, Woodward says. That makes an improvement of several percentage points worth getting excited over.

And even with the movement toward electric cars, vehicles—even hybrids—are likely to be using some form of gasoline for the next 20 years or more, so technology that goes into oil refineries will continue to be valuable. “We’re going to see transportation fuels in the global economy for many, many years,” Woodward predicts.