November 21, 2013

Catalyst for business

Startup Rive Technology is commercializing an MIT-developed invention that improves catalysts used in oil refining, leading to greater yields.

After working at a software company for four years, MIT alumnus Andrew Dougherty MBA ’01 was itching to do something entrepreneurial in the energy industry. 

Browsing the website of MIT’s $50K (now $100K) Entrepreneurship Competition, he found an exact match for his interests: an invention by MIT postdoc Javier García-Martínez that used nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of oil refining.

Refining of crude oil traditionally uses porous materials called zeolites as catalysts. When hydrocarbon compounds enter a zeolite’s micropores, they break down into transportation fuels and gas. But because of their pore size, the standard zeolites used for refining can’t diffuse the largest hydrocarbons. 

García-Martínez had designed zeolites with pores that were 10 times larger. This technology would allow refineries to, for example, process more barrels or run heavier (and less expensive) crude oil feeds, leading to greater yields and profits.

“This was an innovative approach, so I emailed Javier, asking if he wanted help with his business plan — and he accepted,” Dougherty recalls. 

The duo didn’t win the competition, but formed a business partnership to bring the technology to market — and eventually recruited into the fold MIT professor emeritus of chemical engineering Larry Evans, a seasoned entrepreneur who served as Rive’s initial CEO.

In 2006, the three co-founded Rive Technology, a fast-growing startup that’s now commercializing García-Martínez’s invention. Headquartered in Boston with a research-and-development branch in Princeton, N.J., Rive has raised more than $67 million in venture capital — and as of 2010, is partnered with W.R. Grace, a top global supplier for refining technology — to manufacture its first commercial product.

Two U.S. refineries have successfully trialed the technology. Last year, Rive demonstrated the technology’s effectiveness in a paper published in the journalChemical Communications.

Rive’s ultimate aim, the co-founders say, is to use nanotechnology that targets hydrocarbons to transform oil refining — “the horsepower of the 20th century,” García-Martínez says — to a modern, efficient, and sustainable energy-production industry. 

“We are going to be using hydrocarbons for many years to come, so we must use them more efficiently, reducing the amount of byproducts produced and increasing the quality of our fuels,” says García-Martínez, who is Rive’s chief scientist and a professor of chemistry and director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante in Spain. 

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