Columbia University Member Spotlight



Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university located in New York City.  It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States.  Columbia is home to a new enterprise in energy technology based on a novel process for converting electricity, carbon dioxide and water into liquid fuels.   The company, Ironic Chemicals, is the brainchild of two professors at Columbia.

Ironic Chemicals had its genesis in 2009 when Scott Banta and Alan West from the Chemical Engineering Department responded to an ARPA-E solicitation for high-risk electro-fuels projects.  Their approach was to employ microorganisms that directly use energy from iron ions that can be reused by processing with electricity to produce liquid fuels from carbon dioxide.  Compared with conventional biofuel technologies, their approach eliminates the costs and the risks associated with crop-based feedstocks.  Typical biofuel processes involve intensive agriculture and the inefficient conversion of energy stored in plant material.  The Ironic Chemicals process has the potential for significantly reduced capital expenses and operating expenses over competing technologies.  Electrofuels allow renewable energy from all sources to be stored conveniently as a liquid fuel.

Ironic Chemical’s founders combined two very different areas of expertise in order to develop their unique process.  Banta’s field of expertise is protein engineering and West’s is electrochemical engineering.   Their work has resulted in multiple patent applications related to the integrated process and media composition.  It involves genetic modification of the unique organisms used for the process.  They are able to reprogram the organisms to produce specific chemical outputs such as isobutanol, which is an advanced alcohol that can be blended with gasoline for use in motor vehicles.  That substance -- which is not produced from agricultural crops like corn – packs more energy than ethanol and is more sustainable to produce.  Banta and West are now working towards spinning out Ironic Chemicals as an independent company.

In addition to the work leading to the formation of Ironic Chemicals, the West lab in Electrochemical Engineering has a range of interests including applications in sensors and electrodeposition.  The group currently has two ongoing battery projects.  In one, they work with General Electric in characterization and the modeling of reaction mechanisms and transport processes within the positive electrode of the Na/Metal-Halide battery system.  This work is funded in part by NY-BEST.  A second project has a goal of extending significantly the life of lead-acid batteries employed in microgrid applications.

NYSERDA recently awarded three separate $5 million grants to educational institutions in New York State to create clean energy proof-of-concept centers (POCCs). PowerBridgeNY is the result of the collaboration of two of the awardee teams. One POCC led by Columbia University includes Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and Cornell NYC Tech, and the other POCC led by the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering includes City University of New York. These two POCCs have decided to work together to create PowerBridgeNY. As a joint center, PowerBridgeNY is better positioned to provide more support for all aspects of technical validation and company formation for early-stage clean energy technologies. In addition, the Center will be able to foster a more robust ecosystem around the clean energy sector in downstate New York.

Alan West commented: “In both our work at Columbia and as we work to spin out Ironic Chemicals, NY-BEST and also NYSERDA have been incredibly valuable resources.  We are a recent recipient of an NY-BEST Bench-to-Prototype program award, and this will allow for building a larger scale system to show to potential investors and partners.  As academics, the NYSERDA Powerbridge workshops have been especially valuable in teaching us to view our technology from a business perspective. “

Columbia University, home to nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, has a long, distinguished history of innovation.  Since 1901, Columbia University alumni, faculty, researchers and administrators have won 82 Nobel Prizes.  The ongoing work at Ironic Chemicals continues Columbia’s tradition of groundbreaking research.