Starting Up: Company started at UW-Madison hopes to make paint production greener

Starting Up: Company started at UW-Madison hopes to make paint production greener

Faux leather, latex paints, adhesives, no-chip nail polish — all of these and more are made with a key ingredient that’s made from petroleum and comes at a high price point, but a Madison-based startup says it can make the same chemical out of corn and wood chips.

Kevin Barnett, CEO of Pyran, said his company’s process for creating 1,5-pentanediol (1,5-PDO), which is used in a multitude of paints and coatings, out of plant materials is not just more environmentally friendly than the current petroleum-based method; it’s also cheaper.

Barnett discovered the plant-based method while working on his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at UW-Madison in professor George Huber’s lab. Huber and his team had a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to focus on more sustainable production of everyday chemicals that are typically made from petroleum.

“There’s a lot of issues with global warming and climate change, and (petroleum) is a non-renewable resource. It’s going to run out one day,” Barnett said. “If we want to still have paints and coatings in 50 years, we need to find other ways to make them.”

Barnett, Huber and the team in the UW-Madison lab began reacting furfural — a substance made from corn, wood or other natural materials that’s used in low-grade plastics — with various catalysts. By using these catalysts — which Barnett said are the core of the company — the furfural would go through four different chemical reactions that result in 1,5-PDO.

“What paints and coatings companies really want is to save money,” Barnett said. “If they could also have a sustainable product, then great, but that’s not the first priority.”

Furfural is made primarily overseas, but Barnett said that more could easily be made here in the Midwest now that his company will have a need for it.

Barnett said he’s been in discussions with paper and pulp companies in northern Wisconsin about using their excess materials from production to make furfural.

“We’re telling them — and they’ve come to us as well — ‘You know, instead of throwing that away, you can turn that into a very useful and beneficial chemical.’”

From harvesting the plant to the final chemical, Pyran’s method of creating 1,5-PDO cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 60% compared with the current method based on petroleum, Barnett said.

The next step for Pyran is scaling up production to a commercially viable level, which will require the company to grow 500 times its size and produce several tons a week, Barnett said.