Tri-Cities team honored for clean tech business idea

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University Tri-Cities technology and a business plan for converting the plant material lignin into biojet fuel won third place among 21 teams at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge finals last week.

The team of Libing Zhang, postdoctoral researcher, and Manuel Seubert, master’s of business administration student, worked regularly with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to prepare for the competition. They won the Starbucks $5,000 prize.

For the challenge, interdisciplinary student teams define an environmental problem, develop a solution, design and build a prototype, create a business plan that proves their solution has market potential and pitch their idea to 170 judges from throughout the Northwest.

Commercializing an environmental advance

The benefit of their technology is that it turns lignin into a cheap, environmentally friendly jet fuel with the potential to reduce carbon emissions for commercial airlines, said Zhang. A waste product in biorefineries and the paper pulping process, lignin is considered one of the most abundant renewable carbon sources on Earth.

“I see several advantages of the technology and hope we can scale it up for commercialization, which will help commercial airlines to achieve their goals in reducing greenhouse emissions,” she said.

“We are actively looking for funding sources and are thinking about establishing a limited liability company, which will allow us to pursue small business grants,” Seubert said.