Moving to commercialize a promising innovation developed with federal research funding, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is supplying a start-up with technology to rid commercial filtration systems of petroleum-based flocculants.

Mars Materials—a start-up that seeks to use captured carbon dioxide (CO2) in “robust, everyday” products—will exclusively use the technology to produce polyacrylamide flocculants for removing sediments from faucet water.

NREL produced the new technology, known as biomass-derived acrylonitrile (ACN), through a process that transforms sugars from corn stover into 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP). Now, using ACN from captured CO2 and corn-based biomass, Mars’s sustainable alternative promises to provide a cost-effective path for supplying safe and healthy drinking water.

“Giving Mars the tools to introduce renewable ACN to the marketplace means that this clean, sustainable technology can benefit a large number of businesses, communities—and the planet,” said NREL chemical engineer Eric Karp, who leads the ACN project.

This is the latest example of a clean-energy technology to be commercialized through DOE’s Energy I-Corps, whose innovations over the last year have received more than $110 million in post-program funding.

Other recent successes that DOE has trumpeted include the Electro-Active system, which converts waste into “affordable, renewable” hydrogen, and the Localization and Mapping Platform (LAMP), which can perform a 3D visualization of radioactive and nuclear sources “in real time.”

NREL’s ACN technology was funded by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office—its second-highest funded office in 2021—and developed in collaboration with the Renewable Carbon Fiber Consortium (RCFC).

“More than 7 billion kilograms of ACN are produced globally each year—almost entirely from fossil fuel feedstocks. Nitrilation improves production efficiencies and reduces the cost of this important material,” said Mars Materials CEO Aaron Fitzgerald. “The benefits to industry are enormous. NREL’s R&D 100 Award-winning technology produces ACN at near-100 percent yields, at least 20 percent better than any other known method—that’s the very definition of a game changer.”

The goal of producing bio-based ACN at a modeled cost came when DOE awarded up to $12 million in 2014 to advance the development of a cost-effective path for renewable carbon fiber to make light-weight vehicles.

Due to the fuel efficiency of renewable carbon fiber, interest in light-weighting applications to bring down fuel costs was not only of interest in the automotive industry but also for air transportation, specifically with aircraft manufacturing.

The renewable ACN technology was developed in 2017 in part to satisfy this rising demand for carbon fibers, which had been projected to increase 11 to 18 percent per year. Now, after receiving a $2 million award from DOE in 2021, Lars Grabow at the University of Houston is further developing technology to produce ACN in “small modular reactors near geographically distributed carbon fiber plants.” This would also make everyday products cheaper and less energy costly.

“It’s thought that eventually there could be a $7 billion market for this technology,” Karp said. “It’s exciting to think of the impact clean technology like this can have on the environment at such an enormous scale.”