Fort Lupton, Colorado
President and CEO Ed Lehrburger is reinventing the paper-making process for the 21st century -- with no trees involved -- at a former Colorado cannery that dates back to the late 1800s.
Lehrburger and his brother and COO, Carl, founded the company with CTO Dr. Dick Wingerson to commercialize Wingerson's "countercurrent extraction process."
The process takes "agricultural residues and energy crops that aren't food," says Lehrburger -- "corn stalks, wheat straw, grasses, and trees” -- and breaks them down to their chemical components -- sugar, pulp, and lignins -- that can be used in consumer and industrial products or as a fuel.
PureVision makes major modifications to off-the-shelf components to create its bioreactors. Wingerson proved the concept at Hazen Research in Golden before moving to a second lab in Laramie, Wyoming, in 2001. "We went from a lab-scale batch reactor to a bench-scale batch reactor."
A $200,000 Department of Energy grant helped fund the design of a continuous reactor that was completed in 2008. A second-generation model followed.
PureVision is now based at the onetime Fort Lupton Canning Company, which operated from 1898 to 1979. "We've got millions of dollars tied up in our pilot plant," says Lehrburger. "It's like back to the future. We want to promote industrial complexes that promote farmers and local producers. Just like the canning company, we're taking locally grown plants as an input and processing it."
"It's kind of gotten away from us over the last 30 to 40 years," he adds. "We want to bring that back."
PureVision is now poised for a major shift. "We have always been an R&D company," says Lehrburger. "We're finally making a quality product that meets commercial specifications."
Lehrburger says the innovation attracted the interest of a yet-to-be-disclosed multinational consumer products manufacturer at the end of 2013. PureVision has since been working with wheat straw as an input to show the company what can be done.
"The whole focus of this company is to get away from trees and be tree-free," he explains. "We've been working with wheat straw to make a better way to make pulp."
A third-party review is underway, but Lehrburger is bullish. "The program has been rendered very successfully and we're just finishing it now."
He says he expects a major scale-up from "making barrels of pulp to railcars of pulp" to be used in everything from napkins to diapers. The client is aiming to use agricultural residue for 25 percent of its paper products by 2020. "It's a very aggressive target."
Scaling up means building a facility that can process 25 tons of input daily, up from the half-ton capacity at the current PureVision plant in Fort Lupton. Lehrburger says he's identified a potential site at ZeaChem's cellulosic biorefinery in Boardman, Oregon. "They have huge infrastructure in place that will save us money and time," he explains.
The plan is to build a commercial demonstration plant there, then build many more. "We'll be able to build a biorefinery plant anywhere in the world," say Lehrburger.
And that's important, because there's agricultural residue just about everywhere. "There is so much ag residue that gets tilled over or burned in the field because they don't know what to do with it," says Lehrburger.
But is there enough of the stuff to replace tree pulp in paper products worldwide? He answers without hesitation: "Yes."
Challenges: "The only remaining challenge is to scale up," says Lehrburger. "The good news is we use extruders in our technology and the extruder industry is very scalable."
Opportunities: Legal hemp. Not only does it grow much more rapidly than trees, it requires less water and grows in a wide variety of soil. "With the legalization of industrial hemp, we're getting flooded with inquiries from around the United States," says Lehrburger, noting that he recently signed a deal to supply hemp pulp to a manufacturer of stationery products. PureVision has launched a subsidiary, PureHemp Technology, to focus on the burgeoning market.
Needs: Capital. "We just initiated a $10 million A round," says Lehrburger. "We've just started selling equity in the company."