Company’s Spin-Out Agreement with UW Looks to Sustain Long-Term Production of Coal-Bed Methane
May 1, 2012 — Enwyo LLC recently finalized a spin-out agreement with the University of Wyoming, a deal that could add value to the state's natural resources by reviving dormant economically-depleted coal-bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin.
Located in Laramie, Enwyo focuses on commercializing technologies to rejuvenate coal-bed methane wells. The company works to optimize and sustain long-term production of secondary biogenic coal bed natural gas (i.e., gas generated by microbial systems living within coal seams).
The company is licensing two technologies, says Michael Urynowicz, Enwyo co-founder and a UW associate professor of environmental engineering. In the first, treatment agents are used to enhance the availability of coal as a food source for the microorganisms to generate natural gas.
In the second, soluble biomass derivatives from plants, such as alfalfa and switch grass, would be injected into the coal seam, which would act as a reactor. The indigenous microorganisms would transform the biomass into natural gas.
Under the agreement, Enwyo has the exclusive license for UW patents developed through the university's Center for Biogenic Natural Gas Research to commercialize the technology. Enwyo will raise investment capital and the university has an ownership stake in the company, says Davona Douglass, director of the UW Research Products Center.
Douglass worked with Urynowicz to file patent applications on his novel technologies. The Research Products Center identifies new technologies developed at UW; protects the technologies, usually by filing patent applications; and then negotiates license agreements for the technologies.
"We're adding value to coal by transferring it into natural gas biogenically," Urynowicz says. "A lot of the coal in Wyoming is un-mineable. In addition, a lot of the coal-bed methane wells or seams are depleted. This technology restores these wells and puts them back into production. Arguably, there are billions of dollars of infrastructure that we could bring back for recovering coal-bed methane."
Urynowicz estimates that, statewide, thousands of coal methane bed wells have been taken off production, but could be rejuvenated to produce natural gas using Enwyo's technology. These technologies could be applied to depleted coal seams located throughout the Power River Basin, with the added economic benefit of existing coal-bed methane-related infrastructure.
Urynowicz acknowledges that even though natural gas prices in Wyoming are currently low, he sees a lot of potential in developing markets -- including electric and natural gas-powered vehicles and the creation of new infrastructure (natural gas-powered plants and filling stations) to support it -- for the technology.
In a recent Wyoming Business Report article, Gov. Matt Mead said, in light of low natural gas prices, the state needed to look at moving toward natural-gas vehicles on the roads and exploring export markets in places such as Japan, Europe and Australia, which pay more for natural gas.
"If we ever get to a ‘low-carbon society,' which I think we will eventually, you can use biogenic natural gas as a drop-in to offset the fossil-based natural gas you're using," says Urynowicz, who also directs the Coal Bed Natural Gas Center of Excellence and is a licensed professional engineer. "Currently, the cost of natural gas on a cost-per-unit energy basis is better than many other fuels. There's much less polluting and, with biogenic gas, you're not adding more carbon to the environment. I see it as a really good thing."
Commercializing the technology
Enwyo has received some local professional help to devise a strategy to commercialize its technology.
"We worked with Enwyo on their business plans for commercialization of the technology," says Jonathan Benson, CEO of the Wyoming Technology Business Center. "They're a pre-venture client. I would see them eventually becoming a client."
The WTBC is a statewide business development program (under the UW Office of Economic Research and Development) that is developing a business incubator and an outreach program focused on early-stage high-growth companies.
"They (Enwyo) have technology that attempts to improve the rate at which microorganisms can produce more methane faster," Benson says. "What they're trying to do is commercialize this. The idea would be they would have a process for coal companies to get more methane."
"Jon and his team were instrumental in bringing together the Enwyo management team and helped to facilitate nearly every aspect of the start-up process," Urynowicz says.
Benson says the WTBC has introduced Enwyo to companies, including Laramie-based InterTech Environmental & Engineering LLC, with which Enwyo can create strategic alliances. InTertech provides environmental services to energy companies and assists them with permitting issues, Benson says.
"If we're successful, the university and the state benefit as well. This isn't research for the sake of research," says Urynowicz of the agreement that includes royalties for UW. "We're looking at these technologies to put people to work in the state. The idea is that, eventually, students who graduate from UW will become part of this new sector of the economy."
"Our goal is to spin out new companies to diversify the Wyoming economy and create technology-based companies having high-paying jobs in Wyoming," Douglass says.
Christine Sednek, a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, is one of several University of Wyoming students working to develop new technologies to enhance the production of biogenic natural gas from coal. Enwyo has the exclusive license for UW patents developed through the Center for Biogenic Natural Gas Research for the purpose of commercializing the technology.