Zhiyao (Yao) Lu leads a USC startup that has developed a technology designed to turn vegetable oil into renewable fuels and biodegradable plastic. (Photo/Rhonda Hillberry)


How to help the environment: Turn cooking oil into renewable fuels

Chemistry startup founded at USC takes on two of the world’s biggest environmental challenges — greenhouse gases in the air and plastic waste in oceans

October 11, 2018 Rhonda Hillbery

Greenhouse gases and plastic waste are the targets of a USC chemistry startup.

Postdoctoral scholar and Catapower Inc. director Zhiyao (Yao) Lu describes the company’s technology as a molecular robot that turns vegetable oil into renewable fuels and biodegradable plastic.

“We started as a team of scientists tackling two of the world’s most prominent environmental challenges — the relentless rise of greenhouse gases and the conglomeration of plastic waste in the oceans,” Lu said, referring to well-documented plastic patches the size of Australia now floating in the Pacific Ocean. Approaching the problem as a chemist, he wanted to tackle both problems at once.

Catapower’s momentum was underscored in March when Lu’s presentation earned the top 2018 USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize of $7,000. The annual competition promotes business concepts that help the environment. In weeks leading up to the competition, students drafted business plans and honed their pitches while assigned mentors help them turn their ideas into action.

Lu was one of seven finalists to present his research to a panel of leading technology and science experts at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. “I was very nervous,” he said.

Lu Catapower startup prize
Winning the Wrigley Sustainability Prize gave Lu more momentum to develop his startup. (Photo/Maurice Roper)

On the heels of that success, Catapower was selected for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program to learn how to run a startup, including customer acquisition, incorporation, licensing and fundraising. USC is home to the Southern California I-Corps hub, one of eight centers nationally, jointly administered by the California Institute of Technology and UCLA. The program aims to foster nationwide innovation by encouraging the translation of ideas and research beyond the laboratory for social and economic impact.

Renewable fuels: Moving from the lab to something larger

As part of the intensive I-Corps program, Lu hit the road in August with his business partner and adviser, Associate Professor Travis Williams, to talk with potential customers, partners and investors. Funding would enable Catapower to grow from lab and test-tube stage to something much larger. The founders said the company is in negotiations for large contracts to deploy its technology at refinery scale in 2019.

Although it might seem like things are happening quickly, Lu pointed out that he and other USC chemistry students have been working diligently for more than five years to get this far.

“After developing and testing many generations of different catalysts, we finally arrived at this one — a molecular machine,” said Lu, formally the company’s chief technology officer. “It works millions of times with high precision, very selectively converting the glycerol waste into lactate, while producing biodiesel.”

Williams, who encouraged Lu to tackle the commercialization challenge on top of his postdoctoral responsibilities, serves as academic adviser, co-founder and technical adviser for the company. Several Williams students, including Ivan Demianets, Valeriy Cherepakhin and Talya Kapenstein, have also participated.

Turning cooking oil into fuel

Used cooking oil from commercial and household fryers is a form of biomass that Catapower intends to upgrade into biodiesel and lactic acid. The first product is the renewable fuel known as biodiesel. It’s known as an environmentally friendly, low-carbon fuel, but its widespread use in heavy equipment, airplanes, trucks and power generators has been stymied by its high cost of production. The new technology overcomes the cost obstacle affordably and sustainably, Lu said. And any type of vegetable oil can be used for the upgrading process. “So now we have a process that makes two valuable products and no waste.”

The second product line harnesses the polymer form of lactic acid, a biodegradable plastic widely used in disposables and biodegradable medical devices. The salts of lactic acid are used as environmentally benign antimicrobials in a range of products from food to cosmetics and are valuable commodity chemicals.

The Williams lab is working with the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, which operates on Catalina Island and the University Park Campus, to create a demonstration project that provides practical and educational benefits.

“From our perspective, being able to refine biodiesel here on an island saves us the trouble of figuring how to get rid of used cooking oil and also reduces the amount of diesel fuel we need to bring onto the island,” said John Heidelberg, an associate professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and associate director of the Wrigley Institute.

Lu, who grew up in northwestern China, studied pharmaceutical sciences in college before coming to USC to earn his PhD in chemistry.

“I’ve always wanted to make contributions to society by improving people’s quality of life and thought I’d work in developing new medications that could help hundreds of thousands of people.” As time passed, he saw the challenge in a different light.

“I thought, why are so people getting sick?” he said. “We are polluting the environment, which is harming people’s health. I realized there is a much bigger problem, the environmental deterioration that threatens the sustainable future of our society.”