At first glance, potable water, power plant emissions and cat litter don’t appear to have much in common. But upon closer examination, you’ll find a hidden product behind the purification of each of these substances—activated carbon.
A type of charcoal, activated carbon behaves like a sponge, seeping up unwanted toxins and odors. Traditionally manufactured from coal, its production can create unwanted byproducts, namely high levels of emissions and water runoff.
Recognizing this problem, James Mennell, a 46-year-old environmental energy lawyer turned biofuels entrepreneur, set out to develop a more sustainable and cost-effective method for producing the solid carbon product. In 2011, he founded Minneapolis-based Biogenic Reagents with his own money and funding from investors that had existing relationships with the Biogenic management team. Set to cash in on increasing demand for activated carbon, the company has since attracted more than $30 million in additional growth capital from both public and private sources.
“Our technology takes wood and converts it through a process known as pyrolysis—heating a material up in the absence of oxygen and reducing it down to a very pure form of carbon,” says Mennell, Biogenic’s CEO and a former developer, adviser and investor with dozens of technology businesses, ranging from startups to large, privately held companies such as ethanol producer POET and agribusiness giant Cargill.