Ken Anderson

Professor Ken Anderson with the small ‘reactor’ that led to a major discovery

July 05, 2013

Discovery leads to international partnership

Through their research, SIU faculty members make so many contributions to the global society. I am impressed with their quiet dedication to solving some of our most pressing issues. Geology Professor Ken Anderson is one of those making a positive difference.

Starting on a small scale in his lab, Ken developed a process that could have significant environmental, economic and energy impacts. There is so much potential that Ken has attracted an international company as a partner.

A faculty member since 2003, Ken wanted to find an alternative way to make products derived from petroleum – specifically plastics.

In a global energy resources course he teaches, Ken tells students that most of us have no idea how much oil is around us.

“From the moment we’re born, we’re literally wrapped in plastic,” he said. “A baby is born and caught in plastic gloves, against a polyester gown, and wrapped in a polyester blanket. From that moment on, we spend our lives bathed in oil.”

Each year, industry produces 30 million tons of the chemical used to make the plastic in a plastic bottle. That is projected to grow to 45 million tons annually by 2025.

To be viable, any alternative would have to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly, and work on a very large scale. Applying his expertise in coal, Ken and his colleague, Research Professor Jack Crelling, along with lab manager Bill Huggett, built a small “reactor” that combines coal, water, heat, pressure and oxygen. The result is a liquid that is a chemical precursor for polymers and plastics.

That was six years ago. After further testing confirmed their results, they  “scaled up” to demonstrate that the process – now patented -- works on a much larger scale. Ken also realized he had a decision to make regarding the future of his discovery: start a company or license it to an existing one.

With no experience running a business, Ken enrolled in 2010 in the inaugural class of Operation Mousetrap, which helps faculty bring innovations to the marketplace. Later that year, he founded Thermaquatica, Inc., which is housed at our Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center.

With Illinois Clean Coal Institute funding and assistance from the SIU Technology Transfer Office and the Southern Illinois Research Park, Thermaquatica soon will install larger equipment capable of processing 10 pounds of coal an hour. The environmentally friendly technology also works on a variety of biomass, oil shale, and tar sands.

Australia-based Greenpower Energy Limited is so impressed with the potential that it signed a two-year, $2 million agreement with Thermaquatica in May. That will allow Ken and his team to do the necessary development work to significantly increase processing -- the last step before mass production.

"We have a significant inflow of capital coming from overseas into Southern Illinois, and we will spend that money in Southern Illinois initially,” Ken said. “We will take the results and build a facility in Australia, but with the knowledge we gain, we can build facilities anywhere."

As Ken said, this new process is potentially an energy, environmental and economic game-changer. Research by SIU faculty really is shaping a better world.