Published: Sept. 12, 2014

A CU-Boulder team led by Zhiyong “Jason” Ren, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, was recently awarded first place in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Program, which works with NSF grant recipients to “identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training to student participants.”

Casey Forrestal, Zhiyong “Jason” Ren and Xuehua Bai show off their I-Corp certificates 


Ren had already received NSF funding to create a microbial electrochemical technology (MET) for wastewater treatment. During the six-week intensive I-Corps program that wrapped up on Sept. 5, Ren, postdoctoral student Casey Forrestal and mentor Xuehua Bai conducted interviews with more than 100 industries, municipalities and industry advocate groups to determine which market would be best for the new technology.

In the end, they identified that MET would be a good fit for the oil and gas industry, specifically in the area of hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, uses high-pressured water containing chemicals and sand to extract petroleum and natural gas from underground rock.

Currently, the wastewater from the process is disposed of underground in deep-injection wells. However, that practice has come under increased scrutiny as studies link it to increased earthquake activity. The industry is also consuming nearly a trillion gallons of water each year, Ren said.

MET would allow oil and gas companies to treat and reuse the wastewater, decreasing water consumption and eliminating the need for deep injection wells, Ren and his team found.

At the end of the program, the team presented their conclusions to the I-Corps instructors and 24 peer groups from 19 universities, including Princeton and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The team was awarded first place and received a new NSF grant to begin developing a prototype of MET.

Ren has already co-founded startup company BioElectric with Forrestal to begin the process of taking the technology to market. While the team was the first from CU-Boulder to participate in the I-Corps program, they likely won’t be the last – Ren has already recommended I-Corp to a colleague in his environmental and sustainability engineering group.

“As engineers, we want to do things that are useful,” he said. “I-Corps was great for helping us understand the market potential for our technology.”

Photo caption: From left: Casey Forrestal, Zhiyong “Jason” Ren and Xuehua Bai