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UW-Madison alumni Ryan Waddington and Michael Urynowicz pose in front of a mountain.
June 10, 2024

Badger alumni reimagine renewable energy and carbon capture technology

Written By: Stephanies Vang


The decision to enroll at UW-Madison was a pivotal one for Ryan Waddington and Michael Urynowicz. It brought two Badgers a lifelong friendship and together they formed Cowboy Clean Fuels (CCF), a first-of-its-kind pioneer of renewable natural gas (RNG) from natural systems.

“We ended up sitting next to each other and clicked right away in our Biological Wastewater Treatment class in the Fall of ’93, when starting our master’s program in civil engineering. Even though he was a Michigan State undergrad, and I was a Michigan Wolverine undergrad—we put that aside and rooted for the Badgers,” shares Waddington.

Initially drawn to Madison for different reasons, they found common ground in their shared passion for sustainability. While Waddington shifted from environmental consulting to finance to amplify his impact, recognizing the role of financial decision-makers, Urynowicz pursued advanced degrees in environmental science and engineering from Colorado School of Mines, ultimately channeling his expertise into inspiring and educating future engineers now as a professor at the University of Wyoming.

They kept in touch over the years and a phone call in early 2020 set their plan in action, sparking the founding of Cowboy Clean Fuels, a company rooted in their work as graduate students.

“A lot of it started at UW-Madison with our graduate advisor Dr. Bill Boyle where we were looking at microorganisms to treat wastewater. These same microorganisms live in natural environments deep underground, so they can also be engineered for large-scale carbon management” explains Dr. Urynowicz.

CCF’s mission is as ambitious as it is groundbreaking: to produce renewable natural gas while simultaneously sequestering carbon dioxide, offering a scalable and environmentally friendly solution to the challenges of conventional natural gas production.

“We believe that natural gas is an important fuel for the future, and it’s going to continue to be one—not everything can be decarbonized by solar panels, wind farms, and batteries. There are many important uses in our economy for methane, which is the largest component of natural gas, so we need to find cleaner forms of it and that’s what we’re doing,” adds Waddington.

Their approach harnesses the power of photosynthesis and biomass to produce renewable energy.

It all begins at their first pilot site in Wyoming, where CO2 is taken directly out of the atmosphere and converted into plant matter such as sugar beets, for feedstock, which is then refined into crystal sugar, molasses and other byproducts that are rich in bioavailable organic carbon. The feedstock is then injected back into the ground into geological coal formations, where it is consumed by native microorganisms and converted into CO2 and methane. Coal naturally adsorbs CO2, similar to an activated carbon filter, permanently trapping it deep below Earth’s surface. Methane, on the other hand, is not absorbed as tightly and can be produced to the surface to be used as RNG. The gas produced doesn’t need to be cleaned up or boosted in any way, resulting in a negative net carbon impact.

Cowboy Clean Fuels (CCF): Who We Are, What We Do, and Why It’s So Important

“There are other ways to make renewable natural gas, but if we’re really going to impact climate change, we must have scalable solutions. A unique feature of our approach is its scale-ability,” says Waddington. “There’s no other technology that is able to simultaneously sequester CO2 and produce RNG at the scale and cost of ours.”

The project is built on over a decade of research with numerous challenges along the way, from securing funding to navigating regulatory hurdles, but Waddington and Urynowicz’s unwavering commitment and optimistic mindset propelled CCF forward, paving the way for groundbreaking achievements in the renewable energy space.

“We had the initial challenge of starting a company—getting it formed, planned, and pitched. We also had to build a team, which we now have. It’s been constant challenges and finding ways to overcome them. That’s what it takes to build something valuable and something new. That’s what Michael and our team are good at. We both liked to do things that are hard, so that’s part of what makes it fun and rewarding.”

As CCF continues to push the boundaries of innovation and sustainability, Waddington and Urynowicz find fulfillment in building a passionate and dedicated team, mentoring current students and early career engineers, and witnessing the tangible impact of their work.

With the launch of their first commercial operation, CCF will be sequestering carbon and producing RNG by the summer. The future holds boundless opportunities for CCF to make significant contributions to the renewable energy and carbon capture landscape. Through their journey, Waddington and Urynowicz offer invaluable advice to aspiring engineers, emphasizing the importance of broadening one’s horizons, embracing innovation, and challenging the status quo in pursuit of a more sustainable future. Waddington even teaches a graduate engineering class on innovation for climate change at his other alma mater.

“One of the reasons why I went into academia was because I wanted to mentor students. It gets back to the UW-Madison experience with our previous mentors there,” shares Urynowicz, “It’s really nice to be able to play a role in someone’s professional career and see them progress over time.” 

As CCF continues to scale and expand its operations, Waddington and Urynowicz remain steadfast in their commitment to engineering a brighter, more sustainable future for generations to come—a shared commitment that got its start in Madison 30 years ago. “There’s no finish line here. It’s just keep going and try to have a real and sustained impact.”