Drop-in fuels and dropping the beat with Virent’s Edgar Steenwinkel

Steenwinkel (r) pictured with Virent’s President and General Counsel Dave Kettner (l) following Bell Textron Inc. successfully completing its first flight using 100% drop-in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), marking the first-ever single-engine aircraft to fly with 100% drop-in SAF. Virent’s synthesized aromatic kerosene (SAK) plant-based technology helped power the historic flight.

It sure wasn’t the weather that drew Edgar Steenwinkel and family to Virent in 2014, first visiting the renewables company located in Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison in February of that year.

“They said it could get below zero, but we thought they meant Celsius,” Steenwinkel joked. “Zero in Fahrenheit is a whole new level of cold.”

Virent’s Senior Vice President of Technology is originally from the Netherlands, but in 2012, Steenwinkel, a chemical engineer, moved to the U.S. for a research and development (R&D) role at a company in South Louisiana. In 2014, he and his wife, Kokkie, who is also a chemical engineer, agreed to make the move north.

“Madison has been a great place to bring up our three children,” Steenwinkel said, whose youngest child graduated from high school in May 2023. “It’s hard to believe, but that’s how life works. It goes by so quickly.”

That’s why Steenwinkel does his best to live life to the fullest, and when an opportunity presents itself, like the one at Virent nearly a decade ago, he says you should jump on it.

“For me, Virent was the right place at the right time,” said Steenwinkel. “And all these years later, we’re still doing what attracted me here in the first place: finding ways to make our world’s energy cleaner and more efficient.”

Steenwinkel (back row, far right) with the team from Virent that participated in the Run for the Trees: Happy Little 5K to raise money for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Innovation is key

Steenwinkel, who now has nearly 30 years of experience in R&D, spends much of his time working with his team developing Virent’s technology for the future. This work includes bringing the company’s BioForming® technologies to commercial scale. He also travels to conferences and demonstrations to share the innovations coming from Virent.

One of the most recent milestones featured Virent’s use of U.S.-grown sugar from sugarcane to help Patagonia successfully manufacture and launch its new SugarDown Hoody, the outdoor clothing company’s first-ever biobased product. Virent’s paraxylene was a critical component of the SugarDown Hoody’s polyester shell and liner. Although paraxylene is a component of polyester that is typically derived from crude oil, Virent’s version was derived directly from plants.

“You often find innovation in the least likely of places,” Steenwinkel said.

His passion for renewable resources took flight, literally, in December 2021, when Virent contributed to an aviation first, as United Airlines successfully flew an aircraft full of passengers using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in one engine and petroleum-based jet fuel in the other. Virent’s BioForm® synthesized aromatic kerosene (SAK) made from corn sugar, was a critical component that made the 100% SAF possible. That was followed up by other successful test flights Virent was involved with using 100% renewable “drop-in” replacement for petroleum jet fuel.

“You often find innovation in the least likely of places.”

“It’s almost magical what we do,” Steenwinkel said, crediting what he calls an incredibly talented group of individuals at Virent, which along with its parent company Marathon Petroleum, is helping create an energy-diverse future. “As Virent continues to test products and develop more ways to achieve renewable energy alternatives, I am more excited than ever about Marathon Petroleum’s role in the future of sustainable fuels.”

Glow in the dark party at a school in Greater Madison.

Life as DJ-Dutch

When he’s not in the lab or telling Virent’s story, you can likely find Steenwinkel enjoying another passion of his, spinning the latest and greatest beats as a DJ. You can catch “DJ-Dutch,” as he’s known, at a variety of events around town, from weddings to high school dances. In fact, it was his now 23-year-old daughter’s sweetheart dance that put the Dutchman’s hobby on the map.

However, it wasn’t until the family’s big move to the U.S. that this passion of his turned into a full-service DJ’ing business, after he received a request to DJ a party for kids with special needs close to where they live.

Steenwinkel, AKA DJ-Dutch, dropping the beat during an event.

“After seeing how much joy a few lights and speakers brought to these kids, we couldn’t wait to do it again,” said Steenwinkel, whose middle son, Nick, has Down Syndrome. “That’s when it really took off and became a family affair. You’d be surprised how my love of DJ’ing and my role at Virent are intertwined. Both require a lot of focus and the embracement of technology. When you mix the two, you can do almost anything.”

He says people often ask him how he finds time to do both, and his answer is simple, “You do have the time; you just have to decide how to use it.”

What’s Next?

Now, as he approaches a milestone anniversary at Virent, ten years in 2024, Steenwinkel says he has no plans of slowing down.

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said. “I tell my kids ‘Do the things you enjoy in life, and while you’re at it, work to make this world a better place.’”

(l-r) Steenwinkel with his wife Kokkie and children Jasper, Nick and Tessa during a family vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in October 2018.