Rivertop Renewables reached a milestone last week when the renewable chemical company was awarded the bid to supply its biodegradable corrosion inhibitor to the Montana Department of Transportation to be used in road de-icer.
The almost $400,000 contract represents the first product-based revenue for the Missoula startup, which has pioneered the field of biodegradable chemicals and bio-products made from renewable plant sugars.
"We've really come full circle with the contract," said Jason Kiely, the company's vice president of marketing and administration.
Getting technology from the research lab to the marketplace isn't easy, but Rivertop has thrived by securing grants and investments to grow its technology, developed by Jason's dad, Don Kiely, during his time as a chemistry professor at the University of Montana. Don Kiely perfected the large-scale production of biochemicals and bio-products made from simple plant sugars.
With a product called "Headwaters," the company has begun its first push into the renewable chemical marketplace.
Headwaters is a corrosion inhibitor made from renewable corn sugar. It will be mixed with MDT's de-icer salt brine this year to help stop the damage the salt solution can do to road infrastructure and vehicles once it's sprayed onto roads.
"One molecule-thick layer can insulate surfaces from the corrosive effect of the brine," said Dave Wilkening, Rivertop's product manager of corrosion sciences.
MDT awards a corrosion inhibitor contract annually, said Jack May, MDT's maintenance chief of the Missoula area. This year, 110,000 gallons of Headwaters was purchased from Rivertop and will be distributed by MDT to six brine mixing plants throughout the state. Just more than 45,000 gallons were shipped to the Missoula plant. More Headwaters could be purchased if necessary.
The brine is 23 percent salt by weight, with a 7.5 percent inhibitor by volume mixed in, May said.
MDT paid as much as $4.77 for a gallon of inhibitor from North American Salt Co. in 2010. This year, the highest cost per unit (which goes up with distance of shipment) for Headwaters is $3.65.
Not only is it cost effective, Headwaters stops 70 percent to 75 percent of corrosion and has a very small environmental footprint, Wilkening said.
As important as keeping the roads clear and dry is, using de-icers can cost millions of dollars in infrastructure and vehicle damage as salt eats away at materials. Bridges are among the most expensive road infrastructure pieces to replace.
Also, the damage brine could do to semitrucks and vintage cars makes car enthusiasts like Wilkening cringe.
"You just hate to drive winter roads when you think the salt is going to chew up your car. The cost of corrosion is huge," Wilkening said.
Effects of salt brine's corrosiveness are displayed in a Rivertop lab at the company's home in the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on East Broadway. There, steel discs are dipped and lifted by a machine into different solutions. One solution is pure salt brine, and is dirty with flakes corroded from the disc.
The discs dipped in brine including Headwaters are less corroded, and the solution is clearer, signifying the inhibitor at work.
MDT applied similar corrosion tests to Headwaters, along with a gamut of environmental standard tests, to approve Headwaters for use, May said.
Corrosive inhibitors have been used for about a decade as the use of de-icers progressed from simply throwing salt off the back of trucks. Wilkening spent time at Redmond Minerals working on products for solid, phosphate-based inhibitors that are much less environmentally friendly.
Wilkening ran across Don Kiely's science based on the environmentally friendly, effective plant sugar alternatives several years ago and knew that was where the industry was headed. Wilkening was hired by Rivertop in August to bring his corrosion inhibitor expertise as they moved into the marketing phase.
"We hit the ground running at 90 mph," Wilkening said.
Wilkening is confident that as "green" becomes the new standard, Rivertop's leading innovative products will help it become a lead producer of biodegrable, high performing corrosion inhibitors.
"Personally, I think we're going to quadruple our business next year," he said.
The company is already working on contracts with other government agencies. Wilkening estimated the use of Headwaters by private entities that clear parking lots and other areas in Missoula could double business.
Kiely points out that Headwaters is just the beginning of the products Rivertop hopes to roll out into the marketplace soon.
Breaking into the multibillion dollar detergent industry is the next step. Rivertop hopes its glucaric acid-based products can be used to replace more damaging and heavily banned phosphate-based chemical builders once used in detergents.
One Rivertop lab includes a trio of dishwashers churning throughout the day, working to test its products' ability to eliminate buildup and stain-spots on dishware.
Rivertop is in talks with a contract manufacturer that would produce its goods, and Kiely expects the companies to reach an agreement soon. Production of its glucaric acid products would begin in 2012.
"If the science is strong, the business is easier," Kiely said. "You know the value of your product, you know how to troubleshoot, the customers recognize that."