Don Kiely planned to retire from his teaching post at the University of Montana when he turned 70, but when the chemistry professor hit that self-designated milestone, he had a change of heart.
After more than a decade of experiments and tests at UM, Kiely and his team of scientists had finally unlocked the secrets to one of the most intriguing and confounding chemistry discoveries of the modern age.
To abandon what he started long ago seemed premature, Kiely said, particularly when his research results could have enormous, positive consequences for countless aspects of daily life.
"We all have a chance to save the world bit by bit," said the 71-year-old. "Our contribution to that would be improving water quality. So many harmful chemical products end up in our groundwater and are our major pollutants. But we think we are onto something that could change that."
Kiely and his team moved into laboratory space at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, or MonTEC, on East Broadway, started a business called Rivertop Renewables and continued their investigations into the mysteries of sugar.
Chemicals made from simple plant sugar - more specifically, glucaric acid, which is created by oxidizing glucose - are capable of amazing things.
Recognized by the Department of Energy as one of the top 12 "building block chemicals" that can be produced from sugars, glucaric acid can be converted to high-value, bio-based chemicals or materials.
In other words, it's a biodegradable, environment-neutral chemical that could be used in everyday materials, such as road salt and detergents, to replace harmful persistent petrochemicals and phosphates, which can last for centuries.
Scientists have long known glucaric acid is well suited as a benign alternative to such chemicals, Kiely said. But the potential has gone unrealized because no one has be able to solve this riddle: How do you produce glucaric acid on a large scale in way that is cost efficient?
That is, until now.
Kiely and his research team of Tyler Smith, Kylie Presta and Kirk Hash know how. They've not only invented a chemical process using a computer-controlled reactor to make the product cheaply in large volumes, they've discovered a process that is adaptable and can produce other environment-friendly building block chemicals.
"We've discovered how to refine that process and consistently and reliably duplicate the product over and over again," Kiely said.
More to the point, said Kiely's son, Jason, the company's director of marketing: "We have the technology to go from two liters to 2,000 gallons of glucaric acid."
Although Rivertop's inventions are patent-pending, the company is ready to take its work to the next level.
The product and the process are currently the subject of lively investor negotiations and inquiries, and the plan is to take the technology big time, said Mike Kadas, Rivertop's president and chief operating officer.
"We are at a very exciting stage of the company," said Kadas, Missoula's former mayor. "It is exciting to be in on the business side of something that has potential to have huge impact on the local and global scale."
Buzz is building around the Missoula company's discoveries, thanks in large part to Rivertop's high-profile recognition at the 2009 Cleantech Open business competition in California earlier this month.
Rivertop beat out hundreds of companies to make the cut to compete at the event, and in the end, was chosen as one of the top 12 finalists, said Tim Cox, spokesman for the competition.
"The mission of the Cleantech Open is to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today's most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges," Cox said.
Not only did Rivertop receive a $25,000 cash award and $25,000 in support services for assistance with necessities such as legal advice, licensing and marketing, but the company endured the intense scrutiny of industry experts in research and development.
"For them to make the finalist stage of things means they've got a really good idea," Cox said. "I think Rivertop is set for great success. They have a bullet-proof business plan that was vetted by the best of the best, and now it's onward and upward for them."
As a business product, glucaric acid has many charms, Don Kiely explained.
"It's cheap because it's made from the most renewable carbohydrate there is - simple plant sugar," he said. "In our case, the source is corn syrup, but it could eventually come from a variety of sources."
Another sweet trait: Glucaric acid easily breaks down and doesn't linger after its job is done.
"We know some of the things that this product can be used for," Kiely said, "but there's a lot of other applications we haven't even thought of yet. We would like to work with others who are interested in developing those possibilities."
To that end, Kiely and company are interested in partnering with a leading refiner of agricultural sugars and bioproducts.
To annually produce 100 million pounds of glucaric acid from corn will require 12,000 acres of corn, Jason said. Ideally, the pilot manufacturing plant will be up and running in 2010 and scaled up to serve customers in 2011. And if all goes according to plan, the site will be located near the cornfields, and have easy access to cost-effective transportation.
The company would prefer to build the plant somewhere in Montana, but the high cost of transportation made such a notion unrealistic, Kadas said.
"It needs to be done close to the feed stock," he explained, "and preferably where the infrastructure is already in place."
However, as the company grows, some of that expansion will take place in Missoula, where Rivertop is headquartered.
The plan is to launch a vibrant research and development facility that is dedicated to advancing the applications of glucaric acid.
Such talk about the company's bright future makes Kiely shake his head in wonder.
"I hadn't thought to start a major company at this stage in my life," he said. "But I felt like I had no choice.
"It took us a long time to sort out the details and discover the process, but now that we have, I couldn't walk away from it. I had to do this, I had to give it a try.
"The potential to change the world is just too great."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.