Missoula's Don Kiely and his son, Jason, have spent their lives in different settings - one in the chemistry lab and one in the forest - but they are teaming up in a new business venture that combines their passions.
Seeking a clean alternative to fossil fuels, the Kielys are part of a new Missoula-based company, Montana Renewables, that will start producing green "carbochemicals" this fall.
The biomass chemicals, which are derived from plant material, are designed to be used instead of petroleum-based chemicals in an array of industrial and consumer products.
Montana Renewables will use a refining process patented at the University of Montana to make glucaric acid, a biodegradable compound, from raw sugars in corn syrup.
Officials at the technology startup envision a day when carbochemicals replace fossil fuels and Missoula is a hub of the nation's burgeoning biomass industry.
Montana Renewables' refining process generates no pollution or waste, takes a small amount of energy and can be produced on a large scale at a relatively low cost, said Jason Kiely.
"This is a sustainable idea with huge social and environmental benefits," he said.
Petrochemicals are used in many everyday goods - from concrete and fabrics to pharmaceuticals and inks - but a growing number of companies nationwide are switching to biomass materials.
About 5 percent of global chemical sales currently are made up of green products, but the market share could rise to 20 percent by 2010 and may reach 66 percent of the total global economy, according to a North Carolina State University study.
The U.S. Department of Energy has identified glucaric acid as one of the top 12 building-block chemicals that can be converted to bio-based materials. Glucaric acid has been certified as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Montana Renewables, which incorporated earlier this year, was founded by Don Kiely, a University of Montana chemistry professor whose research team invented and patented the new refining process.
Kiely, 70, who is retiring this summer, is the director of the Shafizadeh Center for Wood and Carbohydrate Chemistry at UM, where he has taught since 1997.
He didn't plan to become an entrepreneur, he said, but the refining process and polymers he had worked on for years needed to move from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Kiely said he expected his firm's technology to benefit other western Montana manufacturers, generating jobs and profits, and helping to clean up the environment.
"I didn't want to retire and see this technology just evaporate," he said. "Our products will be competitively priced with existing products but without the toxic footprints. We want to make Missoula the center of the carbochemical industry."
Montana Renewables has seven employees, including Mike Kadas, a former mayor of Missoula, and Jason Kiely, a former spokesman for Wildlands CPR, a Missoula conservation group.
The company has an exclusive license to develop its patents into products for the marketplace. Jason Kiely said the refining process will result in more high-value glucaric acid being produced for a lower cost than other carbochemical manufacturers.
Montana Renewables' first products will be a nutritional supplement marketed for cancer prevention and detoxification, and a corrosion inhibitor used in road deicing salts.
Next year, the company plans to start making specialty chemicals and polymers derived from glucaric acid.
Other potential uses include building, industrial, environmental remediation, health and recreation products, such as paint, detergents, cosmetics and camping gear.
Montana Renewables also has developed an absorbent gel that could be used in biodegradable diapers and time-release fertilizers.
The company has raised $700,000 in startup capital and expects to attract $500,000 more by fall. It projects a financial loss during its first two years, but a net income of $5.6 million by 2010.
The Montana Community Development Corp. helped to create a business strategy for Montana Renewables, whose lab and offices will be housed at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.
Steve Grover, MCDC's business development manager, said Montana Renewables has high potential.
"It's great to see technology coming out of the university with really nice marketing potential," he said. "It's a model that reflects MCDC's own growth and the exciting growth of firms starting up in our area."
Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 523-5259 or at email@example.com.