In the 1980s, a University of Montana scientist discovered an economical and efficient way to produce glucaric acid, which can serve as a replacement for phosphates.
It could eventually make Missoula the headquarters of a global chemical company, the firm’s CEO said.
On Tuesday in Danville, Virginia, a different company began manufacturing the acid commercially, which made it a huge day for Rivertop Renewables of Missoula.
“The sky’s the limit,” Mike Knauf, Rivertop’s CEO, said in a phone interview from Danville, where he participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at DanChem Technologies Inc., also known as DTI.
DTI added a new plant to its Danville facility to produce the glucaric acid on a large scale – 10 million pounds per year – using the process developed by UM scientist Donald Kiely.
“We were able to leverage DTI’s capabilities and equipment so we didn’t have to build a plant from scratch,” Knauf said. “It cost us half as much as it would have anywhere else.”
The chemicals produced are derived from natural plant sugars, and will be made using Rivertop’s proprietary oxidation process technology.
To start out, Rivertop will focus on three products using the acid – a dishwasher detergent builder, and two types of corrosion inhibitors.
But glucaric acid has applications in a far wider array of products, from fire retardants to plastics, and industries that include oil and gas, and agriculture. Expanding into new product lines – and more production – will be a focus from here, according to Knauf.
“This is the first of several planned production facilities for our patented technology,” Knauf said. “We’re producing three different products for customers in a variety of industries, and the success here in Danville is paving the way for investment in additional glucarate capacity.”
The products being made at the Virginia facility are:
• Rivertop’s Riose, a dishwasher detergent builder. “Builders have several functions in detergents,” according to the company, “most visible of which is improving detergent performance by solubilizing hard water ions, thus preventing spotting on glassware.” The product will be sold to companies that manufacture dishwasher detergents.
• Waterline corrosion inhibitors and chelating agents. Rivertop calls them “cost-effective, high-performance and sustainable chemicals designed to be integrated with products in the water treatment industry,” and a lower-cost alternative to phosphate-based options in water treatment formulations.
• Headwaters corrosion inhibitor. This is used in de-icers, and the company says the biodegradable product helps reduce the corrosive impacts on roads, bridges and vehicles. It’s already being sold to highway and road departments in some Western states, and the company “is looking to expand its reach to the Midwest and East Coast.”
UM filed a patent family around the technology pioneered by Kiely. Through the university’s Office of Technology Transfer, it was licensed to Rivertop Renewables, which was founded in 2008.
Rivertop was kept afloat during its first four years by “angel investors, friends and family, that type of investor,” Knauf told the Missoulian last year.
In about 2012, the company began seeking funds from several major investors, and last year announced it had raised $26 million in capital. Staffing at its Missoula office doubled, to 32 employees, and helped move Rivertop toward Tuesday’s big news in Virginia.
Now, Knauf said, he expects that number to double again in the next one to five years, and for Rivertop to take a harder look at the possibility of constructing what he called a “pilot plant” in Missoula that would use a “continuous flow process” to make the chemicals.
“The idea is to produce more product, cheaper, using a second-generation process,” Knauf said.
But that’s all down the road. Tuesday was about an important milestone for Rivertop.
“For a local business that was spun out of research done at the University of Montana, to now be in full production on a very large scale,” Knauf said. “That’s magnificent. We’re really thrilled to have the plant start up. It’s a great accomplishment for our team.”