Inside Rivertop Renewables' lab, in Missoula's Montana Technology Enterprise Center, there are three automatic dishwashers. Counters hold dozens of drinking glasses. Rivertop chemists have run the glasses through the dishwashers more than a thousand times. They're testing the effectiveness of environmentally benign substitutes for phosphates, the detergent additive that's been banned in 17 states, including Montana.
Across the lab, behind the glass of a chemical hood, the chemists mix nitric acid and glucose, catalyzing a reaction that results in glucaric acid—the compound on which Rivertop's "bioproducts" are based.
Glucaric acid has great commercial promise, not just as a replacement for phosphates but also as a corrosion inhibitor and in flame retardants and fertilizer delivery agents, among many other products, all of which could be made to degrade in soil or water.
Former University of Montana professor and Rivertop founder Don Kiely, an expert in carbohydrate chemistry, and his team have been perfecting a patented recipe for glucaric acid over the past decade. Last week, the three-year-old company announced that it's received $1.5 million from the venture capital fund Cultivian Ventures, which will allow Rivertop to expand its labs and begin commercializing its sugar-based chemicals.
"We'll turn out pounds today, we'll turn out tons next, and then we'll turn out millions of pounds a year—probably within eight months," says Rivertop President Jere Kolstad. "We're there. We're really there."'
In 2004, the Department of Energy identified glucaric acid as one of the 12 most important bio-based chemicals, with a projected market of at least $7 billion. "But what nobody's been able to figure out," says Tyler Smith, Rivertop's director of research and development, "is how to make it economically and efficiently—and we've got the process to do that." It makes Rivertop, which currently employs 15 people, one of UM's best examples of its research transferring to the private sector.
"The future is bright," says Smith. "We've got these direct end-use markets, and we can also start derivatizing this compound to make new stuff as well. It kind of branches out, like a tree."