Winter roads 

De-icer sweet 'n' salty

Last week, the inaugural batch of a made-in-Missoula biodegradable chemical that reduces the corrosive effects of road salt was trucked to a Montana Department of Transportation facility in Whitefish, marking the beginning of Rivertop Renewables' partnership with the state.

The corrosion inhibitor is among the start-up company's "bioproducts" made of glucaric acid, a compound derived from plant sugars—which means that Montana's roads will be flavored with sugar and salt this winter.

Rivertop Renewables, founded by former University of Montana professor Don Kiely, an expert in carbohydrate chemistry, recently signed a $400,000 contract with the state to provide it with about 110,000 gallons of the corrosion inhibitor, to protect roads and vehicles.

"Since this is bio-based—biodegradable, derived from sugars—it's a very natural way to address [corrosion] and have the lowest possible environmental impact," says Dave Wilkening, a chemist and Rivertop's de-icing product manager.

The inhibitor, called "Headwaters," reduces the rate of corrosion by roughly 70 percent compared to untreated road brine, he says.

Montana has added corrosion inhibitors—including products made of molasses and wood pulp—to its road brines for four or five years, says Jack May, MDT's maintenance chief in Missoula. "It's the same thing we've been doing. This is just a local product."

The state's a member of the Pacific Northwest Snowfighters Association, a consortium of regional transportation departments that sets specifications for deicing products. They've all agreed to add corrosion inhibitors to their sodium chloride-based liquid deicers, part of a national trend Rivertop is working to tap. "We see the market as large and growing," Wilkening says. "The momentum is definitely toward the use of salt brines, and we figure to have a good portion of that business."

Rivertop, which holds a patent on its glucaric acid-making process through UM, is also developing a replacement for phosphates in dishwashing detergents, among other products that can be made to degrade in soil or water.

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.

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