Rivertop contracts with DTI on bioglucarate-based production

By Bryan Sims | March 26, 2012

Rivertop Renewables has successfully scaled its patented process technology from the lab to pilot manufacturing as the Missoula, Mont.-based firm contracted with DanChem Technologies, a custom manufacturer of fine and specialty chemical products based in Danville, Va., to pilot production of its biobased glucarate-derived products for advanced testing of end-use applications.

At the core of Rivertop’s technology is a novel proprietary process based on more than a decade of research by Donald Kiely, a professor emeritus of carbohydrate chemistry at the University of Montana, utilizing nitric acid to oxidize plant-derived sugars that produces salts of sugar acids, such as glucaric acid, and other biobased fine chemicals derived from other sugars. The company has refined its oxidation technology into a catalytic process that reduces the amount of chemical inputs and consumption, minimizes the production of waste and increases the yield of feedstocks beyond glucose such as xylose, arabinose and galactose, as well as other mono- and polysaccharides. In addition to glucaric acid, the company is also exploring the potential of producing other sugar acids such as xylaric, arabinaric and galactaric acids.

Launched in February, the pilot production partnership with DTI has produced numberous batches of Rivertop’s glucarate-based products at approximately 850 pounds per run. According to Steve Donen, vice president of process development and engineering for Rivertop Renewables, the company is shooting for producing a total of approximately 5 to 10 metric tons of glucarate-based products at DTI’s facility in Danville before the pilot with DTI expires in early April.  

“Up to this time we’ve produced about half that,” Donen told Biorefining Magazine. “It really doesn’t demonstrate our production capacity. It’s a batch process so we’re learning as we go. This first step from a lab scale to commercially scalable equipment is always a big challenge and a major step in any chemical process. I have a high level of confidence this process is going to do well.”

DTI’s unique manufacturing technologies and flexibility, according to Donen, enables the accurate scaling up of Rivertop’s platform oxidation process. Data derived from these and subsequent runs will also enable Rivertop and DTI to scale up to a targeted commercial capacity of 10 million pounds of contract-manufactured product annually, projected to come online in the fourth quarter this year.

“Our advantage is that, relatively quickly, we’ll be able to supply up to 10 million pounds per year of capacity, which really allows us to demonstrate our markets and get our customers on board with our product,” Donen said.

Target markets that Rivertop aims to supply its glucarate-based products include the $10 billion detergents market by applying its biobased glucarate products as an effective and cost-competitive replacement for tripolyphosphates, the legacy ingredient found in dishwasher detergent. The company also intends to supply biobased glucaric acid to the $8 billion corrosion and scale inhibitors markets and eventually for polymer applications including hydrogels, adhesives, films, flocculants and other multifunctional materials.

According to Donen, glucarate-based products produced in the initial phase of the contract manufacturing at DTI’s facility in Danville will be used to fulfill Rivertop’s commercial contracts for biobased corrosion inhibitors, with remaining volumes of manufactured product going to downstream customers seeking to develop and test its glucarate in automatic dishwasher detergent (AWD) formulations.

“Some of [the glucarate product] is going to be sold for demonstration as road salts,” Donen said. “As for the ADW detergent market, a lot of formulation goes into that for detergent builders. This [contract manufacturing] will allow them to have enough product to test and demonstrate.”

Concurrent to the contract manufacturing with DTI, Rivertop is in the middle of undergoing a multimillion dollar expansion to its R&D laboratories, including the construction of a semiworks facility at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, a business incubator for technology spin-outs from the University of Montana in Missoula. The infrastructure improvement project to MonTEC, expected to be complete by August, according to Donen, will enable Rivertop to become the anchor tenant at the site. Last year, Rivertop received $1.5 million in the form of a bridge round from Cultivian Ventures, a venture fund focused on accelerating high technology in the food and agricultural sectors, to help offset the cost of the expansion project.

Successful contract manufacturing, combined with the future semiworks facility in MonTEC, according to Donen, will enable Rivertop to scale its technology directly from pilot to commercial scale, which essentially allows the firm to bypassing the building of a costly demonstration-scale facility.