BY GREGORY ZELLER // A rock-solid Brookhaven National Laboratory commercialization prospect is ready for its close-up.
SulfCrete, a stronger, more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional concrete, will share the spotlight May 8 with four other regional innovations at the Long Island Capital Alliance’s Technology Transfer Capital Forum, a showcase designed to attract investors to some of the Island’s hottest IP.
The result of decades of BNL R&D, SulfCrete is the stage name of sulfur polymer, a next-level construction material promising maximum strength with a minimum carbon footprint. William Biamonte, CEO of Green SulfCrete LLC, which has licensed the technology from BNL, cited a “harmonic convergence happening in the world that makes this technology extremely interesting.”
“The concrete industry is under siege,” Biamonte told InnovateLI. “The oil industries are producing a lot of sulfur. The world is adapting to harsher climates. With all of that happening, a technology like this is of great interest to investors.”
The “siege” of the concrete industry is based on the ecological ramifications of creating the ubiquitous construction material. A high amount of energy is required to melt limestone, one of concrete’s key ingredients; voluminous amounts of water are poured annually into worldwide concrete creation; and the production process releases devastating levels of carbon dioxide – according to BNL, nearly 10 percent of all global greenhouse gasses come from concrete production.
And all of that, Biamonte noted, at a time when global construction is at a fever pitch: China has reportedly used more concrete on its current production boom than the United States did throughout the entire 20th century.
Enter SulfCrete, for which Biamonte’s Melville-based firm holds eight international patents, including rights in the United States, the Russian Federation and China. While the product is just now preparing to remake the construction industry, the science behind it is decades in the making.
Brookhaven Lab has been studying sulfur polymer ever since the U.S. Bureau of Mines invented the stuff in the 1970s, trying to find beneficial uses for waste sulfur produced by various mining applications. Elemental sulfur tends to lose physical stability when it’s melted and cooled, but researchers found that adding other organic materials – including some that are prohibitively expensive for mass-production purposes – improved stability.
Nuclear engineer Paul Kalb became interested in sulfur polymer 30 years ago while developing new methods for radioactive waste disposal. At the time, the popular method involved mixing the waste with cement and burying the resulting radioactive rock. But the plan had holes, literally: The radioactive waste didn’t always mix, chemically, with Portland cement, and the porous results allowed too much leaching.
Kalb’s BNL team achieved better results replacing cement with thermoplastics, including sulfur polymer, and BNL soon patented the sulfur polymer solidification process. During a subsequent environmental remediation project in Kazakhstan, Kalb and his colleagues devised a cost-effective plan to use large stockpiles of sulfur produced by regional oil companies mixed with less-expensive organic materials, including oil refinery waste.
The formulation worked, and back in the States, BNL started tinkering.
“The results of these initial performance tests were very positive,” Kalb said. In fact, the average strength of the lab’s sulfur polymer mortar was more than three times the strength of traditional Portland cement mortar.
And the new material offers other advantages, according to Kalb, who in addition to his role at BNL now serves as Green SulfCrete’s scientific advisor.
“Concrete is very porous,” he said. “Water can move in and out of it very easily. This new material reduces permeability.”
With its construction and environmental benefits increasingly apparent, sulfur polymer is now building momentum. In January 2014, Green SulfCrete won a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue its work; last June, the Melville startup was one of five companies to receive a $50,000 grant from Accelerate Long Island’s Seed Fund, plus a matching grant from the Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund, a collaboration of VC investors Topspin Partners and Jove Equity Partners.
The company has had “numerous conversations with oil companies and concrete companies,” Biamonte noted, but no third party “will truly commit until we can prove it scales.”
In short, Biamonte’s firm needs to show SulfCrete works in large structures, so the goal now is to raise $5 million for a pilot production plant, to be built in conjunction with BNL and Stony Brook University, where Green SulfCrete is a member of the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program.
“We need to actually produce products like conduit pipes and highway dividers,” Biamonte said.
David Hamilton, CEBIP’s director of business development, believes SulfCrete is going to change the construction industry. Hamilton has been helping Biamonte cultivate business strategies and funding opportunities for the last two years, and while he admits “concrete is not the sexiest thing in the world,” he knows a game-changer when he sees one.
“The concrete industry is the planet’s largest water consumer, and the industry presents other significant health challenges,” Hamilton said. “Bill has a technology that’s going to have a significant impact on the world.”
But first, Green SulfCrete needs to build that pilot plant, putting a particular emphasis on the May 8 capital showcase. SulfCrete won’t be the only attraction: Following a keynote by BNL Director Doon Gibbs, the forum will feature presentations on a nanotechnology-based protective coating for monitors and solar panels and a superconducting electric-grid protection system.
Other presenters will pitch a method for modifying oilseed crops to produce fatty acids – useful for plastics and paints – and a nanotech-based “water shield” that keeps moisture off various surfaces, even in high-pressure, high-velocity conditions. Goodbye windshield wipers, maybe?
It’s an impressive tech smorgasbord, and Hamilton has firsthand experience with several of the featured products. NextSwitch, for example, the maker of that superconducting electric-grid protection system, is a recent CEBIP member.
But SulfCrete, according to the business guru, stands out.
“Of all my clients, Bill has the best chance to be hugely successful,” Hamilton said.
That’s the plan, according to Biamonte, who gleefully notes that Green SulfCrete has exclusive licenses on the sulfur polymer technology for the next 20 years.
“We can sublicense this in a thousand different directions – by geography, by application,” the CEO said. “Our model will be to prove it scales, then create a center of excellence on Long Island where we continue to improve the technology.”