By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We spin a lot of plates and hope some of it sticks to the wall,” says Bowie Benson, Chief Executive Officer of Carbon Rivers LLC.
The Knoxville-based start-up says its “mission is to deliver innovative materials solutions to the composite world at large.” It was founded in 2017, the same year Benson graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) with his B.S. in Materials Engineering.
The California native says he could have pursued a good trade and actually worked as a Researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for two years after graduation, but “I wanted to be a risktaker.” He and several colleagues created a couple of their own research courses. After one of the collaborators died, those that remained were motivated to proceed in executing their vision for Carbon Rivers to honor his memory.
Today, the start-up has established an R&D niche that includes advanced graphene composites, glass fiber recycling from retired windmill blades, lightweight ballistic armor solutions, and antiviral coatings to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ryan Ginder found a way to recycle glass fibers,” Benson explained. Ginder is a Research Assistant Professor at UTK, and his work led to Carbon Rivers securing a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2019 and a Phase II in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We’re getting a lot of traction in that space,” Benson says. “There’s not a lot of wind assembly here, but there’s a good deal of expertise.” Carbon Rivers is evaluating the best way to commercialize the technology advanced through the two SBIR awards. It could be licensed to others or commercialized here.
“We also make a different form of graphene from what Vig and Sam do,” he said, referencing Vig Sherrill of General Graphene Corporation and Sam Weaver of Proton Power Inc. (PPI). Benson explained that Carbon Rivers is in the middle between the lower end biochar product that PPI produces as a by-product of its process of converting biomass into synthetic fuel or electricity, while General Graphene is at the high end, providing industrial scale CVD graphene and product development support.
“I believe Knoxville might be the graphene epicenter of the country,” he says, adding, “We’ve got it here.”
Carbon Rivers has about 40 active R&D projects underway involving graphene including one that utilizes the material known for its amazing properties including strength to serve several sectors – ballistic armor, concrete, and the oil and gas industry.
“Concrete is a foot in the door for oil and gas,” Benson says. “They need higher performing materials to avoid downtime.”
One of Carbon Rivers’ key strategies involves partnerships that frequently involve letting those collaborators “take it the rest of the way. We like to be a white labeler.”
For the most part, the company has bootstrapped its growth thus far along with the two SBIRs and an outside investor involved in advancing the ballistics armor project. That will likely change beginning this year with some of Benson’s growth plans.
“We want to be recycling 30 tons of glass fiber a month by August in a new pilot line, and we want to have a full-scale facility that would be processing 150 tons a month by the end of 2022 or early 2023,” he says.
To prepare for that growth, the company has taken on an additional 26,000 square foot facility off of Western Avenue in additional to its existing operation off of Middlebrook Pike.
“We are looking to close a Series A later this year and either a Series B or secure a strategic partner by late 2022,” Benson adds. As far as the journey, albeit just a few years, he says, “There have been some learning curves, but we have overcome them and become better.”