MISSISSAUGA, Ont.—It’s an ingenious invention that sounds almost too good to be true—harnessing the destructive power of rust to eliminate itself and promising to protect billions of dollars worth of critical infrastructure around the world in the process.
But that is precisely the technology being developed at a state-of-the-art lab in Mississauga, Ont. by two of North America’s leading research and development organizations—the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) and the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute.
However, there’s more to the partnership than just an interesting invention with potential to revolutionize the way infrastructure around the world is built and protected. The alliance of Xerox and Battelle can also serve as an example for Canadian firms on how to navigate the perilous journey through the so-called Valley of Death and take an innovative idea from the lab to scale-up and commercialization successfully.
Smart Corrosion Detector beads are the brainchild of Battelle, which began developing the tiny rust fighters several years ago. The self-healing beads detect corrosion before it can be seen by the naked eye. Corrosion causes a chemical reaction that breaks the shell of the miniscule beads, releasing a proprietary chemical agent that fills the microscopic cracks that rust creates.
Because the beads fluoresce in the presence of corrosion, the reaction can be detected with a special light. This provides an early warning sign that rust is settling in—even if it’s hidden beneath paint—creating an opportunity to address the problem before it becomes too tough to fix and too costly.
Roughly the size of grain of salt, the 20- to 50-micron beads look like a fine, whitish powder than can be mixed with paints or other coatings and applied to bridges, pipelines or other pieces of vital infrastructure that can be damaged by rust.
But while Battelle scientists and researchers came up with the corrosion-killing beads, they didn’t have the facilities or equipment to produce large quantities of the product to be field tested by potential customers. Neither did Battelle want to expand its mandate from R&D into manufacturing and invest in the facilities and human resources necessary to begin making large batches of the beads.
That’s where Xerox and its Canadian research and development lab came in. Battelle looked across the border and found a partner with complementary material sciences capabilities, as well as the facilities and expertise needed to commercialize innovative technologies and manufacture large qualities of product. The XRCC’s Scale-Up Engineering Pilot Plant is outfitted with chemical reactors capable of producing anywhere from two to 2,000 litres of material at a time.
For more than 40 years, Xerox engineered new materials like inks, toners and photoreceptors for the company’s own purposes at the research lab. As the primary advanced materials research and development centre for Xerox’s operations around the globe, virtually every Xerox product in market today has been influenced in some way by the research team in Mississauga.
But over the past four years, the centre has opened its lab doors to put its experience and expertise to work for other companies, collaborating with them to research and develop high-tech products and bring them to market.
Members of the XRCC team have been able to draw on the problem-solving skills they developed in the lab to help companies—whether small start-ups or large companies — identify risks, demonstrate the value-proposition of their technologies and guide them through the steps to commercialization.
Canada has a long track record of innovation, is one of the heaviest funders of discovery research in the world and fortunate to have a highly trained and educated workforce. Not to mention, a wealth of budding entrepreneurs with no shortage of bright ideas for new technologies.
But where innovation and productivity often falter is in the critical stages of moving from research to scale-up and commercialization. That’s where many start-ups fall into the gap and fail to get their ideas off the ground. And that’s where the XRCC can lend its expertise, guiding start-ups past the risks threatening to take them down before they really begin.
As Canada embarks on an innovation agenda under the Trudeau government, the XRCC aims to play a crucial role helping start-ups and corporate leaders navigate the valley of death that often crushes promising ideas before they’re commercialized.
Canada’s innovation prospects hold great promise for the future of this country, as do Battelle’s rust-fighting beads, which will be going to market in the next year or so – a true breakthrough that will help change the way the world around us is built and protected.
Dr. Paul Smith is the Vice President and Centre Manager of the Mississauga-based Xerox Research Centre of Canada.