A 2007 collapse of major sections of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour traffic resulted in 13 deaths and 145 injuries as cars plummeted 108 feet into the Mississippi River.
The tragedy led to immediate questions. What caused the accident? Could it have been prevented? Professional studies concluded the bridge was structurally deficient and corrosion was, indeed, part of the cause.
Corrosion affects nearly every component of our infrastructure and is a $2.6 trillion world-wide yearly cost.
Exxam Systems, located at the ISU Research Park in Ames, Iowa, is working to revolutionize the measurement of corrosion to better prioritize projects in need of repair.
Paul Lott, who began his career as the Chief Welding Engineer (Section 1) on the Alaska Pipeline in 1975, recognized the need for better ways to inspect and measure corrosion.
Lott understood that corrosion weakens buildings, bridges, storage tanks, roads, pipelines, etc. and there became an urgent need to better quantify the long-term durability of materials used in many components of our country’s infrastructure.
When corrosion identification is marginalized, opportunities to treat problem areas early are lost. Poor appraisal leads to poor decision making which leads to tragedy or prohibitive repair costs.
“After the Alaska Pipeline became operational, I started my own business to test components with the goal of keeping the line operating,” Lott explained. “In 1983, I felt we really needed a corrosion department. The line was already there so our focus was maximizing throughput.”
In 2007, BP (the oil company) asked Lott if there was a technology that could better assess corrosion.
“So, I began to focus on developing a sensor and worked with the leading expert in the field at NASA to invent a first generation tool,” Lott said. “We were able to get a signal but there were problems with reading the data and the NASA guys didn’t have expertise with interpreting the signal.”
Lott’s journey eventually brought him to Iowa State, where he made an appointment with Dr. John Bowler, now Professor Emeritus. Through Iowa State’s Center for Nondestructive Evaluation (CNDE), Lott collaborated with Bowler.
“I hired a postdoc (Dr. Yuan Ji) as a research student and eventually hired him as an intern,” Lott said. “We kept making new generations of the device (11 in all) and now we’re at the point that artificial intelligence is used to process the data.”
In scientific lingo, the tool is used for the electromagnetic measurement of material properties. In layperson terms, it measures how much corrosion has impacted various surfaces.
“It’s correct to say that we can now quantify the level of corrosion better than ever before with our tool,” Lott said. “We can do so with a 90% success rate – both internal and external corrosion – and have about a dozen ways to acquire and analyze the data.”
The tool is multi-channel meaning it will work on pulp and paper, facilities, oil and gas, maritime, chemical, aerospace, windmills, utilities, ethanol storage tanks and bridges. It can identify corrosion in many different applications.
By 2018, Exxam Systems had been issued four patents and was ready to alter its sales channels and expand its marketplace. That’s when Lott sought marketing support.
“We knew the original problem, figured out the math and did the testing,” Lott said of the developmental process. “When it becomes time to get into marketing, it becomes murky as heck for me. Truthfully, I’m a scientist and getting it to market has been a challenge.”
Meeting the challenges together
ISU Research President and Director Rick Sanders sensed Exxam Systems could use some assistance getting established.
“The ISU Research Park strives to be a place where innovators flourish and if we see an opportunity to strengthen one of our tenant-partners we act,” Sanders said. “Paul (Lott) and Exxam were clearly bringing forth big, fantastic ideas and technology, but needed an activator to get to the next level. Doug Moore is absolutely someone who makes things happen, so we introduced them and are now watching the magic happen through their partnership.”
Moore was a natural to step in and assist considering his heavy industrial background (with real-world understanding of corrosion/erosion and its costs), his marketing acumen, his experience launching several of his own companies, his knowledge of the ISU Research Park and its many connections to Iowa State University and his get-it-done tenacity.
“My biggest skill is being a connector,” Moore said. “And, after years of travel, I was ready to tackle a business closer to home.”
Match made in heaven.
“In any business partnership, you have to get along,” Moore said. “Paul and I really hit it off. We have re-incorporated the company in Delaware and are going to be raising investor money to take Paul’s innovation to market.”
Exxam Team Expands
A recent addition to the roster at Exxam Systems is Kate Lyon, President of Ames Seed Capital. Her vast legal experience with start-ups will help guide the company through the sales and regulatory processes, ensuring it is compliant with all regulations to sell products throughout the world.
“Exxam has products that involve both hardware and software and the data involved in various processes operate under a unique set of laws and regulations,” Lyons said. “I will be making certain we are adhering to all regulations in the countries where Exxam hopes to do business,” Lyon said.
Quantifying rust proves beneficial
Exxam Systems is focusing at present on two lines of business: (1) Military and Transportation; and (2) oil and gas. Lott’s sensor can better evaluate the durability of materials by assigning numeric values to current conditions. That helps administrators better gauge the projects most in need of rehabilitation.
Moore has already connected with the Department of Defense’s Office of Corrosion Protection. The annual cost of corrosion is the largest maintenance line item cost in the DOD budget. Annual U.S. Military corrosion costs top $21 billion.
Corrosion / rust negatively affects DOD equipment and infrastructure and can lead to reduced asset availability, deterioration in performance and increasing costs. By improving the assessment of corrosion, informed decision-making will improve asset lifetimes and decrease maintenance expenses.
Characterizing and quantifying corrosion damage is fundamental to prioritizing projects and Exxam System’s devices are built to do just that.
“The detection of corrosion is an on-going problem for all branches of the Armed Services,” Moore said. “Exxam’s products can facilitate accurate condition analysis that’s not available currently.”
“Why is a pipeline company located in the middle of Iowa?”
Moore also noted that Exxam System’s location at the Research Park broadens the diversity of tenants in the innovation hub.
“The natural question is ‘why is a pipeline company located in the middle of Iowa?’,” Moore posed. “My answer is Iowa State University and the Research Park. The Exxam story is a great one because (our core business) is a bit out of the ordinary compared to the largely agricultural tenants. But, this diversity is a strong selling point as we continue to grow at the ISURP and it also connects us with the University’s materials and engineering departments.”
Rust Never Sleeps
Neil Young’s 1979 album, named Rust Never Sleeps, is a perfect metaphor for the corrosion problem our world faces. When Young produced the album, some felt the title meant he was hinting that his music style needed to change rather than become dated and obsolete (in light of his generation’s challenge from Punk music).
By innovating or adapting – like the team at Exxam Systems is doing to solve the world’s corrosion problems – you can flourish and remain relevant. Young did exactly that.
Exxam Systems is now positioning itself to become even more pertinent in the fight against corrosion and, hopefully, its emergence will prevent or reduce catastrophes like the I-35W bridge collapse in the future.