Made Local, Made Right
How glycol recycling and 3D printing contribute to Alaska’s value-added picture
ImagineItAlaska founder Levi Basler explains some of the technicalities of 3D printing.
Natural resource extraction has acted as a foundation for Alaska’s economic activity since before ground even broke for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System and remains a vital part of Alaska’s economic makeup. But tying state funding primarily to commodity-driven industries has (and will again) put Alaska in a tight spot. It’s widely acknowledged that Alaska lacks a robust field of value-added businesses, which create local jobs, provide valuable materials at high quality and often lower cost, and keep Alaska money in Alaska.
Two businesses—in wildly different ways—have set their sights on making cost-effective, high-quality, local products: NRC Alaska and ImagineItAlaska.
In 2014 NRC, an international provider of environmental, industrial, and emergency response solutions, purchased Emerald Alaska, which specialized in environmental and emergency response services for the oil and gas industry in Alaska. Today NRC Alaska is still a leader in its field, offering spill response, waste management, oil tank cleaning, and other environmental services.
But NRC Alaska also offers products that complement their cleaning, waste management, and cleanup service lines, and they’re pioneering a path for responsible manufacturing in Alaska: in July 2017 the company finished constructing a glycol distillation plant at their Anchorage location. “We can take used glycol generated from the automotive, aviation, mechanical, and HVAC industries, and we can run it through a series of treatment processes, distilling the glycol back to its virgin equivalent state for re-blending,” says Michael Rose, account manager of product sales for NRC Alaska.
“It’s the only [glycol recycling plant] of its kind located in Alaska,” he says.
The process to distill the glycol takes about four days and happens in 4,000-gallon batches. NRC Alaska collects used glycol such as antifreeze, which contains ethylene glycol, and stores it in storage tanks at their Anchorage facility.
The first step of the distillation process is to remove as much of the solid contaminants as possible. The glycol is placed in treatment tanks and, through a series of chemical treatment and filtration, those solids are removed and packaged for disposal. Once this process is complete, the glycol is transferred to the distillation plant, where it is circulated through a closed loop system under heat and vacuum pressure. The glycol is continually circulated through various stages of heat until all contaminants are removed.
“Because that product is still mixed with water, the first step is to strip off the water using heat. The removed water is collected in a storage tank. After you get all the water stripped off, we increase the heat, which begins the distillation process: that heat, under a vacuum, starts to remove all the impurities,” Rose explains. Once extracted the impurities are stored in another tank, and what’s left is high-quality, clean-as-can-be glycol, which is stored until it’s ready for blending. “It’s a big process, for sure—but it works fantastically,” Rose says.
NRC Alaska blends the clean glycol to produce various antifreeze and heat transfer fluid products. “Ethylene glycol is the base product for antifreeze, but another big part of antifreeze are the corrosion inhibitors… that protect the metals and the seals in your engine.” Corrosion inhibitors are a part of additive packs, which NRC Alaska sources from a national manufacturer in the Lower 48.
Different additive packs produce different types of antifreeze, which is necessary since car manufacturers build engines in different ways, resulting in varied antifreeze requirements. In fact, putting the wrong kind of antifreeze in an engine can void warranties; however, “a huge misconception is that, if you don’t use whatever brand name [of antifreeze], it will void the warranty. It’s actually illegal for a manufacturer to specify a certain branded product as the only one that will work when there are other equivalent options available [according to the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 1975].”
This is one misconception about NRC Alaska’s antifreeze products that Rose encounters; a second and closely related one is that products made with recycled glycol are low quality. “There’s hesitancy by companies and individuals to trust locally-made antifreeze because it doesn’t carry a brand name, but we make sure that our products meet industry standards and carry the necessary certifications. For antifreeze, it’s an ASTM standard, and our manufacturer for our additive packs actually sits on the board at the national level that determines what is and is not code.”
Rose relates how a local transportation company was interested in NRC Alaska’s antifreeze products but was hesitant because of their uncertainty about the quality. NRC Alaska gave them a bottle of their product and invited the transportation company to have it independently tested and compared to any brand-name antifreeze. “Without telling us, they did it, and they actually came up and told us our product is better. It’s cleaner and higher quality.”
Students conduct a pre-trip inspection on a truck to make sure it is safe to drive at Northern Industrial Training.
Rose attributes the high quality of NRC Alaska products in part to the scale of the company’s recycling operation. “For huge manufacturing plants in the Lower 48, their job is just to get the product to the lowest level that meets standards. But we have a much more concentrated effort and smaller quantities, so our quality control is far better.”
Another aspect that contributes to the high quality is that it’s more concentrated. Typically antifreeze is blended 50/50 glycol to water. NRC Alaska’s blends are 60/40 glycol to water. “It’s a little bit colder up here, and we need a little bit stronger protection,” Rose says.
As a final assurance for those with remaining doubts, many of the dealerships operating in Alaska, which directly represent automobile manufacturers and are very familiar with their standards and requirements, carry the NRC Alaska products made in Anchorage. “If those dealers trust the product is right, everyone else can, too.” And the cherry on top: NRC Alaska’s prices are on par with other brands.
The product isn’t just right in terms of quality, it’s right for the environment in multiple ways. The water extracted during the distillation process is actually clean enough that NRC Alaska has a discharge permit from AWWU to release it directly into the sewer system. The solid contaminants need to be shipped down south, where they are dried out, made inert, and can then be safely placed in a landfill.
But previous to NRC Alaska building this recycling plant, the only option for antifreeze in Alaska was to buy new or to buy a recycled product that was manufactured in the Lower 48—meaning the dirty antifreeze had to be shipped south, processed, and then shipped back to be blended. Water is heavy, and all of the weight and bulk of shipping antifreeze is both costly and carries a much larger carbon footprint.
“So companies are being more green, more environmentally conscious, and saving money because they’re not paying freight everywhere, and they’re supporting local economy and local people that live here,” says Rose. “Our goal is that we wouldn’t like to see another gallon [of glycol] shipped up here. There’s enough glycol in the state right now to sustain us, if it was all recycled.”
Made in Alaska
In 2018, NRC Alaska sold approximately 500,000 gallons of Alaska-made products, including antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), and propylene glycol heat transfer fluid, which is nontoxic and commonly used in building mechanical systems.
NRC Alaska is also the only local manufacturer of DEF, which reduces the negative impact of diesel engine exhaust. Its use is mandatory for many new diesel trucks and engines to meet emission standards. NRC Alaska manufactures DEF to meet American Petroleum Institute certification.
The company started selling DEF in 2014, and today still uses a steel tank that used to be in operation at Matanuska Maid, a dairy in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley that closed in 2007. NRC Alaska produces standard and marine-grade DEF, and in fact is providing DEF (through a distributer) to Edison Chouest Offshore, which won the Alyeska/SERVS marine services contract in 2018.
Also in the company’s Alaskan Made product line: windshield wiper fluid. Recently NRC Alaska partnered with Costco in Fairbanks to sell 2.5 gallon jugs of Subzero windshield wiper fluid, rated to -60 degree temperatures. “They’ve been a hit,” Rose says. “We did it at first as kind of a ‘Costco size’ because everything is bigger at Costco, and we thought people would love the -60 rating because usually you see just up to -40… But we found actually the size was what was really popular, not just the blend.”
This ability to really cater not just a product but it’s packaging to local needs is the result of NRC Alaska’s focus on Alaska. Overall, to Rose’s view everyone wins as NRC Alaska increases it’s Made in Alaska line of products. “We are helping companies achieve their green initiatives, save money on freight, support recycling, and—most importantly—support our local economy.” Hard to argue.
It’s in an entirely different manufacturing space; nonetheless, ImagineItAlaska is also forging a path to new products and added value in the Alaska manufacturing landscape. In a broad glance, the company’s service offering is simple—3D printing. But the scale of how 3D printing can be utilized by businesses large and small in the Last Frontier is staggering.
Owner and COO Levi Basler founded ImagineItAlaska in December 2017, but his initial interest in 3D printing was as a hobby. “I bought a 3D printer from a local vendor, just a desktop one. Once I had the printer and I learned a little bit of the design program that came with it, I said, ‘Ok, now I have to design something for myself,’ which I then produced on my machine. Within a couple of hours, to be holding something in your hand that literally came from nothing—that got to me.”
He recognized the significant potential value that such a service could provide to the Alaska business community, specifically small/start-up businesses with limited budgets or established/larger businesses with specific, one-off needs. “We focus on low-run manufacturing for businesses or projects that may not be able to afford [or don’t need] a large-scale, 10,000-piece injection molding process,” Basler explains.
But even for those who would benefit from a project of that scale, local 3D printing can still be an asset. “Oftentimes, for a business looking at developing a new product or making changes to a current design that’s already being produced, what they’ll have to do is figure out the changes, submit a mold, which is really expensive, and then be sent a test piece, just to realize they have to change the mold again. With value added 3D printing, it’s rapid prototyping and design integration.”
3D printing locally has the added benefit of shortened timelines. There’s no need to travel outside of Alaska or wait for products to be mailed back and forth, especially for a business in Anchorage, where ImagineItAlaska is located. While the company generally schedules four days to print an item, for a client in dire need Basler says the company can potentially provide a turn-around of twenty-four hours, depending on the job.
Basler grew up in Willow “without power or running water for fourteen years” and is intimately aware of the challenges Alaska can present when it comes to access. While a location in Anchorage doesn’t solve all of those access challenges, it’s certainly more convenient than leaving the state to travel down south or even to international locations like China.
After recognizing the potential of 3D printing for business, Basler reached out to local Angel Investors, and after a three-year process, was able to open his doors.
A photopolymer printer, which produces an item by shining a laser through liquid plastic.
A Year of Operations
While the business started slow, he says it’s picked up and the year has gone well—well enough that he now has two employees: Mal Obeso, additive manufacturing design specialist (or CAD specialist, when he’s not feeling formal), and Connie King, who manages business development.
Obeso is also from Alaska and graduated in December 2018 from UAA with a degree in mechanical engineering. He shares Basler’s passion for 3D printing and has his own printer at home. He interacts with and advises clients to ensure that their 3D printed item is manufactured to fit their requirements—a process that can be more complicated than many may think.
One important decision is what material to use for the job. “Most people don’t really know the best material to use unless they have previous experience working with another 3D printer,” Obeso says.
One option is PLA, a corn-based plastic “generally regarded as food-safe,” Basler says, that can be used for something like a cookie cutter or a cup or a purely decorative item. He describes another option, ABS, as “your standard, non-potable-water type material that you probably already have in your house.” Legos, for example, are made of ABS, as are the keys on a keyboard. The material is in no way dangerous for people to interact with, it’s just not appropriate for any activity related to consumption. PLA and ABS are generally printed in a single color, and while it’s possible to switch between colors while printing, Basler says people generally opt to have the items painted after they’re printed if the project calls for intricate or extensive colors.
Full-color sandstone, on the other hand, is made of specialized gypsum, which most people may recognize as the material used for drywall. For 3D printing, full-color sandstone is colored by Inkjet color just like a printer, so the printing and coloring take place simultaneously. This process can produce an authentic-looking stone lamp, for example, or a statue with real-looking texture; however it’s one of the less sturdy materials and wouldn’t be appropriate for a mechanical application.
For those kinds of needs, ImagineIt-Alaska keeps photopolymer resins in stock, such as “when a client says they need something that’s really tough and durable, like two gears working together,” says Basler. Unlike ABS, PLA, and sandstone, which print from the bottom up, for photopolymer resin printing a laser is actually shone through liquid plastic and the product is printed from the top down. This is followed by a curing phase “that brings out the mechanical properties,” Basler explains.
ImagineItAlaska dove into 2019 with two exciting projects for Alaska Native organizations: a model of the proposed layout for Mertarvik and a model of a PASS, or Portable Alternative Sanitation System, for ANTHC. Both models, painted by a third party after they were printed, were displayed at AFN. “That was a great start to the year, really a cool project,” Basler says.
King is particularly bullish about applications for 3D printing in Alaska’s growing healthcare industry. For example, there are open source designs available online for items such as adaptive aids, which may help people with grip or other mobility issues to open jars, turn a key, or other daily actions.
Open source designs are “print-ready files that are available for people if they need them for personal use or for institutional use, but not for resale,” says King. “So someone couldn’t put their name on it and sell it in a clamshell as their product.”
But, if a healthcare provider wanted to give a device to all of their patients to help with say, turning on a light switch, ImagineItAlaska can legally produce those products. “It’s very doable for someone like Mal to resize them and make them fit, because the beauty of one-off or low-volume production is that it’s not cost prohibitive at all to customize.”
Other applications in healthcare include models of bones or organs as visual aids, a custom brace for an animal, or modeling crowns for a dental office.
ImagineItAlaska has an online interface where open source designs, or original designs, can be submitted. While the submission process is automated, the team takes the time to confer with every client to make sure the product is designed, and the best material is selected, to meet the client’s needs.
For ImagineItAlaska, at the forefront of this kind of manufacturing in Alaska, education has been essential. “We have focused a lot of our efforts on building a base of knowledge,” Basler says. “We want people to understand what 3D printing is and how it can be used. Then they can figure out their own ways to make it work for them, while knowing there’s someone local that can provide this service. 3D printing is here; it’s not something that’s five or ten years down the road, and it’s not something you have to travel out of the country to find. It’s here. It’s now.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.