College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Research project paves the way for graduate students’ startup business

The old saying discusses “where the rubber meets the road” in terms of success of a plan or idea. And where the rubber literally meets the road on asphalt surfaces, new life for those surfaces is being created with work of a group of Iowa State University chemical and biological engineering graduate students and researchers who have come together to form a promising startup business. 

Invigorate Rejuvenator™ is a product developed by SoyLei Innovations™, a business headed by Nacu Hernandez, who received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Iowa State in 2012. He’s joined by current department graduate students Austin Hohmann and Baker Kuehl and research scientist Michael Forrester (Ph.D. chemical engineering, Iowa State University, 2018) in their mission to improve the asphalt pavements you walk and drive on – not by promoting the expensive process of laying new asphalt, but how to prolong the life of existing asphalt.  

All the members of the group participated in graduate-level work at Iowa State in the research group of Mary Jane Skogen Hagenson and Randy L. Hagenson Professor Eric Cochran. He, along with Gerald and Audrey Olson Professor R. Christopher Williams of ISU’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, are advisors to the startup. 

“Our technology is about applying chemically modified soybean oil to old asphalt,” says Hernandez.  

It’s done through polymer science, and how their soy-based product impacts the old asphalt molecules found in recycled asphalt pavements. It’s not just a short-term change that is found in many products. “There’s a lot of ‘snake oil’ out there when it comes to asphalt rejuvenators,” says Hohmann. “Invigorate was specially formulated to react at the molecular level and attack and rejuvenate old, worn-out asphalt materials.” 

The use of soybean-based products in this realm is not new. But how Invigorate does it is. “This all came about by accident, with a misunderstanding during a lab experiment,” says Hernandez. Hohmann explains, “I was giving out some instructions to some students on how to perform an experiment within the lab. I told one person to try one process and another person another process. One of them did only part of the process, but it unexpectedly gave us a good result we weren’t expecting.” 

Starting with small batches produced in Iowa State University labs, the group is now working with a company in Indiana to produce commercial quantities of their material. Testing has been carried out at 15 different sites around the U.S. Many sales have been made, with many more expected, and a new phase of the businesses is in the works.