Helix Steel hopes to find a silver lining in what’s become a growing infrastructure crisis in the state of Michigan.
The company, which manufactures its “Twisted Steel Micro Rebar” product in Grand Rapids, is marketing a cutting edge new concrete reinforcement technology that promises to result in a more durable material for roadways and bridges.
When used with ordinary concrete — a mixture of cement, gravel, sand and water — the twisted, screw-like shape of Helix’s product provides resistance to cracking. Since the tiny steel pieces are added into the mixture itself, they ultimately allow the structure to carry heavier loads and withstand the Midwest freeze-thaw cycle, according to Helix Steel founder and CTO Luke Pinkerton.
“It’s providing reinforcement throughout the concrete, not just in the locations where the rebar is,” he said. “Much like a screw works better than a nail when you pound it into a piece of wood, you mix this into the concrete, and that threading that you get from that twisted shape locks the product into the concrete.”
Helix’s patented technology has been in high demand amid a renewed focus on critical infrastructure, according to Pinkerton, who says he’s been in talks about upcoming projects with the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The sorry state of Michigan’s infrastructure formed a key part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s platform and signature “fix the damn roads” campaign slogan. Whitmer continues to push a budget plan with a 45-cent gas tax increase to bring in an additional $2.5 billion in infrastructure funding for repair and upkeep.
A House Republican plan unveiled last month would shift a chunk of the state’s existing sales tax from schools and municipalities to cover road construction.
The need for funding is clear: One in 10 of the state’s bridges are rated poor or lower, according to data from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
Pinkerton at Helix Steel sees that growing need in Michigan and nationwide as providing an opportunity for his company, which is headquartered in Ann Arbor. The needs also have focused more attention on finding ways to build better and longer-lasting infrastructure.
“There’s a lot of work being done that’s funded by the EPA. That funding requires U.S.-made products and we can provide that from right here in Grand Rapids,” he said.
The technology used in Helix Steel’s products is an outcome of the tech transfer program at the University of Michigan. Through the program, the university encourages the commercialization of university research through existing businesses or startups like Helix Steel. While earning a master’s degree at the university, Pinkerton helped develop the first machine to manufacture the twisted micro rebar.
“After I finished my degree and left the university, I worked for a few years, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” he said.
He decided to spend more of his time between 2002 and 2004 developing a faster manufacturing method. Then, the newly-founded Helix Steel received a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to start production.
“Then we had to build a market for it,” Pinkerton said.
The company’s big break came when an evaluation used by building code officials verified that the twisted micro rebar is the only product of its kind in compliance with code requirements to act as a full replacement for traditional reinforced concrete.
“It really started to take off and we just kept growing organically,” Pinkerton said. “One of the things that I’ve been proud of is that we built this meat and potatoes manufacturing business in Michigan and continued to grow and thrive even as all these businesses were leaving the state.”
Innovation in reinforced concrete has been slow-moving since the building material took the world by storm a century ago. However, the quest for new concrete solutions at the University of Michigan didn’t end with Pinkerton.
At the request of MDOT, the university has been developing stronger and more durable concrete — known as ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC) — with steel “fibers” and has even offered a new non-proprietary concrete formula free of charge to approved projects. The mixture was used on one bridge in Michigan’s St. Clair County.
Working with the Farmington Hills-based American Concrete Institute, Pinkerton is pushing to develop new “performance-based design” allowances in building codes.
“There are all kinds of stuff out there that wasn’t around 20 or 30 years ago when some of these code provisions were developed,” he said. “We give up on concrete and assume that it is brittle and it is going to crack, but with the advancement of nanotechnology and advanced materials, there could be ways to make it better.”
The testing would enable changes to concrete mixtures to be demonstrated through testing, as opposed to code approval that is based on a requirement for steel reinforcement, and inspire the market to develop better materials, he said.
“I’m trying to encourage the code community to provide a pathway that would encourage the market to develop and innovate at a faster rate, but that’s kind of a tough thing for the construction business,” he said. “We’re starting to sort of cross that chasm from startup into the generally accepted market, but that trajectory isn’t particularly fast in construction.”
In the meantime, engineers and tech firms in Silicon Valley have been tinkering with concrete mixes, according to Pinkerton. UHPC has been tested with fibers varying from polyester to fiberglass, yet steel fibers have still delivered the greatest gains in strength. Some scientists are even working to manipulate concrete into a more environmentally conscious material by adding graphene, a form of carbon that is the basic structural element of graphite and charcoal.
Pinkerton hopes that the building industry in Michigan will use this opportunity to work together and take ownership of the effort to recast the world’s most-used building material.
“I think we need to be leaders,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of manufacturing know-how in the state, but we need to encourage leadership on the engineering side and the innovation side, too.”