Reaction Design Aims for Cleantech Boom with Combustion Simulation Software

The world of combustion science is much like fluid dynamics, an intense and ever-changing pattern of turbulence, a swirling river of fire and complex chemistry.

So it’s only apropos that San Diego’s Reaction Design, which seemed adrift for a decade or more, now finds itself at a powerful confluence of forces in combustion technology. Increasing environmental restrictions on greenhouse gases and fossil fuels—combined with surging advances in new types of fuels—are opening a huge cleantech opportunity for the software developer’s simulation technology, which models the gaseous chemical reactions that occur in turbines and combustion engines.

To CEO Bernie Rosenthal, the changes have come fast and furious since he joined Reaction Design in early 2005. “Our growth path is such that we could grow at 50 percent a year for the next few years, with no problem,” Rosenthal says. He declines to say just how much revenue the software company is generating, except that it is less than $10 million a year.

Rosenthal told me Reaction Design was founded roughly a decade earlier by David H. Klipstein, a former industrial chemical engineer, following the 1992 acquisition of his previous company, San Diego-based Biosym Technologies. Biosym had developed molecular simulation software that was used by materials and life sciences customers to model chemical reactions.

Simulation of NOx Reactions

Simulation of NOx Reactions

Klipstein, who holds a doctorate from MIT, founded Reaction Design to develop software licensed from New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratory. The U.S. government had developed the software to analyze the combustion of rocket fuels, and Klipstein saw the potential to help scientists understand other types of gaseous chemical reactions, especially how byproducts are created during combustion. Rosenthal described the software at that time as “crude academic code that was not very user-friendly.”

The code that evolved into Reaction Design’s “Chemkin” software was primarily designed to analyze combustion processes. But Rosenthal says the company also targeted the micro-electronics industry, which was using chemical vapor deposition techniques to apply thin films of materials on semiconductors.

According to Rosenthal, “the company itself meandered,” perhaps a result of targeting such wide-ranging industries. Reaction Design also considered different business models for generating revenue, and occasionally took on specialized tasks—such as helping the quasi-governmental air quality management district in Los Angeles analyze the formation of air pollutants in the region.

By the end of 2004, Reaction Design contacted Rosenthal, a co-founder of Tensilica, a Silicon Valley company that develops software used to design semiconductors. He says it was a time when new emission standards were turning up the heat on engine manufacturers and other customers.

Bernie Rosenthal

Bernie Rosenthal

Rosenthal, who joined the company as CEO in February, 2005, says he saw a widespread potential for applying Reaction Design’s simulation software to combustion systems design in traditional industries. (Klipstein remains on the company’s board of directors.)

“What I saw was the potential replication of the entire semiconductor software design industry” to the engineering design of internal combustion engines, gas turbines used to generate electricity, and even trash-to-energy plants, Rosenthal says. In the ensuing years, he says, customers began applying the software to other problems as well, such as simulating the combustion of advanced, coal-derived fuels and a host of new biofuels.

Despite a rapidly expanding cleantech market, Rosenthal says Reaction Design has worked to overcome design engineers’ disdain for computer modeling, as well as a longstanding preference among companies in the industry to build and test their own engine designs rather than relying on computer simulations in the development process. The company launched a new software product, called Energico, last year that targets the market for power-generating turbines and furnaces.

“The argument was that detailed [combustion] chemistry was too complex to model,” Rosenthal says. “We find we have to go down that path with the experimentalists, and show them we can do a good job of modeling what they’re seeing on the test floor. We were able to demonstrate to them that they could do a lot more innovation with our software, because what they’re really doing is running their experiments a lot faster.”

The 30-employee company has relied entirely on angel funding, of which it has collected somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, according to Rosenthal, who declined to be more specific.

“If you think about what’s going on in the energy side of the business today, we’re just focusing now these alternative fuels that have no history…things like second-generation biofuels, liquified coal fuels, and a variety of synthetic fuels,” Rosenthal says. As the multiplying variables complicate the task faced by design engineers, Rosenthal says Reaction Design’s advanced modeling software is a tool whose time has finally come.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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