Keeping cooling towers clean

Insatiable curiosity and a desire to do things better led to biocide breakthrough for Chris Baron and Ashland Water Technologies

Chris Baron has always thought of himself as a problem-solver.

“It gives me great satisfaction to know that I have helped someone overcome an obstacle,” says Baron, a microbiological control project manager for Ashland Water Technologies in Wilmington, Del. “As a kid, I took great pleasure in figuring out how things work and then sharing that knowledge with others.”

In fact, he recalls with a smile, he was forbidden by his parents from taking things apart around the house because, as he soon learned, “Sometimes they don’t always go back together again.”

That curiosity ultimately led him from the family farm in Granville, Ill., to a degree in chemistry and leadership in his field at the Ashland Water Technologies lab in Wilmington, Del. It even feeds into what he reads now in his leisure time.

Taking advantage of Success

“I recently read ‘The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t),’ which is a process of reevaluating who was a good U.S. president and who wasn’t,” he says. “It’s what we do here at Ashland. We find value where people haven’t seen it before. We’re redefining, looking harder, really pushing to see what makes a big value proposition.”

That drive led Baron to develop new applications for a novel biocidal technology that was originally marketed to the pulp and paper industry as a way of keeping equipment clean.

“If you went to a paper mill 20 years ago, you may have used unique words to describe the smell from all of the rotting fiber,” he says. Today that stench is gone, wiped out by a patented biocide that revolutionized the way paper machines are cleaned. Our product, Spectrum™ XD3899 microbiocide, is now found in paper factories around the world.

Microbes can cause macro expenses 

Studies show more than $275 billion in direct costs of corrosion damage and containment in the United States, and cooling towers are no exception. Without treatment, the useable life of a system can drop from roughly 20 years to about five, not to mention downtime to replace damaged parts.

Baron, who enjoys collecting stamps and listening to old country music and classic rock groups like Rush, figured out a way to apply similar technology to a different market. He knew that industrial customers were constantly struggling to keep their cooling towers clean. They faced a conundrum of sorts in their war against microbes that cause system fouling and promote corrosion. Adding enough chemicals to limit the growth of these microbes can be expensive using conventional biocides. While backing off on the use of these biocides can save money, decreasing the biocide feed allows the microbes to flourish, which can create a corrosive environment that can shorten the life of cooling tower components.

“That’s not cost effective,” he explains. “It was my belief that we could use this for cooling tower microbial control. I was allowed to run with the technology and collect the data to support my belief that it was going to make a tremendous impact on cooling towers.”

That data showed that not only did the biocide work, but that it helped customers save money too. That’s because Biosperse™ XD3899 microbiocide results in more effective cooling, especially during warm weather, when microbes can thrive and potentially wreak all kinds of havoc. Baron compares it to heat stroke in a human, when internal systems shut down due to overheating. When manufacturing equipment is kept properly cooled, it usually operates more efficiently.

“It changes the way you control corrosion and microbial issues in cooling towers,” he says, noting that one of Ashland’s power plant customers was able to increase its power production by more than 5 percent, generating an extra $1 million of electricity. “This is almost unprecedented in terms of return on investment.”

That’s exactly the sort of inquiry and result that makes Baron look forward to going to the lab or to a customer’s location.

The value of helping

“It’s easy to get very passionate about your job when you know you’re making a difference; when you know you’re helping that customer solve a problem that they maybe didn’t know was there, or maybe they did, but didn’t quite understand,” he says.

What he doesn’t care for are excuses, such as, “We’ve always done it this way.”

How microbes maraud

Microbes cause corrosion when they attach themselves to a metal surface and form a biofilm on that surface. Inside the biofilm, the microbes produce acid that corrodes the metal substrate. Additionally, the biofilm acts as a highly effective insulator, which reduces cooling efficiency in the heat exchangers and on the cooling tower.

“That doesn’t mean things weren’t done correctly in the past. Heavens, we’re still using the same battery technology that Henry Ford put in his first car. But we can still look for new and better ways to do things. You don’t have to accept the way things are done just because it’s the way they’ve always been done,” he adds.

Despite his success, Baron is quick to give credit to others.

“In science, it’s quite well known that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “People who came before me have taught me a lot about science in general and microbial control in specific. I’m proud to call them colleagues and mentors, and to have them on the team that I work with.”

That team is busy working on a new biocidal technology right now, but Baron can say only, “It could easily prove to be even more advantageous for customers than our XD3899 technology.”

“Change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing,” he says, admitting he gets excited by stepping back from a problem to figure out if there’s a better way to attack it.

“It’s easy to get passionate about your job when you know you are making a difference, helping a customer solve their problems,” he says.

About Chris Baron

He grew up on the northern plains of Illinois, in Granville, a community of 1,200. Baron earned his bachelor’s degree in 1988 from the University of Illinois-Urbana, where his thesis project explored organic synthesis strategies for chiral stationary phases in high-performance liquid chromatography. After starting his career as a bench chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, he returned to school, attending Purdue University to study the kinetics of bromamines and bromochloramines. He left Purdue in 1998 to join Ashland as supervisor of the company’s inorganic analytical lab, eventually expanding his responsibility by reopening the company’s corrosion and compatibility lab. This led to his current position with Ashland Water Technologies' microbiological control applications team and product launch team.

Chris with his wife Ivette M. Baron and daughter Ivette Mylette Planell

Professional Affiliations

  • ASM International
  • Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI)
  • Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity

Honors and Awards

  • Pinncale Award, Ashland Inc., January 2011
  • Outstanding Young Member, Brandywine Valley Chapter of ASM, 2007
  • William F. Epple Teaching Award, Purdue University, Fall 1993

Select Publications and Presentations

  • "Novel Biocide Program Maintains Condenser Cleanliness for Power Plant,” presented at the Electric Utility Chemical Workshop, Champaign, Ill., June 12, 2013.
  • “Novel Microbiocide Maximizes Cooling System Performance in Fuel Ethanol Plants,” presented at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop, St. Louis, June 11, 2013.
  • “Biocides in White Water Systems,” presented at the TAPPI Nonwovens Conference, Naples, Fla., May 10, 2012.
  • "Novel, Mild Oxidant Improves Cooling Water Treatment Performance Relative to Traditional Oxidizers," CTI Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2012, pages 26-35.
  • "Bromochloramine and Dibromochloramine Equilibrium and Kinetics,” presented at the 211th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Division of Inorganic Chemistry, New Orleans, Mar. 26, 1996.2
  • "Drug Delivery via Ion Exchange across a Micromembrane,” Jenke, D. R.; Baron, C. D.; Mayers, C. L., Pharmaceutical Research, 1992, 9(12), 1654-1658.
  • "Determination of the Percent Cross-linking in Diaspirin-Cross-linked Hemoglobin (DCLHb) Using Size-Exclusion Chromatography,” presented at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Annual Meeting, Chicago, Nov. 14, 1990.