Bureau of Reclamation


Rust Busters Challenge

Join the Resistance: Submit your rust busting breakthrough to extend the life of water infrastructure in the United States.

This challenge is closed


This challenge is closed



Water infrastructure in the United States is critical to the domestic economy, commerce, and resource management.  There are thousands of existing hydraulic steel structures (HSS) that require regular maintenance and upkeep. Original methods to protect HSS are disfavored or no longer used due to environmental and safety concerns.  Newer approaches to corrosion control suffer from higher costs, shorter service life, and reduced efficacy.  

In order to address rising maintenance costs and to advance the state of the art for corrosion control, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), is sponsoring this two phase Rust Busters Challenge.  This Challenge seeks to identify and develop new methods for corrosion control. The Challenge sponsors are vitally interested in completely new approaches that are outside of conventional thought processes for corrosion control that can be applied to existing structures in situ. There is also interest in advancing existing technologies that can significantly improve service life, reduce costs (through innovative application methods or use of new materials), or improve performance range (through additional features such as health monitoring or self-healing).

This Rust Busters Challenge offers the opportunity for the most compelling corrosion control approaches to be evaluated and field-tested by the Challenge sponsors.  In Phase 1, participants will submit a paper containing the proposed approach to corrosion control, its scientific rationale, and any supporting data. Up to 5 of the most compelling submissions will be selected as Phase 1 winners.  Only Phase 1 winners can participate in Phase 2, and each Phase 1 winner will receive up to $50,000 to help support Phase 2 efforts. During Phase 2, participants will demonstrate their technologies using test coupons supplied by Reclamation.  Test coupons and/or prototypes will be evaluated by Reclamation, and up to 3 final winners will share the final prize of $100,000. This Challenge has a total prize purse of $350,000 ($250,000 in Phase 1 and $100,000 in Phase 2). It offers a rare opportunity for Phase 2 participants to receive lab- and field-test data for their technologies and additional possibilities to continue working with Reclamation to further develop their technologies. 

Challenge structure overview:

Phase 1 

  • Open to everyone
  • Submissions must be received by January 16, 2020
  • Top 5 submissions selected to advance to Phase 2.  Winners each receive $50,000 award money and test coupons for Phase 2 (total of $250,000 awarded)

Phase 2

  • Only 5 Phase 1 winners are eligible to participate
  • Test coupons and/or prototypes must be received by November 6, 2020
  • Up to 3 winners will be selected and will share in a $100,000 final prize.

What You Can Do To Cause A Breakthrough

  • Click ACCEPT CHALLENGE above to sign up for the challenge, view the submission form, and get on our email list
  • Start a conversation in our Forum to join the conversation, ask questions or connect with other innovators.
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Technical Details

Reclamation is the largest provider of water in the country and the second largest producer of hydroelectric power.  The numerous HSS in their dams and power plants fall into two main types of structures gates and penstocks. Their local conditions are slightly different, and so the corrosion protection strategies differ too.  Gates may have significant ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, which can reduce the service life of corrosion protection measures, and they are subject to impacts from objects (such as debris or ice) and abrasion from particulates in the water.  Penstocks experience high water pressures and must also withstand abrasion.For the purposes of this competition, the primary interest for corrosion protection of penstocks is on interior surfaces, so UV exposure is not an issue.  These structures are operated in freshwater. 

Currently, corrosion control for HSS falls into 2 main categories: protective coatings and cathodic protection.  Protective coatings are the first line of defense against the corrosion of steel structures. Coal tar enamel and solution vinyl coatings provide superior protection for hydraulic structures.  But their use is limited due to health, safety, and environmental concerns.  Cathodic protection systems can be used in conjunction with coatings. These systems prevent corrosion by making the steel structure a cathode in an electrochemical circuit. Cathodic protection works for gates only while they are in the water and may not provide adequate protection in the high-flow conditions of penstocks. 

Much of the cost and complexity for maintenance of existing HSS is due to the application process itself.  To improve safety and reduce risks to human operators, all HSS are “dewatered” during maintenance.  For penstocks, this means the pipes are emptied of water.  For gates, the water surrounding them is drained away.  This dewatered state can be maintained for up to several weeks, which translates to impeded commerce through locks and dams and for power plants as much as $500,000/day in lost power generation revenue.Application/maintenance processes that can minimize down time, reduce or eliminate direct human operation, or otherwise lower cost and/or frequency (such as extended service life) are all of great interest.


To be competitive, new corrosion protection approaches should:

  • Be applicable to either existing penstocks or gates in situ, (structures which have complex and irregular geometries - including multiple edges, rivets, and welds)
  • Offer durability to abrasion and impacts that meets or exceeds current protection systems
  • Use materials and/or techniques that are safe for humans to use
  • Provide a service life of 50+ years (at a cost of approximately $50/ft2/50 yrs) from time of application to uncorroded mild steel
  • Limit regular maintenance requirements such that the cost and frequency of such maintenance is on par with or less than current maintenance costs (approximately $10/ft2/15 yrs)


Additionally, ideal technologies will:

  • Be applicable to all types of HSS
  • Be resistant to UV exposure
  • Use materials and/or techniques that are environmentally friendly
  • Offer additional features, such as self-healing, automation in application, and/or health monitoring


Phase 1

Phase 1 is open to everyone.  Participants have until January 16, 2020 to submit their responses.  Although potential solutions at any stage of technical maturity can be submitted, be aware that Phase 1 participants must be able to demonstrate and/or prototype their technologies within the 6 month Phase 2 development window.  Well-reasoned scientific rationale and supporting preliminary data are important components for strong Phase 1 submissions.  Whether you are proposing a novel pathway for corrosion control, or a new method of applying an existing protective material, your submission should persuade Reclamation not only of the fitness of your approach but also of the ability of you and your team to deliver appropriate materials for evaluation at the end of the Phase 2 development period. 

The Evaluation Panel will review all Phase 1 submissions and select up to 5 of the most compelling entries as Phase 1 winners.  Entries will be reviewed against the Evaluation Criteria listed below.Winners will be announced on March 03, 2020.  These winners will each receive $50,000 award money to support their development and prototyping work. 


Evaluation criteria for Phase 1 submissions

General criteria:

  • Strength of proposed approach
    • Soundness of reasoning
    • Preliminary data, or rigor of scientific rationale in the absence of data
    • Clarity of discussion
  • Completeness of response

Corrosion performance, Durability, and Life cycle cost:

  • Meet or exceed the corrosion rate performance benchmark of less than 0.1 mils per year (mpy) uniform metal thickness loss
  • Ability to withstand impacts and abrasion from objects and sediment in fast flowing water
  • Provide service life of 50+ years (at an approximate cost of $50/ft2/50 yrs)
  • Require regular maintenance such that the cost and frequency of such maintenance is on par with or less than current maintenance costs (which are on the order of $10/ft2/15 yrs)


  • Technical maturity (likelihood that proposed approach can be demonstrable with 6 months’ effort)
  • Ability to apply to existing structures in situ
  • Application of technology can be achieved under standard maintenance conditions


  • Level of improvement - incremental vs step change
  • How novel is it - completely new idea vs new way to achieve known end

Please see the evaluation rubric for Phase 1 here.


Phase 2

Only winners of Phase 1 can participate in Phase 2.  Phase 2 participants will each receive $35,000 and test coupons at the start of the Phase 2 development period.  There will be 4 types of test coupons:

  • Small flat, rectangular pieces (3x6x1/8 inch each) - 40 will be provided, 20 must be returned,
  • 4 inch disks - 10 will be provided, 5 must be returned,
  • 11 inch disks - 5 will be provided, 3 must be returned,
  • 2 larger pieces with complex geometry, including steel plates with edges, corner welds, bolts, and other features of interest will also be provided, both of which must be returned for field evaluations.

Test coupons that are returned to Reclamation must have all surfaces treated, with special attention to corners and edges. It is understood that returned coupons should be treated in a manner that is demonstrative of the proposed approach.  For example, if you are proposing a novel automated device to apply a known protective coating, then the submitted test coupons must be coated using said device.Similarly, if you are proposing a surface treatment that uses an innovative application method, then the surface modification of the submitted test coupons must occur as a result of this application method.

A mutually agreed upon milestone will be separately established with each group when the test coupons are initially provided.  Mid-way through the Phase 2 development period, around the week of June 22, 2020, each team will check in with Reclamation to discuss progress towards this milestone.  This check-in will consist of a video or web conference between each Phase 2 participating group and Reclamation.  In addition to progress towards the milestone, Reclamation will be reviewing progress against the project plan proposed in the Phase 1 submission.During the check-in, each group and Reclamation will agree upon the additional Phase 2 deliverables required beyond the treated test coupons. Depending on the proposed approach, groups proposing new devices and/or application methods may be additionally required to provide a safety data sheet, product application guide, live demonstration or said device itself. After successfully completing the check-in, Phase 2 participants will then each receive an additional $15,000 to help complete their development work. 

All test coupons and prototypes must be received by Reclamation by close of business on September 11, 2020.   All received material will undergo testing and evaluation through December 3, 2021.On December 15, 2021 the winner(s) will be announced.  The final prize purse of $100,000 in award money will be shared among the winners.Winners will have their work presented by Reclamation at a leading corrosion conference, such as NACE Corrosion or the SSPC’s Coatings+, and may have the opportunity to further develop and field test their approaches in partnership with an existing Reclamation or USACE project.  Additionally, after the Phase 2 winners have been announced, all participants will receive testing and evaluation results for their respective submissions.

It is anticipated that Phase 1 winners will represent a wide range of technologies.  This means that specific testing may vary from sample to sample during the Phase 2 evaluation process.  However, all samples will undergo a core set of testing to ensure that the primary goals for corrosion protection are being met.  These core tests address:

  • Corrosion protection
  • Durability and service life
  • Feasibility

Additional testing and evaluation could address issues such as:

  • Health and environmental safety concerns for new materials
  • Reliability and robustness of new application devices
  • Feasibility of field adoption for radically new approaches

Evaluation of laboratory and field testing results for Phase 2 submissions will be performed by the same evaluation panel that reviewed Phase 1 submissions and will be augmented with feedback from laboratory and field personnel. Please see the evaluation rubric for Phase 2 here


Best Lab Performance Award

All Phase 2 participants who submit their test coupons and other Phase 2 deliverables by the Sept 2020 deadline are eligible to be considered for this award.  This award is a recognition for the best overall laboratory testing performance.  Although field testing extends for the entire length Phase 2 testing and evaluation period, the laboratory testing generally takes 6 months.  In March 2021, after the testing and evaluation of results is complete, Reclamation will announce which team’s approach showed the highest laboratory performance.  In addition to recognition of their technology’s achievement, the winning team’s results will be presented by Reclamation at a corrosion conference. 

Laboratory performance is only one component of a given technology’s evaluation.  Other issues that have been discussed previously, such as durability, cost, and feasibility, are also important and contribute strongly to Reclamation’s overall evaluation.  Therefore, winning this award does not affect any other team’s ability to win the Rust Busters Challenge overall.


Evaluation Panel

For this Challenge, Reclamation has assembled a panel of subject matter experts to serve as an evaluation panel to read, review, and evaluate all submissions for both Phase 1 and Phase 2.  These panel members provide expertise in a wide range of relevant subjects, including but not limited to corrosion control, HSS, testing and analysis, and water infrastructure.

The panel will score and rank all submissions using the respective scorecard for the appropriate Phase.  All decisions are final.



Participation Eligibility:

The Rust Busters Challenge is open to individuals, age 18 or older. Individual competitors and teams may originate from any country, as long as United States federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (see:


The following restrictions apply to the Challenge:(1) Federal employees acting within the scope of their employment are not eligible to participate; (2) Federal employees acting outside the scope of their employment should consult their ethics advisor before participating in the Challenge; (3) All employees of the Government, [contractor(s)], Challenge sponsors, and other individual or entity associated with the development or administration of the Challenge, as well as their family members (i.e., spouse, children, parents, siblings, other dependents) and persons living in the same household whether or not related, are not eligible to participate; (4) Contractors receiving Government funding for the same or similar projects, along with their employees, are not eligible to participate in the Challenge.

Submissions must be made in English. All challenge-related communication will be in English.

To be eligible to compete, you must comply with all the terms of the challenge as defined in the Challenge-Specific Agreement, which will be made available upon registration.


Registration and Submissions:

Submissions must be made online (only), via upload to the website, on or before the submission deadline. All uploads must be in PDF format. No late submissions will be accepted.


Intellectual Property Rights:

Innovators who are awarded a prize for their submission must agree to grant the US Government an irrevocable, royalty free, perpetual, sublicensable, transferable, and worldwide license to use and permit others to use all or any part of the submission including, without limitation, the right to make, have made, sell, offer for sale, use, rent, lease, import, copy, prepare derivative works, publicly display, publicly perform, and distribute all or any part of such submission, modifications, or combinations thereof and to sublicense (directly or indirectly through multiple tiers) or transfer any and all such rights.


Additional Information

  • By participating in the challenge, each competitor agrees to submit only their original idea. Any indication of "copying" amongst competitors is grounds for disqualification.
  • All applications will go through a process of due diligence; any application found to be misrepresentative, plagiarized, or sharing an idea that is not their own will be automatically disqualified.
  • All ineligible applicants will be automatically removed from the competition with no recourse or reimbursement.
  • No purchase or payment of any kind is necessary to enter or win the competition.
  • Void wherever restricted or prohibited by law.


Additional Resources List:


Challenge Updates

Couldn't make yesterday's winners' webinar? Worry not!

March 4, 2022, 11:56 a.m. PST by Despina Maliaka

Dear Innovators,

If you were unable to attend yesterday's winners' webinar, you are now able to watch what you missed using the link below:



Register now for the Rust Busters Winners Webinar

Feb. 25, 2022, 5:53 p.m. PST by Kyla Jeffrey

We know you’re excited to see who the winners are in the Rust Busters Challenge, and we want to give you the opportunity to hear from them directly when we host the winners’ webinar on March 3rd.

You’ll get to learn more about the winning solutions, how they were developed and the teams who submitted them. 

The discussion will be moderated by HeroX and include panelists:

  • Bobbi Jo Merten, Bureau of Reclamation
  • Dale Lentz, Bureau of Reclamation
  • The Phase 2 Winning Teams!

Save your virtual seat at the webinar by registering here. Make sure to register early since space is limited.

Rust Busters Phase 2 Winners Announcement

Feb. 15, 2022, 3:09 p.m. PST by Kyla Jeffrey

We are thrilled to announce the winners of Phase 2 in the Rust Busters Challenge!

The Rust Busters prize competition tasked innovators from around the world to propose solutions to extend the life of water infrastructure in the United States. Phase 1 of the competition received 35 white paper submissions and awarded five teams $50,000 to develop their approach and offered the opportunity for lab and field-testing by the Bureau of Reclamation and its partner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

We are thrilled to announce the Phase 2 winners:

  • High Barrier Controlled Release Rustbuster Coating, $65,000: the solution is a modified polysulfide coating with organometallo-phosphato polymer to improve barrier protection.
  • Coal Tar Enamel Spray, $35,000: the solution provides the equipment and method for robotic spray application of coal tar enamel so that workers need not be present in the application environment.

The results of the laboratory testing were published in a December 2021 report which can be viewed here.

Thank you to everyone who submitted and followed the challenge. We would like to extend a special thanks to our judging panel and reservoir partners who supported the evaluation of the Phase 2 winners.

Best Lab Performance Award

Dec. 13, 2021, 5:17 p.m. PST by Kyla Jeffrey

Phase 2 laboratory testing is complete on the five submitted prototypes for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rust Busters prize competition.  The contest sought ideas to extend the life of water infrastructure by reducing corrosion, in particular rust, of its steel structures.  The winner of the Best Lab Performance Award goes to Micheal Ahimbisibwe and Jeremy Martinez’s for robotic spray application of coal tar enamel.  See the full report here.

Field evaluation of the prototypes at Parker Dam, California, remains underway.  A judging panel will select the final winners in February 2022 based on laboratory and field results, combined with an assessment of innovation, cost, and robustness.  The Phase 2 prize purse of up to $100,000 in award money will be shared among the final winners.

Phase 1 Winners Announced!

March 3, 2020, 2 p.m. PST by Kyla Jeffrey

We are thrilled to announce the winners of Phase 1 in the Rust Busters Challenge!

Phase 1 of the Rust Busters Challenge tasked innovators from around the world to propose paper solutions to extend the life of water infrastructure in the United States. We received 35 submissions from 13 different countries. The judging panel was faced with the difficult decision of selecting five submissions to proceed to Phase 2.


And the winners are…

Barret Schlegelmilch: CRUST - Ceramic Rust Universal Sealant Technology

John Newport: High Barrier Controlled Release Rustbuster Coating

Martin Voorma: E-paint, a new method for kathodic protection

Mathew Clancy: Novel Sol Gel for Advanced Corrosion Protection

Micheal Ahimbisibwe and Jeremy Martinez: COAL TAR ENAMEL SPRAY


Phase 2 participants will each receive $35,000 and test coupons at the start of the Phase 2 development period. After successfully completing a mid-point check-in, Phase 2 participants will then each receive an additional $15,000 to help complete their development work. After the 6-month development period, Phase 2 participants will return their test coupons and prototypes to Reclamation where they will undergo laboratory and field testing. The final prize purse of up to $100,000 in award money will be shared among the winner(s). 

Thank you to everyone who submitted and followed the challenge, we could not have done it without you. We would also like to send a special thank you to our expert reviewers whose feedback was invaluable in selecting the winners of the challenge.

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