Back in the 1960s, the term "solid state" went from abstruse scientific term to consumer household word in a matter of months.
Even those who hadn't a clue as to what the words meant, knew they would never again buy any electronic product containing vacuum tubes - or endure the endless trips to the shop or visits from the repairman that went with them.Solid state electronics and the technologies that have evolved from it have changed the way we live.
Ceramatec Inc. is a Salt Lake-based company involved in research, development and production of high-tech ceramics used in a variety of industrial and medical products and processes that Ashok Joshi, senior vice president of technology, describes as "solid state electrochemistry."
While Joshi makes no claim that the company's breakthroughs will have the immediate impact on consumers that solid state electronics did, the technology of ceramic materials conducting electrically charged atoms or molecules known as ions (much like copper wire conducts electrons) has enormous potential for medical products, electrical generation, pollution controls and other uses.
Here's the "vision" that Ceramatec President Petter Oygarden and his new management team - formed in January - have for their company:
"Ceramatec will, by the year 2000, be the pre-eminent global company recognized for its revolutionary contributions to improving the environment and the quality of human life through the use of ionic technologies."
It's an ambitious goal, but with 120 employees and $12 million in annual revenues, Ceramatec has already made the difficult leap from a pure research and development company to a commercial company with viable products on the market.
"We will not be content to be merely an R&D facility," said Oygarden, who headed a management reorganization last month. Along with shaking up top management, Oygarden implemented a "change process" consisting of reviewing the company's history, identifying its strengths and weaknesses, creating a plan to "point us in the right direction" and then "hiring the right executives and scientists to get us there."
Over its 15-year history, Ceramatec has worked with a variety of governmental agencies and corporate partners to identify and develop potential applications of ionic technologies.
One of its first commercial products was an oxygen analyzer for users of ultra-pure gases in the $50 billion semiconductor industry.
As is often the case with cutting-edge-technology companies, Ceramatec's roots are in the university laboratory. Founded in 1976 at the University of Utah by two professors, Ron Gordon and Al Sossin (neither of whom is now connected with the company), Ceramatec was originally contracted to develop sodium ion electrolytes for sodium-sulfur batteries and the sodium heat engine.
By 1981, the company had begun to diversify by developing other ion conducting electrolytes for industrial applications. In 1985 it moved its research and production facilities to a 75,000-square-foot building at 2425 South 900 West.
In 1988 Ceramatec formed the Cerion Division to focus development and marketing of oxygen sensors and analyzers, oxygen pumps and compressors, sodium analyzers and ion-selective sensors.
In 1982, Elkem, a Norwegian group of materials companies based in Oslo, had acquired a 10-percent interest in Ceramatec. Elkem gradually increased its ownership of Ceramatec, culminating with total acquisition of the company in 1989.
Elkem is a publicly held company whose stock is traded only in Europe. Founded in 1904, it has $1.5 billion in annual sales generated by 7,500 employees in 25 plants located in 11 countries.
ELkem has said it acquired Ceramatec with the belief that the Utah firm will help lead its worldwide group of companies into the 21st century with new advances in electrochemistry.
A Norwegian national formerly employed directly by Elkem, Oygarden took the helm of Ceramatec after the 1989 acquisition. He said the company's philosophy is simple: "Solving problems is the justification for technology. At Ceramatec, we focus on our customer's problems . . . the combination of our human resources and technology provides the tools."
Before Oygarden, Ceramatec had never made money. Now it does - not a lot, but that will change. "We're still more R&D than production, but our philosophy as we grow is for more commercialization of products." Oygarden said.
Ceramatec is basically a "green" company as we have come to know the word in the 1990s. Most of its technologies and products are designed to:
- Conserve vital resources.
- Recover and recycle commercially valuable chemicals and prevent effluent chemicals dumping.
An example is the salt cake byproduct of pulp mills that is often simply dumped into a nearby river. Ceramatec is working on technology that would allow the salt cake to be broken down into its original chemical elements and recycled through the mill.
- Monitor and control various processes.
- Cleanly and efficiently produce energy and chemicals.
Oygarden notes that Ceramatec's work is not a crowded field. "We are one of the few companies in the world looking for new ways to capitalize on ionic technologies," he said.
Most of Ceramatec's work and its initial products utilize high-tech ceramics to capture, transport or monitor electrically charged atoms or molecules, known as ions. Most car batteries, for example, employ this principle, but a car battery uses volatile liquids. Ceramatec's "solid state" materials are dry and involve no moving parts.
In addition to devices that measure pollutants in air or liquids, Ceramatec is working on technology to drastically lower air pollutants emitted by internal combustion engines. The company currently has a contract with Cummins Engine Co., Columbus, Ind., to significantly reduce the nitrous oxide emitted by truck diesel engines by turning it into oxygen.
This technology has a potential for all internal combustion engines, but the need to reduce emissions of diesels is critical, said Oygarden.
Other Ceramatec technologies in the energy field involve a project with The Gas Research Institute to generate electricity from natural gas in a process said to be 80 percent to 85 percent efficient (compared with the current 50 percent efficiency of today's gas turbines).
While the technology is not yet viable on a large scale, Oygarden believes individual office buildings, hotels, restaurants and other commercial operations could benefit from having their own, natural-gas-fueled electrical power generator.
All of this gives Oygarden confidence in his "vision" for the company as stated above.
"Ceramatec can develop into a major player in this industry with five to seven new products every year. And while we still need outside capital to grow, we are in the black and expect to stay there."