Apogee of innovation
About six miles from New Kensington, where Alcoa Inc. built the foundation for its aluminum-making empire, a fledging firm is seeking to revolutionize the industry with a new aluminum melting process that significantly cuts energy costs.
"I feel in two years we will fundamentally change the aluminum industry," said C. Edward Eckert, president of Apogee Technology Inc., which operates out of a former foundry off Hulton Road in Plum. "It's big business," said Eckert, who learned about aluminum processes as an Alcoa manager of metal quality.
Eckert is promoting his company's isothermal melting process, which he says is analogous to "heating a cup of coffee with an overhead torch, as compared to placing a heating device into the cup to be in direct contact with the coffee."
High-powered heaters that convert electricity into heat are put into a sealed, box-like container, and placed in direct contact with the aluminum. The process uses about 30 percent of the energy of conventional natural-gas methods that heat the air and melter walls, along with the aluminum, Eckert said.
"Apogee's technology is more efficient and is expected to cost less and will require less floor space than conventional (melting) technology," said Edward J. Daniels, a researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, a government-operated engineering and research center in DuPage County, Ill.
The new metal-melting process earned Apogee Technology and its industrial partner, Aleris Rolled Products, of Uhrichsville, Ohio, a R&D 100 Award in October in the process technology category. The annual award, sponsored by R&D magazine of Rockway, N.J., recognizes the 100 most technologically significant new products and processes in applied research, according to the magazine.
While the magazine does not comment on why the Apogee's process won out over its competition, Jeannette Mallozzi, managing editor of R&D, said the contest requires the product be on the market the previous year.
Apogee's energy-saving process caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy's industrial technologies program, which provided a three-year, $3 million grant for a demonstration project in 2000. That was extended in 2004 with a $2.4 million grant for commercial development.
The firm, which Eckert founded 15 years ago, benefited from technical support from the University of Pittsburgh and Drexel University in Philadelphia, as well as two government-supported national research laboratories -- Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The Energy Department was interested in the isothermal melting because of the projected natural-gas savings, said Brad Ring, a field staff officer for aluminum development.
"It shows a lot just to be selected" for a grant, Ring said.
Apogee last year received an additional $18 million grant for integrating the melting process with an advanced delivery and dispensing system that will allow molten aluminum to be shipped over the road to aluminum casting plants. That is expected to save about 80 percent of the cost of re-melting aluminum, which is cast into products.
Apogee anticipates spending $4.5 million of the $18 million on a commercial prototype melter in use at Aleris's Uhrichsville aluminum plant. Aleris International Inc., parent firm of Aleris Rolled Products, declined to comment because of a pending merger, said spokeswoman Kim Pichanick.
The isothermal melting process will be put to the test at General Motors Corp., which has placed a $107,000 order to use the process in its Saginaw, Mich., powertrain metal casting operations, Eckert said.
The production demonstration program, a combined effort of the Department of Energy, Apogee and Aleris, will allow for energy-efficient melting at Aleris, transportation to the GM's Saginaw plant via electrically heated crucible trucks, and dispensing at the casting plant with a high-efficiency metals handling system, said Doris Powers Toney, a GM spokeswoman.
"The potential natural gas and electric savings are significant. GM has begun the initial energy audits and has installed the initial components in the Saginaw plant," Toney said. The installation of the equipment and the testing will continue over the next three years, she said.
While not commenting specifically on the isothermal melting process, cutting production costs is under constant study at Alcoa, the world's second largest aluminum producer, said spokesman Kevin Lowery. Twenty-five percent of the cost to produce aluminum is spent on energy, Lowery said.
"We are always working on these kinds of processes, both internally and externally," in ventures with other companies, Lowery said.
Because Apogee has 182 patents on the system, other companies can't usurp it, Eckert said.
Eckert believes that in some respects, the isothermal melting process is without competition. It is small enough to be loaded onto a trailer and transported to different plants, he said.
"If it can work for us, it can work for large companies," Eckert said.
R&D 100 Award winnersApogee Technology Inc.'s isothermal melting process joins a distinguished list of R&D magazine honorees. Others:
- Polacolor film in 1963
- Flashcube in 1965
- Automated teller machine in 1973
- Halogen lamp in 1974
- Fax machine in 1975
- Liquid crystal display in 1980
- Kodak Photo compact disc in 1991
- High-definition television in 1998
Source: R&D magazine.