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Alcoa: Stronger aluminum to make mobile devices thinner, lighter

| Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, 12:27 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dis
Leighton Cooper analyzes items made using Alcoa’s ColorKast technology, including enclosures for tablets, smartphones and camera tops, in the Alcoa Technical Center laboratory in Lower Burrell.

Smartphones and tablets are becoming thinner and lighter, and Alcoa Inc. on Friday introduced technology to make them stronger, using aerospace-grade aluminum with clear and color-anodized finishes.

High-strength alloys used in the aerospace and defense industries could reduce the thickness and weight of a device by more than 50 percent, Alcoa said.

“Consumer electronics makers had been exploring ways to create beautiful anodized finishes on aerospace-grade aluminum alloys because they are among the strongest, yet lightest, metals available,” said Ray Kilmer, Alcoa's chief technology officer.

Kilmer said Alcoa's technology, called ProStrength, produces the metallic look and feel that consumers prefer. High-strength, aerospace aluminum allows manufacturers to produce thinner, lighter and more durable exteriors.

By comparison, low- to medium-strength aluminum achieves the right finish, but the trend to thinner, stronger devices required aerospace-grade material.

Device size, design and look are important factors for people buying electronics, according to a survey by Accenture, which found that more than 50 percent of consumers look at those features.

Leighton Cooper, director of technology at Alcoa Technical Center in Upper Burrell, said the company worked with electronics companies and designers to enable the use of aluminum.

The technology was developed at the center, where the company developed another technology, ColorKast, used by Samsung to produce color-anodizable die-cast components on its NX210 digital camera. Other manufacturers are preparing to apply this technology, Alcoa said.

Kilmer has said his strategy for the center, which employs 600, is to work with customers and make it financially independent, helping to justify the company's investment in research that can take years to pay off.

Kilmer said he wants to increase annual revenue from licensing technology from about $5 million to $50 million by 2015, and $200 million by 2020.

On Tuesday, Alcoa agreed to sell wastewater treatment systems that use a technology developed at the tech center.

The system mimics natural wetlands, using 40 percent less energy and with 60 percent lower operating costs than traditional systems. It does not use chemicals or emit odors, Alcoa said. It can treat both municipal and industrial wastewater.

Bauer Resources GmbH will use Alcoa's technology and sell systems worldwide. Alcoa will receive royalties for the technology.

To get more aluminum into automobiles, Alcoa is licensing a pre-treatment coating called Alcoa 951 that makes aluminum stick to other materials.

Kilmer said Alcoa chose to license the 951 technology so all auto companies can move to aluminum, rather than choosing between competing products such as carbon composites and lightweight steels.

CEO Klaus Kleinfeld is emphasizing profitable products while aluminum prices remain near historical lows.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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