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Area company among the finalists for environmental award

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 1:07 p.m.

A local company may receive an award at the end of the month for lowering the amount of pollutants it emitted from its factory.

Irwin's Carbidie Corp. is a finalist for the 2001 Three Rivers Environmental Awards in the Business - Environmental Stewardship category.

The company, a subsidiary of Kennametal, makes dies and wear parts. It is being recognized for decreasing its heptane use by 75 percent since 1995.

'We don't want to put it in the air. We collect it, we want to reuse it,' said Jack Harris, plant manager.

Heptane is a volatile organic compound, or, in layman's terms, a pollutant.

In the past, it was simply easier to emit it into the air and buy more heptane. But in the early 1990s, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection required manufacturing companies to lower their heptane consumption.

Carbidie implemented an action plan to reduce the yearly emission of heptane by 150 tons.

Carbidie makes tool and dies from tungsten carbide and cobalt.

'Once it's carbonized, it's the hardest metal known to man,' said General Manager Ed Cline.

The parts and tools made with tungsten carbide last a minimum of 10 times longer than steel.

Heptane is used in the process as a liquid to combine the tungsten carbide and cobalt. It's like the water added to flour and sugar when making a cake, Harris said.

In 1995, Carbidie used 217 tons of heptane. Last year, it used 53 tons, thanks to a team of employees who concentrated on lowering the heptane consumption of the factory.

It is trying to get under 50 tons this year, which would change its classification from a major source of heptane emissions by the DEP to a minor source.

The accomplishment required a team effort, Cline said.

First, the company got rid of the old mixers that emitted the most heptane. The employees refurbished the other mixers and the company bought state-of-the-art equipment to control the emissions.

After the tungsten carbide and cobalt are mixed with the heptane, the slurry, or batter, is pumped into a dryer, which removes the heptane. New extractors were installed that collected the volatile organic compound for reuse.

The company also installed chilling jackets along the lids of the mixers. Pumped with cold water, these prevented the heptane from vaporizing into the air. Chilling was also applied to the drying process.

When the slurry is dried, the heptane vaporizes. The vapor is then pumped into chilled condensers that collect the heptane for reuse.

Carbidie also chills the dryers before a new load of slurry is pumped in, preventing vaporization - and heptane loss.

The reduction in heptane emissions not only helped the environment, but also Carbidie's employees.

'This place used to really smell,' Cline said.

When Carbidie first opened 35 years ago, there were hardly any homes along Arona Road. Because of its lack of neighbors, the company didn't really concern itself with what it pumped out, as long as it met DEP regulations.

Now, that all changed with the building boom in the area.

'Homes are closing in around us,' Harris said.

The price tag of the transformation was close to $1 million.

The awards ceremony takes place on May 29. Carbidie was one of 31 companies nominated for this year's awards.

PRODUCTION

Many products can be found in any home that were made from dies created with tungsten carbide. Door hinges, computer switches, engine blocks and aluminum containers all are formed from dies made of the metal.

Carbidie can make anything a company wants, from tools to dies for pop-can tops.

The tungsten carbide can be made for different degrees of strength by adjusting the percentage of cobalt added to the mix. The less cobalt added, the stronger it is. Cobalt is added to the mix to allow the tungsten carbide to remain workable.

If the metal was concrete, the tungsten would be the gravel, and the cobalt, the mortar, Harris said.

Sand-blasting nozzles and steel cutters are made from the strongest of the tungsten carbide, for example.

After the slurry is dry, it turns into a dense chalk. The chalk can be shaped in anything the customer wants. In fact, it's a very fragile material to work with at first.

Cline picked up a unfinished piece that looked like a screw and snapped it in two to prove his point.

Parts are both hand-shaped on vertical lathes and by skilled workmen, or tooled on computer operated machines. All the drills and tools used to shape the chalk are coated with diamonds.

The machine that shapes parts looks like the cab of a garbage truck. Inside the cab, where the seat and the steering wheel would be, is a turntable where a chunk of chalk sat about the size of a birthday cake.

A computer screen spit out numbers, and a computer arm with a diamond-tipped drill at the end moved up and down the piece of chalk, carving out section bit by bit.

After about 24 hours, and countless revolutions by the turntable and the drill, the part to be used in a diaper machine will be finished.

All the dust and waste scraped from the pieces is collected by tubes and vacuums snaking from the ceiling. It will be thrown back into the mixer, where it will be formed into the tungsten-cobalt chalk again.

At this stage, all the parts have to be 20 percent larger than what the customer ordered, because after the chalk is completed and inspected, it is baked. The part will shrink 20 percent in the furnace.

When it comes out of the oven, it still needs to be finished. Carbidie either sends out the products to be finished at a different company, or the company which ordered it will complete the part.

None of the products could've been made without heptane. And thanks to Carbidie's commitment to protecting both the environment and its employees, it uses a lot less than before.

It's not a bad standard to set in western Pennsylvania, which tungsten carbide insiders call 'The Carbide Valley,' Cline said.

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