INVESTING IN CERAMICS
The Smaller the Better
In 1990, backed by decades of experience in research and development at Sandia National Laboratories, H.M. (Hap) Stoller launched TPL, Inc., a materials science based technology development company. TPL initially focused on R&D and engineering services for government agencies, but Stoller soon found he wasn’t fully satisfied—he wanted to produce the materials he’d been developing. “I’ve been a manager of R&D my entire professional career,” says Stoller. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in the development of products. But in some ways, you can develop technology and have it in the exploratory and development stage, and you’ve never truly excised all of the demons that exist in being able to make that technology perform successfully. It’s not until you transition that technology into a product and manufacture that product that you truly put yourself to the complete test.”
Over the last decade, Stoller has indeed challenged himself and his staff, growing this “typical startup” into a thriving company that offers a diverse range of products and services to a variety of industries. In 1995 and 1996, TPL was included among Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest growing privately held companies in the U.S. “That was the kind of business goal that I’d always wanted to make, because that’s a pretty good national recognition that you’ve achieved something,” says Stoller.
TPL still provides R&D and other services to the U.S. military and other government organizations, including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and NASA, but now its product offerings range from monolithic ceramic capacitors to nanosized ceramic powders. These powders, which are used in the manufacture of multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs), represent a tremendous growth opportunity for the company, Stoller believes, and he has invested significant effort and expense into developing them for commercial availability.
Layer by LayerMLCC manufacturers typically use ceramic powders such as barium titanate or strontium titanate as small as 1 micron in diameter to create thin films, or layers, in thicknesses of 10 microns each. These films are then layered together to form the MLCC, which provides energy storage in electronic devices such as cellular phones.
“Traditional ceramic powders are made using a reaction sintering and grinding process,” explains Kirk Slenes, director of TPL’s electronic materials group. “For instance, in barium titanate, they take barium carbonate and titanium dioxide and sinter them together at high temperatures to form barium titanate. They end up with a very large brick of this material, and then they have to grind it down into a very fine powder. The limitation on grinding powders is in the range of about 1 micron in size, or about 1000 nanometers. Using that traditional method for producing powders represents about 30-40 percent of the dielectric powder consumption for the MLCC industry.”
However, as electronic devices become smaller and smaller to meet consumers’ demands, so too must their components. “The trend in the industry now is moving down into the less than five micron—probably two micron—thick layers within these MLCCs,” explains Stoller. “When you’re down as thin as two microns, you’re generally dealing with 1-micron-sized powders, and you can’t do anything uniformly at that size. So the MLCC industry is now looking for powders on the order of 200-250 nanometers in diameter, which we also make, and we’re also one of the few companies in the world that are producing powders down as small as 50 nanometers in diameter.”
TPL is able to produce these tiny powders through a proprietary hydrothermal synthesis process. When producing barium titanate, for example, the company prepares a barium solution and adds a titanium precursor. After being reacted in an aqueous solution, these materials form a chemical precipitate—the barium titanate product. The size and composition of the final powders are controlled through time, temperature, pressure and the concentration of the reactants. The final step is to remove the water from the reaction product, which can be done through any drying process.
“The unique aspect of our powders is that we’re making very small powders with a uniform particle size distribution,” says Slenes. “The importance of that in the
multilayer ceramic capacitor industry is that they’re trying to make thinner dielectric layers to achieve higher capacitance. The capacitance in a capacitor is inversely proportional to the thickness of the dielectric.”
When producing barium titanate, the ideal barium-to-titanium ratio is one of the most important parameters, says Stoller. “Ideally, that ratio should basically be 1 to about three decimal places. People want to see .9999 or 1.0001 to have an acceptable product. What that requires is a very, very careful metering of your starting materials.” According to Slenes, the company uses ICP and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) for elemental analysis, and particle size is monitored through scanning electron microscopy (SEM).
Becoming a ManufacturerTPL’s facilities have grown to keep pace with its increasing product offerings and manufacturing capabilities. For several years, the company occupied four different locations, about 18,000 total square feet, along the I-25 industrial corridor in New Mexico. “We built up a bench scale and then a small pilot plant capability to produce these powders,” says Stoller. “We received some funding from the federal government through the SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program to develop some of the processes and have been investing company dollars to scale things up.”
In 1996, Stoller acquired a more modern space for all of the company’s activities. The 35,000-square-foot facility now houses TPL’s office, laboratory and prototype manufacturing operations. The new facility enabled the company to consolidate all of its locations while doubling the available space, and, according to Stoller, at the same time provided the kind of environment where TPL could better control the manufacturing process.
The company now has two prototype production cells to manufacture its ceramic powders. One cell produces powders for TPL’s monolithic ceramic capacitors, while the other focuses on its high-purity nanosized ceramic powders. Each cell is capable of producing approximately 100,000 pounds of powder per year.
The manufacturing equipment in the first production cell is mainly all used machinery. “We’re about an $8-10 million a year company in revenues, so we don’t have all that much in the way of financial resources,” explains Stoller. However, he adds, “we did go with brand new equipment when we built the second production cell.”
TPL has been challenged with the downturn in the electronics industry, as well as the struggling U.S. economy in general. In addition, the company has had to deal with the more basic obstacle of transitioning into a profitable manufacturer. “The big challenge is changing my mindset, as well as the mindset of the company, from being strictly an R&D company versus a manufacturer of commercial products,” says Stoller. “It’s also a matter of adopting what I would call manufacturing practices. We [learned to] pay far closer attention to the costs of all items, compared to how one tends to think when you’re just an R&D organization.”
Stoller is optimistic that all of the company’s efforts will lead to success. “Our powders are being evaluated by a number of fairly large manufacturers of MLCCs,” says Stoller. “If the powders get accepted in their next generation products, then that will open up tremendous growth for TPL. I believe that will occur within the next couple of years.”