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U.S. manufacturing has entered a new phase. It's no longer enough to produce a standard line of products with the occasional new development thrown in, and expect a regular customer base to continue making purchases. Instead, today's manufacturers must continually innovate and often customize each new development to remain competitive in the global market. For larger companies with a highly varied product line and steady revenue streams, research and development is often simply a matter of preparing the appropriate budget and allocating the necessary funds. However, for small manufacturers, continuous innovation can be a much greater challenge. Both human and capital resources, already stretched thin to meet daily business and production requirements, must be stretched even further to pursue new ideas. And there are no guarantees; hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars can easily be invested in projects that don't bring any additional profits to a company's bottom line due to unforeseen challenges and barriers.
According to government statistics, small businesses (defined as all non-farm, private-sector businesses with less than 500 employees) create two-thirds of all new private sector jobs in the U.S., employ more than half of all workers, and account for more than half of the output of the U.S. economy.1 Small businesses also average 2.5 times as many innovations per employee than larger corporations.2 However, an estimated 10% of small businesses fold under the enormous pressures each year and are forced to close.3 In the ceramic industry, numerous plants defined as "small businesses" have paid this price over the past several years, and many remaining firms are struggling to avoid the same fate. How can today's manufacturers remain innovative in such a challenging environment?
For companies in the refractories sector, a renewed effort by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to pursue advanced energy technologies might help. In addition to creating potential new markets in areas such as coal gasification, fuel cells and nuclear energy, the initiative is also providing additional funding opportunities for R&D through the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. Although significant hurdles to commercialization remain, some of the projects being pursued through this program might well become the refractories of the future.
SBIR BackgroundThe SBIR program was established under the Small Business Innovation Development Act of 1982 to provide funding to stimulate technological innovation in small businesses to meet federal agency research and development needs. The program was reauthorized through September 30, 2008, by the Small Business Reauthorization Act of 2000. Currently, 11 federal agencies participate in the SBIR program.
The program operates in three distinct phases. Phase I explores the feasibility of innovative concepts with awards of up to $100,000 for about nine months. Only Phase I award winners may compete for Phase II, the principal R&D effort, which provides awards of up to $750,000 over a two-year period. In Phase III, non-federal capital is used by the small business to pursue commercial applications of the R&D, and federal agencies can award non-SBIR-funded follow-on grants or contracts for products or processes that meet the mission needs of those agencies, or for further R&D. Small businesses that win awards under the SBIR program keep the rights to any technology developed and are encouraged to commercialize the technology.
Each year, the participating agencies issue a solicitation inviting small businesses to apply for SBIR grants. The DOE solicitation typically occurs around the beginning of October and contains technical topics in research areas such as energy production (fossil, nuclear, renewable and fusion energy), energy use (in buildings, vehicles and industry), fundamental energy sciences (materials, life, environmental, and computational sciences, and nuclear and high-energy physics), and environmental management and nuclear nonproliferation. Grant applications submitted by small businesses must respond to a specific topic and subtopic during an open solicitation. Proposal-to-award ratios are about 5-to-1 for Phase I and 2-to-1 for Phase II.
Putting the Program to WorkAlthough many of the SBIR grants are awarded to companies outside of the ceramic industry, some refractories companies have taken advantage of the program to develop advanced technologies. Blasch Precision Ceramics, Inc., an Albany, N.Y.-based ceramic technology manufacturer, has been the recipient of several such awards in recent years. Its latest, a $748,234, two-year SBIR Phase II award that it received from the DOE in October 2004, could lead to wider use of gasification technology, which uses coal as the fuel for efficient generation of electric power and synthetic gases.
High-temperature, slagging gasifiers have refractory liners that deteriorate rapidly and have a relatively short life, requiring considerable and costly maintenance. Additionally, the refractories typically used in slagging gasifiers contain chrome oxide, which is cause for health and environmental concern due to the potential of carcinogenic hexavalent chrome formation during use.
In Phase I of this project, which was awarded in 2003, initial feasibility was demonstrated for the development of an economical advanced refractory material for coal-fed slagging gasifiers. A team of engineers, headed by Blasch's product development manager, David Larsen, formulated more than 25 ceramic material compositions, formed specimens and tested their performance in areas such as strength, density, porosity and static slag corrosion resistance. The technical/economic objectives were that the finished material contain no chrome/chrome oxide; possess good lab-scale shape formability, reasonable strength and adequate static slag corrosion resistance; and have a preliminary cost estimated to be less than 50% of the current gasifier refractory. Three of the compositions developed in this project met all of the objectives.
Eastman Chemical Co., which owns and operates two coal-fed gasifiers, and the University of North Dakota - Energy and Environmental Research Center, which has extensive slag corrosion testing expertise, participated in Phase I and will also participate in Phase II. Other participating subcontractors in the Phase II project are Tampa Electric Co. and Starfire Systems.
In Phase II, proposed developments including the ceramic composition data, small-scale process techniques, and test results derived from Phase I will be used as a basis for further ceramic material development/optimization, upscale process techniques, rigorous testing, and potential trial in a gasifier. The additional testing will include dynamic slag corrosion testing such as drip slag and rotary slag tests in various atmospheres to accurately simulate the operating conditions of a coal-fed gasifier. Assuming positive test results, full-size ceramic shapes will be produced for possible trial in a full-sized gasifier.
According to Larry James, DOE's SBIR program manager, the number of proposals submitted under the coal gasification topic has been steadily increasing over the last several years. But other topics-including nuclear energy and fuel cells-are also receiving increased attention, and ceramic companies are receiving awards in these areas as well. For example, the 2004 Phase I awards included a $100,000 grant to Hyper-Therm High-Temperature Composites, Inc., Huntington Beach, Calif., for the development of a fiber-reinforced silicon carbide matrix composite for fuel encapsulation in pebble-bed gas reactors (nuclear energy); and the 2004 Phase II awards included a $749,919 grant to Ceramatec, Inc., Lake City, Utah, to develop a novel castable ceramic material with properties that make it ideal for solid oxide fuel cell insulation. Although the DOE's 2005 SBIR awards ($102 million total) have not yet been announced, they will likely include additional ceramic/ refractory projects in these important energy-related fields.
A Helping HandManufacturing in virtually every U.S. industry has become increasingly difficult, and cost pressures are likely to continue to increase in the coming years. While programs such as SBIR don't exactly level the global playing field, they can provide valuable assistance for small businesses that have innovative ideas, but need additional funding to turn those ideas into tomorrow's advanced refractory technologies.
For more information about the DOE's SBIR program, visit http://www.science.doe.gov/sbir . The Department of Defense also awards SBIR grants in a number of ceramic-related fields-see http://www.acq.osd.mil/sadbu/sbir/ . More information about the SBIR programs operated by other federal agencies can be obtained at http://www.sba.gov/-sbir/indexsbir-sttr.html .