Celebrating an Epic Ceramic and Refractories Milestone
TAM Ceramics is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year.
TAM Ceramics was founded in 1906 to create new titanium ferroalloys. Now celebrating its 110-year anniversary, the company can look back on decades of invention, investment and the development of various technologies. These innovations span from white titanium dioxide pigments to new alloys and ceramics, fused zirconia, welding fluxes, and the first building blocks of modern electronics and computers. In fact, nearly 100 patents were awarded to TAM for dielectric titanate materials over a 50-year period.
The Titanium Manufacturing Co. (TAMCO) was organized in 1906 by Auguste J. Rossi, Ph.D., Andrew Thompson and William F. Meredith. Rossi, a native of France, lived in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and served as technical director. Thompson resided in Buffalo, N.Y., and was general manager, while Meredith had his office in New York City and became president.
In 1855 at the age of 16, Rossi graduated from the University of France with a bachelor’s of science degree. Four years later, he graduated from the Central School of Arts and Manufacturers, where his studies had covered mechanical, civil and metallurgical engineering work. Around 1859, Rossi came to New York and worked with Morris and Essex Railroad Co. as an assistant engineer until 1864.
While working for the railroad, he was put in charge of the laboratory at the Iron Works in New Jersey. It was here that Rossi was first drawn to titanium (Ti) because the ores used in the blast furnaces at the iron works contained titanium and were considered magnetites. Rossi became additionally interested in titanium after reviewing work from Professor Cook, a state geologist for New Jersey. Cook observed a correlation between high Ti and low phosphorous in iron ores, which was important because phosphorous caused weaker steels. In 1890, Rossi established an office in New York City as a consulting engineer.
One of the chief factors leading to the formation of TAMCO was Thompson’s interest in the large and high-grade titaniferous iron ore deposits near the headwaters of the Hudson River in the Adirondack Mountains. These deposits, originally discovered by the Indians, were purchased in 1830 by Archibald MacIntyre. Thompson, along with James MacNaughton, a grandson of MacIntyre, had a majority interest in a company called MacIntyre Iron Co. They decided to attempt the re-opening of the Adirondack mine because of the high-Ti iron ore deposits, but they needed technical assistance with smelting these challenging ores. MacNaughton had heard about Rossi through some professors in the Columbia School of Mines, and they hired him to smelt some of the Adirondack ore as a demonstration of its usefulness.
In 1894, Rossi and McNaughton had built a small blast furnace in Buffalo at the New York Car Wheel Works, near the Niagara River, where they successfully produced several hundred pounds of excellent pig iron made from the titaniferous iron ore. In 1899, Rossi built a small single-electrode furnace at the old Porter House in downtown Niagara Falls to produce ferro-carbon titanium for the treatment of Bessemer steel rails. (The success of this development led to the building of a new plant in 1911 just east of the city limits at the current TAM site.)
Unfortunately, MacNaughton, to whom Rossi gave the most credit for the company’s early support and encouragement, died in 1905. Financial support immediately became a concern, but Thompson brought his Princeton friend Meredith into the enterprise, and adequate financial stability was thus assured. Meredith helped formalize and incorporate TAMCO in 1906.
In 1899, Rossi first made ferro-carbon-titanium alloy in a small single-electrode furnace at the Old Porter House in downtown Niagara Falls by simple reduction of the ore with carbon in the presence of sufficient scrap iron to keep the titanium content of the product down to about 15%. In 1906, trials were performed in a larger furnace in a small building north of the city, where the old Stauffer Chemical plant was located.
Considerable success was attained in selling this new alloy around 1911, chiefly to the railroads for treating Bessemer steel rails. This steel was high in phosphorus and sulfur, which segregated badly unless the steel was well deoxidized, and the ferro-carbon-titanium (FCT) was quite effective. In 1911, 1,600 tons were sold, and 153,000 tonnes of rails were treated with TAMCO’s FCT. A majority of the ore used for this specific process came from Baie St. Paul in Quebec.
Efforts to develop and expand the use of FCT in other grades of steel than Bessemer rail steel met with only fair success because other deoxidizers (e.g., silicon and aluminum) were cheaper. The use of FCT in the steel industry continued with moderate fluctuations in both rimmed and killed steels up to the depression of 1930. The sales efforts were conducted chiefly by Meredith. Around the time of Rossi’s death in 1926, the usage of FCT in steel rail had waned, and TAMCO’s sales and technical focus turned to the development of oxide pigment, zirconia opacifiers, and zircon refractories.
Thompson died in 1932, causing a deep sense of loss in all those working at the TAMCO plant. Meredith hired several technical and sales personnel to investigate titanium alloys other than FCT. The 1930s saw sales of FCT derivatives with low carbon content (3-4%) and other products with a mixture of aluminum (18-22%). The most successful alloy made from FCT and sold for several decades was the incorporation of boron to form Carbortam. Carbortam was an outgrowth of a low-carbon manganese-silicon-titanium-boron alloy called Bortam. The Bortam alloy was quite successful as a ladle addition to improve the hardenability of steel, and was preferred in some foundries as a simple deoxidizer for cast steel.
Titanium Dioxide Pigment
Around 1912, Rossi had already pointed out the desirable properties of precipitated titanium pigment as a white paint pigment and focused his efforts to develop the process. The first commercial grade of good titanium pigment in America occurred at TAMCO in 1915. In 1920, the National Lead Co., which owned the Dutch Boy paint brand, took over the pigment branch of the business, while the alloy branch remained independent until much later.
Pigment production occurred at TAM until National Lead moved the operation to a new facility in St. Louis in 1931. The single discovery by Rossi of titanium dioxide (TiO2) accounted for 25% of National Lead’s gross income ($300 million of $1.2 billion) in 1945.
Zircon, Opax and Other Ceramic Materials
TAM started work on zirconium-based products in 1914, when Brazilian zirkite ore was treated with sulfuric acid (or fused nitrate cake) to obtain a solution where good zirconium oxide (zirconia, ZrO2) opacifier for enamels could be precipitated. TAM’s focus on zirconia was based on the idea that zirconia could replace tin oxide as an opacifier for vitreous enamels and glazes. Zirconia has the advantage of not being so easily reduced by reducing gases; it also had a more stable price. The first zirconia was produced by chemical methods and was sold as Opax A in 1919.
Zircon sand was also used, and fine-milled zircon powder was first offered in 1919 as Opax B. Around 1920, milled zircon powders were developed from Florida zircon sand deposits, which were preferred over Brazilian ore because it was more easily purified. These Florida deposits were later purchased by TAMCO and enlarged so that control of the zircon supply could be assured.
In 1924, the refined zircon was being wet milled to achieve finer grain sizes for new applications. Also in 1924, zirconia was produced in an electric furnace from refined zircon and proved to be an excellent replacement for tin oxide in all kinds of vitreous enamels. From 1933-1937, the company supplied frits for vitreous enamels with mixtures of zircon, zirconia, and other ceramic materials, but abandoned the business due to low profits, intense competition, and also based on the fact that TAMCO was competing with its customers.
Zircon as a refractory material was promoted around 1920, but the refractory properties were initially only fair. New research at TAMCO did not start until 1927, when zircon brick were developed at TAMCO by using a zircon mix containing 40% coarse pre-fired zircon bonded with organic materials, with a small amount of alkali or boric acid, and fired at 2,900°F in an oxidizing atmosphere. At that time, Seaboard Refractories in New Jersey was making refractory brick using zircon sand with a lime binder, and the brick spalled very badly because of the fine, dense grain structure and weak lime bond. TAMCO’s brick passed the standards refractories tests at Mellon Institute with excellent results.
Not many of these brick were sold by TAMCO because they were heavy and expensive, but the company used them in its experimental furnaces to develop new products. Later, refractory producers started selling this zircon brick. Carborudum Co. engineers helped build some of these experimental furnaces at TAMCO using TAMCO brick. The largest order of these special brick came from Westinghouse for melting fine cast-iron scrap. TAM’s zircon brick had low shrinkage because they were so dense that they were used primarily in special geometrically designed furnaces.
By 1933, TAMCO’s processed zircons and zirconias were used consistently in semi-permanent molds, steel ladle nozzles, and small crucibles. All were rammed or pressed, no slip-casting having been attempted. In 1933, slip casting of zircon was used. It was found that on firing at 3,070°F, zircon dissociates to silica and zirconia, which on cooling undergoes a volume change that causes cracking. As a result, zircon was no longer recommended for long-term use above 2,950°F (1,620°C).
In 1934, TAMCO developed the use of zirconium oxychloride with magnesia as a binder for zircon refractories, which addressed the cracking issue. By 1945, TAMCO’s refractory business was primarily involved with small specialty items such as slip-cast crucibles and extruded rods and tubes.
In 1900, the year that Rossi began making FCT in Niagara Falls, he also patented his alumina-bath process for making low-carbon ferrotitanium alloy. However, Rossi’s process required the power-hungry electric furnace and a large amount of aluminum. The process was costly and aluminum was considered a poison to steel. However, in 1928, International Nickel Co. called upon TAMCO to make a low-carbon ferro-silicon-titanium, which was needed as a low melting source of titanium for use in the coating of nickel welding rods.
At that time, TAM was experimenting in the furnace room with a byproduct of the Aluminum Co. of America, known as Badin alloy, containing 7% Ti, 13% Al, 20% Si, and the balance as iron. It was found that melting this byproduct in a furnace with rutile resulted in a low-aluminum, low-carbon alloy for Nickel Co. This alloy became known as Foundry Ferrotitanium.
By 1933, TAM was developing many other alloys, such as ferrotitanium, nickel-titanium, manganese-titanium, copper-titanium and aluminum-titanium. Thermit reactions, in addition to electric are furnacing, produced a further expansion of alloy offerings into the 1940s and beyond.
Another technical development in 1931 involved making copper-titanium alloy that was free from aluminum and other impurities. Titanium metal was dissolved in molten copper in an induction furnace with a graphite crucible using a special salt flux. In 1933, Webbite was developed (after the TAM inventor Wilbur Welling’s nickname Web). Webbite was a 5% titanium-aluminum alloy that was produced by reacting rutile with molten aluminum at 2,000°F, using cryolite as a flux. Webbite was developed for Apex Smelting Co. and was patented and sold as Frontier 40E.
Molybdenum alloys were developed and sold from 1933-1936, with material initially coming from Arizona; purer ore later was later sourced from Mexico. Around 1935, silicon-zirconium and aluminum-zirconium ferroalloys were developed, first by thermit reactions and later by Rossi’s alumina-bath arc furnace method for use in fine-grained steel production.
Carbotam and Bortam were developed in 1937. Altam was developed in 1944; by thermit reaction, it comprised 50%/70% titanium-aluminum alloys and was used in the production of Webbite. In 1940, Tinamel (a titanium alloy steel) was developed with Inland Steel Co. and was adopted by the U.S. Bureau of Ships as a high-strength plate steel containing titanium; it was commonly known as Navy Plate, as opposed to the previously used manganese-vanadium steel.
Titanates and Other Dielectric Materials
In 1935, calcium titanate and sodium titanate were produced and sold by the company for welding fluxes and as ingredients in enamel frits. These materials were made by solid-state reaction in a calcining furnace for the first time in TAMCO’s history. A patent on magnesium titanate was granted to TAMCO in 1940.
The development of the company’s titania and titanate products for dielectric uses started in 1934, with some technical and material collaboration with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which manages the communications and information systems support for the command and control of combined armed forces. The U.S. Signal Corps kept the details of much of the product development and the early developments more or less secret. In 1942, several patents on ceramic dielectric materials were granted to TAMCO. From 1943-1949, 18 other patents were awarded to TAMCO for various modifications of the titanate dielectrics. Through the 1970s, over 70 patents were issued for dielectric materials.
National Lead bought the remaining TAMCO business in 1948. In 1979, Cookson Group plc purchased the company and named it TAM Ceramics; Cookson sold TAM Ceramics to Ferro Corp. in 1999. Ferro’s interest was primarily in the dielectric ceramics business, and TAM was renamed Ferro Electronic Materials Systems. In 2007, Ferro sold the facility to a group of investors, and George Bilkey was hired to be TAM’s president. Bilkey refocused the manufacturing assets toward fused zirconia powders for refractory products, chemical processes, and molten metal applications, as well as various titanate powders for friction materials in brake pads and for high-performance welding consumables. In 2010, Bilkey led a management buyout with help from local financiers, bringing TAM Ceramics and its globally recognized brand back to life. For the first time since 1920, TAM Ceramics was once again privately owned and operated in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Since TAM Ceramics became a smaller, private, management-owned company, investment has been made in modernizing processes and equipment, expanding the toll processing capabilities and capacities, and supporting efforts in developing new technologies (e.g., thermoelectrics, supercapacitors and fuel cells). Ongoing product development to date has resulted in new materials for the brake pad industry, welding rod and wire manufacturers, and in advanced ceramics and processes. TAM Ceramics has evolved to position itself for additional growth and expansion into new applications with the confidence that the TAM name will be around for decades to come.