New Technology Could Save Millions

Oregon BEST investment speeds development of furnace monitoring technology for specialty metals manufacturers

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new technology under development by an Oregon startup that has received funding from Oregon BEST has the potential to save the $25 billion specialty metals industry in the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs, while reducing waste and improving safety during production of ingots in Vacuum Arc Remelting (VAR) furnaces.

KW Associates of Corvallis, Ore. has developed a system that can be added to large VAR furnaces used to refine massive ingots of high-value specialty metals like titanium, zirconium, nickel alloys and others for a wide range of applications. Titanium, which is strong, lightweight and corrosion resistant, is used in everything from knee replacements to aircraft parts (titanium turbines pictured above, right).

Titanium ingot from VAR furnace"The specialty metals industry in the U.S. is a $25 billion dollar industry, and 40 percent of that is from direct sales of ingots produced in VAR furnaces," said Paul King, President and CEO of KW Associates. "Our technology could save 40 to 50 percent of the energy currently lost in the use of these furnaces, while improving ingot quality, and reducing much of the $800 million in lost revenues through material waste and associated electrical inefficiencies each year."

VAR furnaces, which reportedly cost $25 million to build and are 20 feet tall, were developed in Oregon in the 1940s and have changed very little since then. The furnaces generate an electric arc, or plasma column, that melts a consumable electrode, burning off impurities and creating a large ingot (pictured above, right) of the specialty metal that is then sold to manufacturers. But it has been impossible to see the arc used for melting, so fine control of the process has been elusive. This results in substantial electrical energy loss, as well as unwanted buildup on the ingot surface that must be removed. This generates waste, adds labor costs and has led to safety issues in VAR furnaces.

KW Associates' Arc Position Sensing (APS) technology (pictured, below) offers a way to "see" what is happening inside a VAR furnace during the remelting process. This is achieved by integrating an electric current locator with automated data acquisition and real-time analysis and monitoring of arc dynamics during operation.

Illustration of Arc Position Sensing technology"Until now, there's been no way to see the arc column during melting, and no way to quantify the relationship between the arc location and defects that lead to reduced yield," said King. "Current VAR control systems lack the measurement feedback systems to implement intelligent control technologies."

Coupling additional control techniques with the APS technology will lead to much better control of the arc and enable more efficient energy use and improved ingot quality. The APS system will also increase safety at furnaces by monitoring and alerting operators of side-arcing, a condition that happens when an arc forms between the electrode and the side wall of the furnace instead of between the electrode and the ingot. Side-arcing has led to catastrophic explosions of VAR furnaces.

A $150,000 investment by Oregon BEST is helping KW Associates team with Kyle Niemeyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, and colleagues. The OSU researchers are doing independent validation of the APS system and trying to identify patterns that will lead to a new software tool that automatically identifies, categorizes and tracks potentially harmful events such as side-wall arcing.

"We're doing some studies to validate and better understand the KW Associates’ system, which adds new 21st-century technology to an industry that's been around a long time," Niemeyer said. "It's great to be teaming with a local startup where the graduate students working with me on this project can get professional experience and transferrable job skills."

For Oregon BEST, KW Associates is a good fit for its portfolio of startup companies and exemplifies how clean technology impacts a wide range of industry sectors.

"This project shows how applying clean technology to a long-established industry can generate a wide range of positive results," said Ken Vaughn, Director of Commercialization Programs at Oregon BEST. "The potential energy savings alone is significant, and when you add in the reduction in waste and the increase in safety, it's very much a win-win-win."

Oregon BEST offers a wide range of support for cleantech startups in Oregon, and currently has more than 40 startups listed as Oregon BEST Companies – companies that are receiving support from Oregon BEST to help move their technologies to the marketplace.

"Oregon BEST is enabling us to cross the 'valley of death' threshold that all startups face by helping us obtain independent validation of our technology from a third party and increase our capabilities offered to end users," King said. "They are also introducing us to investors, which is important to us because we’re poised to address what could be a very large market so we can be very profitable, but this requires investment. We can either go slow or go quick, and I want to go quick."

In 2013, KW Associates’ technology, while it was still being developed at the U.S. Dept. of Energy, won an R&D 100 Award, given to the top 100 innovations worldwide each year. The company has also won two Federal Laboratory Consortium Awards, for technology transfer and for innovation. KW Associates was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 by the OSU Advantage Accelerator.

Media Contact: Gregg Kleiner, 541-740-9654
Sources: Ken Vaughn, Oregon BEST, 503-725-9801; Paul King, KW Associates, 503-939-3571

About Oregon BEST
Oregon BEST funds and assists cleantech startups, bringing together Oregon’s significant R&D strengths in clean technology to support the commercialization of new products and services. As the nexus for clean technology innovation, Oregon BEST builds capability, convenes collaborations and accelerates solutions to environmental challenges that deliver prosperity in all corners of Oregon. More that 250 Oregon BEST Member Faculty and a network of nine Oregon BEST Labs at four partner universities (Oregon State University, Oregon Tech, Portland State University, and University of Oregon) offer research expertise and lab equipment to industry. Oregon BEST competitively awards Early-Stage Investments to collaborations between entrepreneurs and Oregon BEST Member Faculty at partner universities.

About KW Associates
KW Associates is developer of the Arc Position Sensing (APS) technology, a patented, award winning technology that revolutionizes the way titanium and other alloys of high value are manufactured. Invented at a U.S. Dept. of Energy national laboratory, the APS technology offers an unprecedented ability to identify operating conditions leading to yield loss, making it possible to decrease these losses by 50 percent or more, saving the industry hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The APS technology is dubbed “the MRI of Industrial Processes."