O'odham aerospace firm sharpens its cutting edge

O'odham aerospace firm sharpens its cutting edge 

November 17, 2013 12:00 am • By Ashley Powell Arizona Daily Star

Research into new composite materials to store energy, build better rocket-launch pads and make special underwater tools is underway on the Tohono O’odham Nation, after an aerospace company there received multiple federal grants.

  Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing was awarded more than $1 million by the National Science Foundation, NASA, a Navy agency and the Naval Sea Systems Command earlier this year.

  Majority-owned by the tribal San Xavier Development Authority, the company employs about 20 people, many of them tribal members.

  Advanced Ceramics’ main business has been producing water-soluble molds and tooling at its plant at 7800 S. Nogales Highway.

  Now the company is branching out into four new research areas.

  In January, NASA awarded ACM a $125,000 Small Business Innovation Research Program grant to explore new materials for launch pads that could withstand high temperatures.

  “We’re using new materials to provide advances in these areas,” said Ed Biggers, ACM’s acting president. “We hope to provide new products or designs for the government.”

  NASA had put out a request for new materials research after a previous launch pad broke apart. The space agency believed it to be an issue with temperature inaccuracy.

  Existing launch pads were built to withstand temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Advanced Ceramics is working to develop launch-pad material that can withstand 4,000 degrees, said Biggers, a company investor and board member who has been acting president since former President Steve Turcotte resigned for health reasons in August.

  Launch pads need to be repaired periodically, and ACM’s new material would reduce repair costs, Biggers added.

  Since NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program requires a partnership with an institution like a university, ACM partnered with Villanova University of Philadelphia for the effort.

  The grant for the phase-one SBIRP project will expire in spring 2014. The company can decide whether to it wants to submit a phase-two proposal, but the selection is competitive, according to Richard Leshner, SBIRP and SBTTP director.

  Also in January, the NSF awarded the company $150,000 for a phase-one project to develop a new manufacturing process for composite parts. With a supplemental award, the value increased to $180,000.

  Composites are increasingly being used as a strong, lightweight alternative to metal to build things like airplanes, cars and bicycles, Biggers said. To make a composite part, some material is fused with another type of material. Once heated and under pressure, the part can be molded.

  Composites are typically are using a large, industrial autoclave, a high-tech oven. With the NSF’s grant, ACM is working to make the parts without one. The company is working with aircraft giant Boeing Co., and has already provided the government with some parts for review.

  “They’re (NSF) very interested, because we have a commercial partner working with our team, so we will likely use it on commercial aircraft,” Biggers said.

  Ben Schrag, the director overseeing ACM’s grant from the NSF’s SBIRP, said he looks for two things when reviewing proposals: technical innovation and high commercial impacts.

  “So those were the two things we saw in the Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing project,” Schrag said.

  “The technology is new and innovative, and we did see that if it were to work, this process could potentially be used in our market.”

  According to Schrag, the products are important, because the lightweight, high-performance composites are in increasingly more products every year.

  “The materials that they are hoping to work on are definitely a growing piece of the market,” he said.

  The grant will expire at the end of the year, but the company has already submitted a phase-two proposal, which would fund the same project for two years.

  “We have significant hopes that this new way of manufacturing composites will catch hold and people can save a lot of money,” Biggers said. “We would like to be a part of that.”

  In April, the Navy awarded ACM $150,000 to study the use of high-power capacitors as an alternative to batteries for energy storage.

  Capacitors are electrical components that are typically used to store energy for short periods of time.

  The Navy award was funded by the Rapid Innovation Fund, which is administered by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and the Office of Small Business Programs.

  In another Navy-related program, the Naval Sea Systems Command awarded ACM $797,000 to look for new tools that don’t spark and are not magnetic for people who disable underwater mines, like those found in the Persian Gulf.

  “If you’re operating and disabling a mine and something generates a spark, you’re in trouble — you might get blown up,” Biggers said.

  Tools made with beryllium have been used because they are not magnetic and don’t spark, but beryllium particles have been found to be cancer-causing, so the tools are no longer available.

  “We have a contract to develop ceramic tools, which are also much lighter,” Biggers said.

  ACM already delivered six of the tools to the government for evaluation. Now the company hopes to receive more contracts for its products.

  “We expect to continue doing research and grow in our commercial products,” Biggers said.