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Science and Technology

Exploradio - The Power of Crystals
A legacy industry born in Cleveland struggles to compete in the 21st century.
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Synthetic quartz crystals grown by Sawyer Technical Materials in Eastlake. The process was invented by Clevelander Charles Sawyer.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair, WKSU
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Crystals have long fascinated with their geometric beauty and promise of hidden properties.   They are at the heart of early radios, electronic devices, and quartz watches, but new materials have dimmed the power of crystals. 

In this week’s edition of Exploradio we look at the art of growing synthetic quartz, an industry born in Cleveland and now struggling to survive.

Exploradio - The power of cystals

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The art of quartz

Sawyer Technical Materials is the only plant in the U.S. that grows quartz crystals, a process invented by Clevelander Charles Sawyer, and the company he founded is still growing them more than 50 years later in Eastlake.

Head engineer Vladimir Klipov leads me along the catwalk snaking through a forest of metal chimneys.   We lean over the top of a massive steel pressure cooker called an autoclave,…

“This is a running autoclave with very high pressure, it’s about 13,000 psi pressure right now inside this vessel.  It’s very dangerous to stay here, let’s go…”  

There’s always the risk one of the vessels could explode.  That’s why each autoclave is nestled inside 15 feet high rows of double steel walls painted battleship gray.   

This is home for Klipov. 

“About 36 years in my life I’m working with crystals.  I am second generation of quartz crystal grower.  My father built a plant in Russia, in the Ural mountains…”

Klipov came to Cleveland after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He brought with him the art of growing crystals. 

“You need to feel.  Each production run you need to feel the crystals growing inside.”

Klipov says the slower the growth, the higher the quality of the crystal inside. 

What takes nature millions of years, takes 9 months to a year inside the vessels at Sawyer, where quartz rocks are mixed in a caustic slurry, heated under pressure and slowly cooled.  Huge crystals form like rock candy.

But even with speeding up nature, Sawyer hasn’t been able to outpace the lightning fast changes in the field of electronics.

Crystal vibrations 

A knock on this thin quartz wafer shows the pure vibrational quality of crystals, and that’s where there hidden power lies.

A crystal also vibrates when you zap it with an electric current, it’s called the piezo-electric effect, and this vibration can tune a wireless device to receive or send that specific vibrational frequency.   Early radios were called ‘crystal sets.”  Charles Sawyer invented his process for growing crystals out of the need for quartz radios during World War II and the shortage of suitable natural quartz.

But Sawyer’s marketing director Janet Radwanski says the synthetic crystal industry is a story of booms and busts. 

In the 1970’s 40 channel CB radios had 40 crystals, then 3, then no more CB’s.  In the 80’s computers and TV hardware had crystals, then that industry moved on to other materials.  The early cell phones in the 1990’s used quartz, then Radwanski says a new, cheaper material was developed and …

“You don’t need the quartz crystal to do any of the signal processing in the phone anymore, it can be done directly using silicon.  So now you go from 3-4 devices to none using quartz today in most phone today.”  

The display case in the Sawyer lobby is a curio cabinet of former products.  She holds up a set of tiny gold plated crystal tuning forks, set in clear plastic...

“That’s what used to go into a device for use for electronic stability control in cars…”  The original anti-skid control devices in high-end cars used quartz crystals, then once again, a cheaper alternative was found.

Growing, shrinking 

In the mid-90’s tech-boom Sawyer grew crystals in 400 vessels in Eastlake, plus plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, and China. 

Then came the telecom bust in 2000.  Production dropped overnight from hundreds of thousands of units to a trickle.   Slow growing quartz has been replaced by cheaper silicon chips that work nearly as well in cell phones.

Sawyer now has about 10 people in the single Eastlake plant, producing quartz crystals for only a few remaining niche markets, such as filters for high-powered lasers or high-quality crystals for the aero-space market.

Janet Radwanski says the process invented in Cleveland survives on that legacy…

“There’s a lot behind the Sawyer name, people recognize it, and that is a big part of trying to keep the thing going.”

Sawyer was the first and is now the last company in America that still grows giant crystals of pure quartz for ever shrinking devices.  

Related Links & Resources
Sawyer website

Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Dragons and Damsels
Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploradio - Swellable Glass
Monday, July 25, 2011

Exploradio: Inside the Cloud
Monday, July 18, 2011

Exploradio - Whale necks and noses
Monday, June 27, 2011

Listener Comments:

Can it be cut and faceted for jewelry such as GVC or HSN sells?

Posted by: Kathleen Miller (Hickory , NC) on August 17, 2011 3:08AM
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