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Science and Technology

Exploradio - Graftech out of the ashes
Caught up in a global carbon cartel in the 1990's Cleveland's Graftech reinvents itself; celebrates 125 years by innovating new uses for a humble material
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Graphite electrodes glow red hot as they melt steel in an electric arc furnace. Cleveland-based Graftech is the world's largest supplier of graphite electrodes.
Courtesy of Graftech
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A company born 125 years ago in Cleveland’s industrial heyday continues to thrive despite declines in heavy industry.  In this week’s Exploradio we look at how the maker of the most humble of materials survived graft and the global downturn by stressing innovation.

Exploradio - Graftech out of the ashes

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Public Square glows

This is the sound of an electric arc furnace starting-up.  Massive graphite columns dip into a hearth filled with scrap metal.  The electrodes glow red hot as electricity pulses through them, turning that scrap into molten steel. 

Graftech is the world’s largest supplier of graphite electrodes for the steel industry.  Lionel Batty is head of R & D at the company’s Parma headquarters.  He says it all started with much smaller electric arcs and a man named Charles Brush.

“The first electric street lighting in the world was here in Cleveland at Public Square.  Charles Brush did that and was essentially was like the grandfather of our company.”

The National Carbon Company was founded in 1886 in Cleveland. It made the little carbon rods that burned in Brush’s new electric arc-lamps. They were installed first in Cleveland, then in cities around the world.

One hundred twenty-five years later, with a new name, Batty says Graftech has endured by finding new markets for one of the most humble of materials, graphite.

“Incidentally the one type of graphite we don’t make is the graphite in pencils.  Graftech doesn’t do that. I’m not sure if we ever have.  But where we’re standing now is our new product display room.”

The world of graphite 

The room is packed with what look like gleaming graphite sculptures.

“Little rotors, and nuts and bolts, things that go into furnace furniture in high temperature applications.”  

“Furnace furniture?”

“Pieces and parts that go into a furnace that’s melting silicon or melting steel, or processing ceramic material.”

Like coal or a diamond, graphite is pure carbon.

Graftech uses the dregs left from petroleum refining to make synthetic graphite that can be molded into an array of shapes.  It’s a lightweight material that can melt steel.  And it conducts heat, like the kind generated inside battery-operated electrical devices.

That’s why Lionel Batty is showing me an exploded cellphone.  Nestled among the layers of circuits and chips is a humble slice of graphite. And that, he says, enables the device to work.

“Now all the heat’s somewhere in that phone but it’s not localized, it’s being spread around so the chip’s not too hot, the battery’s not too hot, your ear’s not getting burned because there’s a hot spot on the surface.  The graphite’s taking all that heat out and spreading it out over the phone.”

While melting steel fueled Graftech’s first hundred years, helping to cool batteries is taking it into the next century. 

Graphite's cool

New hire Jon Taylor is working on a way to improve cooling inside the battery that powers Chevy’s electric car, the Volt.  He says GM cools it now with a complex system of metal plates that he’s hoping to improve.-    

“Right now we’re working on a design. I’ll show you one here.  It’s simply an aluminum tube and we actually take the graphite and wrap it around the tube to make a flat plate that’s liquid cooled. Simpler, only two fittings, very cost effecient, easy to produce.  And what we can actually do is put a lithium-ion cell on each side and draw the heat out of those.”

From graft to Graftech 

While high-tech is part of Graftech’s future, the company almost didn’t make it into the 21st century.  In the 1990’s, the company, then called UCAR and owned by venture capitalists, was caught up in a global carbon cartel.  In 1999, UCAR’s two top executives were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and fined for price fixing.

Out of those ashes, Batty says Graftech is rebuilding.

“We have transformed from that time.  Those people are out, the entire senior management of this company went away, rightfully and now a completely different attitude and completely different management philosophy, and we’re trying to make it a place where people are proud to come to work and join it. I think we’re getting there, we’re certainly getting there.”

As head of R & D, Lionel Batty is philosophical about his company that has had to reinvent itself several times in the past 125 years. 

“There’s a phrase out there that invention is the turning of money into knowledge, and innovation is the turning of knowledge back into money.”

While innovation is often thought of as creating new high-tech materials, Graftech survives by finding new uses for very low-tech graphite - in everything, except pencils.  

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.

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