LSU startup company uses Russian technology

Ronald Brown
LSU News Service
504 388-3867

BATON ROUGE -- In a factory outside Moscow three years ago, four men watched as a piece of steel was pushed slowly through a mysterious green box to the sound of a loud electrical crackling noise. It came out clean on the other side.

"I don't know what's happening in there, but whatever it is, it works," said Edgar Andrews, a professor at the University of London and one of the foremost metallurgists in the world.

For the other three men, Ed Daigle, a construction inspector, and Clint Pierson and John Egle, two Covington investors, that was the beginning of Metal Technology, a startup firm based in LSU's Louisiana Business and Technology Center. The story of Metal Technology is a window into the last days of the Russian Communist era and into a possible future of the steel industry worldwide.

When steel first comes from the mill, it is coated with a satiny-black layer of impurities called mill scale. Mill scale must be removed before the steel can be protected from corrosion by painting or galvanizing. Daigle said an estimated 40 percent of steel produced in the United States every year is used to replace losses due to corrosion.

The standard way of removing mill scale is with acids, grit and shot-blasting. Three acids -- hydrochloric, hydrofluoric and sulfuric -- are used on stainless steel to remove mill scale. Most other types of steel use just two acids, but the process is fairly expensive and leaves a residue of environmentally undesirable byproducts.

When Daigle was first approached in his apartment in Moscow, he was offered several samples of steel that had been cleaned by this method.Valerij Steblianko and Vatalie Ryabkov, the Russian scientists who spent 15 years developing the process, had given up hope of the process being employed in Russia. They had produced a commercial unit that cleaned steel wire and put a copper coating on it during the last days of the Communist era. But when the process was introduced into the plant making the wire, it reduced the number of people needed for the process from 60 to two -- a disaster in the worker's paradise. The process was immediately abolished.

Shortly thereafter the worker's paradise collapsed, but another problem confronted the entrepreneurial inventors -- no capital. That's when Steblianko and Ryabkov went to Daigle.

They offered an electro-plasma process to clean the mill scale from steel. "The process is simple, but the physics of what's going on at the surface of the metal is extremely complex," Daigle said. He demonstrated by running a grounded steel bar under an electrically charged plate while a calcium carbonate solution poured over it. The bar became a steaming landscape of orange and pink electrical fire that made a sound like an arc-welding torch. When it was finished, the mill scale was gone, leaving a slightly rough, pewter-colored surface.

Daigle described the steel as being "passivated" after the process, meaning it can be exposed to the atmosphere for a much longer time without rusting. But the process also creates a surface that makes a stronger bond with coatings. Daigle produced photomicrographs of surface features which showed waves curled over in a metallic surf and globules frozen atop tiny cones. "What happens when the paint flows through here is that it locks around these surface features like the pieces of a puzzle because the coatings get into these little areas and bind fast," he explained.

Another advantage of the electro-plasma process, which Daigle says can clean any conductive surface, is that metallic or alloy coatings such as copper, zinc, aluminum or brass can be deposited at the same time the steel is being cleaned, and at a rate much faster than electroplating. Daigle said he expects galvanization, which is the most rapidly growing segment of the steel market, to be a major application for the process.

Metal Technology is building a large prototype electro-plasma cleaner on the LSU campus in an unused building that the Louisiana Business and Technology Center is expanding into. Daigle said one of the benefits the company gets by being a part of LBTC, a small business incubator, is a great deal of exposure to industry through trade shows and contacts. "Metal Technology particularly likes being at LSU because we can get a lot of technical help from campus labs and because industry looks for new things developing at universities," he said.

Metal Technology is focusing on the strip-steel industry because "it's the most challenging. If we can clean strip steel, we can clean anything." Strip steel is also the largest segment of the steel industry.

The industry has been told by the EPA to phase out its acid-cleaning processes, an order which opens a door for an environmentally friendly process like electro-plasma cleaning, he said.

Because Louisiana is central to shipbuilding and marine industries, and right on the Mississippi River, Daigle said he thinks the state could become a strong regional steel processing center.

A partial interest in Metal Technology is owned by the Russian scientists and a majority by Pierson, Egle and Daigle. The company owns the patents and all commercial rights.

"We're in the stage of taking this process from the laboratory to commercial development, and we're looking for industry affiliates who are willing to partner with us to build an industrial-sized prototype." Daigle said.

The company is also working on a way to clean existing steel structures using the process with a portable unit.

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