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Knowledge & opportunity

Researchers set up a company that uses metallic powders for the production of industrial filters

Anyone who visits the timid installation of the Brats company, set up in a three-storey house in a busy road in the Rio Pequeno district, in the west of the city of São Paulo, would not guess the technological innovations that are being developed there inside. The company is transforming itself into one of the main national manufacturers of stainless steel filters and of special metallic powders, novel products in the country or with the manufacturing process dominated by few companies. Established a little more than four years ago, in April 2002, Brats is a good example of how the elevated scientific knowledge of its founding members, allied to a sense of opportunity, can bear fruits and transform itself into a profitable business.

The company was founded by five researchers, graduates and researchers in powder metallurgy and the formation of metals and alloys. Three of them were employed at the Institute for Technological Research of the State of São Paulo (IPT in the Portuguese acronym) and the other two are ex-researchers at the Institute of Nuclear Energy and Research Institute – IPEN in the Portuguese acronym, of the Ministry of Science and Technology. “As a group we decided to establish a company focused on the development of new technologies in the area of powder metallurgy. And, for this to happen, we used all of our ‘know-how’ acquired over more than two decades of research” says the metallurgy engineer Lúcio Salgado, an ex-researcher at IPT who gained his doctorate degree at IPEN, and is one of the founders of Brats.

The beginning of the enterprise was not easy. With few resources to invest, the solution  found was to install Brats in a small room at the Technology Companies Incubator Center (Cietec), located at the IPEN building in the University of São Paulo campus in the city of São Paulo, where the company remained for a year and a half, until its transfer to its present location. According to partner Salgado, it was also fundamental for the start up and survival of the enterprise to have obtained resources from FAPESP, by way of the Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program, in order to develop sintered filters (the process of producing a material via the conformation of powders by compacting and heating to high temperatures) of high performance stainless steel. These parts, which up until then had not been produced in Brazil, were the first wager by the company, which, afterwards, had three other PIPE projects approved by FAPESP.

Stainless steel filters are porous elements made from the pressing of metallic powders. They are positioned in a matrix, in the format of the filter to be produced, and then compacted in a mechanical or hydraulic press. Next, they are heated – or sintered – in a vacuum furnace at a temperature close to 1,300oC (Celsius), equivalent to three quarters of the melting temperature of the metallic alloy. These porous filters are used in the manufacture of solid-gas, solid-liquid and gas-liquid separation systems, such as purgative, diffusing, attenuating and bubbling systems. Their main users are the chemical, petrochemical, steel making, food, automobile and mechanics industries. Brats’ best selling item is the cylindrical filter known as the fire-cut-off type. Of around 3 centimeters in height, it is a fundamental part in oxyacetylene blow torches, used to cut and solder metallic plates.

Responsible for 60% of Brats’ income, which last year reached R$ 400,000, the part had needed to be imported from the United States and Europe, since around here only bronze filters were manufactured, which did not attend to the necessary specifications for use in blow torches.The filter functions as a safety mechanism, impeding the reflux of the flame back into the blow torch and coming in contact with the acetylene, a highly inflammable gas, and bringing about the explosion of the cylinder. The national demand for this type of part is around 10,000 units per month and Brats has already conquered half of the market. It is supplying to six small manufacturers as well as the company Thermadyne, one of the largest in the sector and which previously had purchases the part from an American company. “Our product has the same technical specifications and is around 10% cheaper than that imported. As well as this, as we’re in Brazil, we provide immediate technical service and can resolve the logistics problems of our clients with more ease” says partner Salgado.

Titanium powder
Another Brats innovation is the production of titanium powder obtained via a process known as hydrogenation – de-hydrogenation, which basically consists in hydrogenation (the addition of hydrogen), grinding and de-hydrogenation of the material. The hydrogenation is done to weaken the titanium bars and thus transform them into powder during the milling stage. Next, the powder is placed in a vacuum furnace and heated to around 900oC in order to remove any hydrogen. “This process is only mastered in Brazil by research institutes.  We’re the first company to use it commercially” says Salgado. The two main applications for titanium powder, according to the researcher, are for plasma (a type of gas) covering of dental or orthopedic implants’ still under development – and the jet treatment on the surfaces of dental implants. This jet treatment is necessary to turn the prosthesis more corrugated and to facilitate its integration into the mouth’s bone. Since last year, the powder is being sold to the manufacturers of dental implants. “Our innovation was to make use of titanium powder, which is a biocompatible element, in order to finish dental implants, something that nobody had previously done” highlights  Salgado.

As of January of next year, the company intends to widen its product line giving initiative to the commercialization of the so-called metallic filters of the cartridge type, which are produced from flat sheets of stainless steel. With the format of a tube, of different sizes, they make up part of catalysts (a type of gaseous filter) installed within the reactors used in the petrochemical industry and alcohol distilleries. Today these filters, still in the development phase, are not manufactured in Brazil and their added value is very high. Partner Salgado believes that when Brats begins to produce them the company’s income should take a major leap. “As with the cylindrical filters for the blow torches, this product is also unprecedented in the country, and will represent an import substitution” says the metallurgy engineer Francisco Ambrozio Filho, an ex-researcher at IPEN and another of Brats’ partners.

New factory
The success obtained by the products launched by the company has made its owners decide to expand its installations. In order for this to happen, they will build a new headquarters in the municipality of Cajamar, forecast to be opened in September of this year. Of the R$ 150,000 invested in the building of the factory, two thirds were company resources and the remainder came through the Support Program for Research in Companies  (Pappe), sponsored by the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), in partnership with FAPESP. Brats also received US$ 150,000 from Pappe for the purchase of a sintering  oven. Since its foundation the company has maintained a partnership with IPEN for the use of the Institute’s infrastructure. “We began in a 25 m2 room at Cietec, we then went to the current large shed, with 150 m2, and now we’re going to a space twice that size” explains  Salgado.

The spatial expansion of the new headquarters is fundamental for Brats expansion plans, as they pretend to initiate the production of the metallic powders used as the raw material for their filters. “Today we need to import the stainless steel powder, which costs around US$ 20.00 a kilogram, but at Cajamar we ourselves will be able to manufacture it” advised the researcher. With this the production cost of the stainless steel filters could fall considerably, giving the conditions for the company’s products to be internationally competitive. “When we go on to produce the metallic powder, we’ll be the only company in the world to dominate the total production cycle of stainless steel filters. The verticalization of the production chain is going to allow us to move on to exporting our products. This is our next goal, forecast for 2007” advised partner Ambrozio Filho.

The powders will be produced starting from a method known as water atomization,  a process similar to that of spraying. “We already master this process and we only need to adjust small details in order to start of production on a commercial scale” the researcher says. The first step is to melt the raw material, based on iron, and then to run the molten metal through a type of draining pan. With the use of a device called the atomization nozzle, the liquid thin thread is bombarded by a jet of high pressure water, leading to spraying and the production of the powder. In order to control the size and the morphology of the powder particles, one only needs to pay attention to the parameters such as pressure and flow of water, temperature of the liquid metal and the diameter of the thin thread. Internal production will bring another benefit to the Brats company, which is to produce powders with the desired granule size.

The plant at Cajamar will have the capacity to produce 7 tons of metallic powder per month, working during a single shift. As currently the company’s internal demand is only 1 ton per year, the intention of the Brats executives is to diversify production, also manufacturing other types of powders, such as nickel, iron and copper alloys, and to go on to supply to the companies that consume these products, such as the chemical industry and manufacturers of solder electrodes. “With the change to the new headquarters at Cajamar and the start of metallic powder production, we’ll go on to be self-sufficient. After four years of battling, we’re going to reach maturity” says Salgado.

The Projects
Production of porous parts in high performance alloys (nº 04/10076-5); Modality Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program; Coordinator Francisco Ambrozio Filho – IPEN/Brats; Investment R$ 306,088.50 and U$ 22,254.00 (FAPESP)
2. The usage of titanium powder obtained by the HDH method (nº 06/56428-5); Modality Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program; Coordinator Rejane Aparecida Nogueira – IPEN/Brats; Investment R$ 415,880.00 (FAPESP)