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Well tuned equipment

Small company seeks excellence in the production of reference material

Brazilian chemical industries will soon have a new source for obtaining reference material, used for calibrating and controlling their equipment. The novelty comes from São José dos Campos, a company called Quimlab, which is concluding a chemical metrological laboratory, in compliance to international standards. Set up in the Polovale II Basic Technology Incubator, within Univap, the University of the Paraíba Valley, the company already produces some substances for industrial use, to measure the so-called chemical magnitudes. These magnitudes, generally speaking, are connected with the quantity of a material in a given substance, liquid or solid.  For example, the percentage of lead or iron found in a metal alloy is a chemical magnitude. Likewise, the pH value of a food or a liquid indicates if the substance is acid, neutral, or basic.

Quimlab prepares and sells standard solutions of basic pH for chemical companies that produce the raw materials used in the food industry, for the treatment of swimming pool water, or even for the analysis of urine. If the industry uses or makes a substance that should have an acidity that corresponds to pH 4 (the scale runs from 0 to 14), the device on which the samples of this material are routinely analyzed is adjusted and calibrated, by comparing to the standard solution of pH 4 produced by Quimlab. As there are no quality certified manufacturers of pH standards in Brazil, a large part of these products is imported.  The manufacture of these products benefits the user companies, which pays prices below those of the imported ones.

To develop the Chemical Metrology Project, Quimlab has been receiving funding from FAPESP since 1997, under the Program for Technological Innovation in Small Companies (PIPE). This comes to R$ 71,700, plus US$ 149,800 that the company is to receive by March 2001. Although there is time to finish the project, the laboratory is practically ready and with a long list of customers.

Conventional standards
Nilton Pereira Alves, the company’s chemist and owner, has a list of several companies, like Alcan, Petrobras, Henkel, Texaco, Tintas Renner, Crylor and Leiner Davis Gelatin  There are 30 companies from the São José dos Campos region that are buying chemical standards from Quimlab and receiving advice on the development of specific materials for each one of them. The technical manager of Crylor, Elson Garcia, is purchasing from Quimlab the more conventional standards, like those for pH and for conductivity, and has hired the company to help with the development of new equipment.

Another company, Leiner Davis Gelatin, which produces the gelatin used as an ingredient in the food industry, buys from Quimlab the standard solutions for calibrating the equipment that measures the pH of its products. “Leiner has ISO 9001, and, when we went through the audits to keep this certification, one of the items checked may be the certificate of standard solution”, explains Eduardo Aparecido Stephano, the company’s assistant for research and development.

Quimlab’s next step is to have the Laboratory of Chemical Metrology recognized and approved by Inmetro, the National Institute of Metrology.  In a way, the company has taken the lead.  “We are asking to be approved by the Brazilian Network of Inmetro Test Laboratories – by way of the international standard ISO Guide 25 – because the institution still has no specific standards to certify us as producers of reference material”, says Alves.

World class
Quimlab was founded in 1997, after Alves left Kodak Brasileira, where he had worked for 11 years in the standards development. A master in inorganic chemistry, he saw the opportunity for not leaving his area of activity, by opening his own company, with the infrastructure facilities offered by the incubator. As a technical strategy, the company guaranteed the quality of its standard solutions, by comparing the substances made by it with the reference materials of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist), a sort of United States Inmetro, which has been acting in this area since 1905, and today is the most respected laboratory in the world in the area of chemical metrology.

Another area of Quimlab’s activity is its consultancy for the development of specific reference materials, used just by one given industry. This is the case, for example, of the production of synthetic fibers. The industries have a formula for this product that gives the fibers properties like softness and the capacity to receive dyes. To tune the equipment that routinely analyzes the samples and makes sure that the formula components are in the ideal proportion, the industry needs a reference material. In this case, it can be a fiber disk, produced on a laboratory scale according to the industrial patent. It is a perfect fiber, which adapts the apparatus in the right measure, and serves as a comparison to day to day production.

Crylor, for example, manufactures 1,200 tons / month of a synthetic fiber called polyacrylonitrile, made with raw material derived from petroleum. “We called Quimlab to calibrate the equipment that measures the level of polyvinyl acetate during the production of this fiber”, explains Garcia, from Crylor.

Alves clarifies that there are numerous reference materials used in the most varied chemical industries. To set some limit to Quimlab’s range of activity, the company is basically dedicated to the manufacture of ion reference materials (for example, pH) and of spectrochemical standards.  These latter are for tuning spectrophotometers, appliances that measure the quantities of chemical elements and compounds in the most varies substances.

Winning the market
Quimlab has seven members of staff, one with his doctorate concluded, and all linked to the Chemical Metrology Laboratory project. Alves believes that the current sales of around R$ 18,000 a month can reach, in two years, figures of around R$ 300,000 a month. “We are in the research and development stage, and, when the project is finished, we will enter the stage of winning the market, with a gradual increase in sales”, he explains.

At the moment, the company is also taking part in a partnership with the University of São Paulo (USP) and Univap, in building the first hydrogen cell in Latin America for the development of reference materials in pH. The equipment consists of an electrochemical sensor capable of perceiving and quantifying the variation in the concentration of the hydrogen on in any solution. The precision of the analysis comes to thousandths of a unit of pH, something like 0.001 pH.

The development of this hydrogen cell is following the rules of Iupac, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and according to Alves, once it is concluded, the pH reference materials will have the same degree of reliability as the Nist’s materials. A future that will help Quimlab to develop new reference materials.

• Nilton Pereira Alves is a chemist graduated from the Oswaldo Cruz Colleges, of São Paulo.  He took a master’s degree in Inorganic Chemistry at USP’s Institute of Chemistry.
Project: Laboratory of Chemical Metrology
Investment: R$ 71,716.00 and US$ 149,878.00