The VitroCo name is only a few months old. But to learn about the Santa Ana-based additives company, you have to go back 20 million years, when volcanic explosions in the West spread red-hot ash over hundreds of square miles. ...
Wait, maybe that's too far back.
OK, how about to 1973, when movie star John Wayne owned a 20 percent stake in predecessor company American Energy Group. Some old-timers may remember the firm's marketing program, called ``The Great Fox Powell, John Wayne Medicine Show.''
Let's put all that ancient history aside for a moment and concentrate on the news: VitroCo, which changed its name from Hi-Tech Environmental Products LLC in June, is having success selling its special aluminosilicate as a processing aid and color enhancer to plastics, paint and coatings suppliers.
``In 2003, we will sell $20 million in the auto industry alone,'' President Jess Rae Booth said in an interview at the firm's office in Santa Ana. ``Our [total sales] anticipation for next year is between $35 million and $43 million, and it will double'' in 2004.
Common 325-mesh-size particles of the material cost $4.25 per pound in truckload quantities.
Some automobiles at trade shows began sporting the material in enhanced paint formulations in 2000, and current model changes incorporate the additive in about 15 molded plastic parts. Glenn Easterbrook, VitroCo's vice president of corporate affairs and strategic planning, estimates that 95 percent of VitroCo's 2003 sales will involve additives for molded plastic parts, with the remainder in paint and coatings.
Beyond the auto market, the material is moving toward acceptance in consumer electronics, sports equipment, telephones and other products.
The inert natural solid, marketed as Vitrolite, improves injection molding and extrusion processes without requiring either equipment modification or unusual operator training, the company said.
Vitrolite modifies the viscosity of polymers and allows more effective filling of molds, especially when some cavities are troublesome, according to geochemist-volcanologist Gerald Brem, VitroCo's director of research and development and a geology professor at California State University Fullerton.
Why does the company have a volcanologist on staff? That's simple: That's where Vitrolite came from in the first place.
The red-hot ash spewed by volcanoes 20 million years ago evolved into solid masses of rhyolitic glass. Geologists believe the material gravitated about 250 miles further west before the uplifting of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Outcroppings of the glasslike ash, technically vitreous rhyolitic tuff, remain in a 15-acre quarry north of Altaville, Calif., in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Volcanologists believe most other outcroppings eroded away.
Contractor-investor Ray Hemrick acquired the mineral rights in 1973. He lacked financing, but speculative property specialists Clark (Fox) Powell and Don Steed invested $250,000 for the deposits and nearby land and retained Hemrick to mine the material on a royalty basis.
Powell and Steed lassoed movie star Wayne for his influential contacts. Wayne accessed scientific analysts, opened doors at companies needing aggregates, fillers or abrasives and, in return, was given 20 percent ownership of parent American Energy Group.
Western Chemical & Manufacturing Co. used the material in roof coatings, special-purpose cements and wall slurry as a sealant inside uranium and coal mines. Ry-Lite Corp. made kitty litter. A predecessor of CoorsTek Inc. was another early developer.
Fortune magazine published four pages about the material in its March 28, 1978, issue.
For a variety of reasons including Wayne's death in 1979, the enterprise fell on hard times, went into an estate and essentially became dormant in the early 1980s.
Beginning in 1996, Booth and others formed Hi-Tech Environmental Products LLC, assembled a multifaceted team and sought to restart use of the materials. The firm leased mineral rights at four California sites within 100 miles of each other, including Altaville. The company's available quantity of tuff: 35 billion pounds.
In setting a marketing direction, ``we picked the plastics industry basically because it looked like it was one of the largest in potential and easiest to enter, but we found it was a little harder to enter than we thought,'' Easterbrook said. ``All of our expertise had been in other businesses. However, we hired some people from within the plastics business who gave us some credibility and steered us in some directions.''
By 1999, developers noted that the material affected plastics processing in unusual ways.
``The first responses were alarming and unexpected, but they were not necessarily understood,'' said John Barber, VitroCo's vice president of technology and product development. ``We could see something was happening, but we could not get our arms around it. Couldn't define it. Couldn't harness it.''
The firm recruited additional expertise, including materials physicist and solids rheologist Andre Lee, an associate professor at Michigan State University, and polymer chemist Frank Feher, a professor at University of California at Irvine.
``We were working in materials and areas of polymers that have not been explored,'' Brem said.
By late 2001, researchers had identified ``the analytical method that would consistently show us the behavior,'' Barber said. ``That was a huge leap for us. It allowed us to interpret what was going on in the [injection molding] press.'' In March the company started building a database of information.
After conducting more than 400 demonstrations in recent years, the company concluded that the material did not damage a polymer's molecular structure. The firm has working relationships with four large resin producers.
The material is crushed at the mine site and milled in stages at toll facilities near Sacramento and Victorville, Calif., and, for purer grades, Cottage Grove, Minn. The finest grades might have use in molded medical parts.
VitroCo intends to build its own facility and acquire new equipment.
``We are looking at two sites in California,'' Booth said. ``We could be up and running in six months and producing 100 million to 125 million pounds a year,'' which is the approximate amount Sacramento and Victorville process together.
Based on current sales, the company will reach a positive cash flow by Oct. 1, Booth said.
``The ramp-up is just starting now'' and progressing mostly in basic automotive interior applications such as door handles and trim, bezels, dashboards, vents and consoles.
VitroCo employs 19 and has 30 consultants.
The company signed nonexclusive distribution agreements in 2001 with Seegott Inc. of Streetsboro, Ohio, for the domestic market, and in July with the chemical group of Tokyo-based Mitsubishi International Corp. for the global market.
Eight owners have invested $2.5 million in the business and assumed debt of another $12.5 million in a registered private placement with 162 people. Notes for the first $5 million are payable in April.
On Aug. 19 the firm filed its second patent application, and VitroCo officials are generating scientific papers to present to technical societies and journals.