LEBANON, ORE. (June 1, 2:45 p.m. EDT) — Entek Manufacturing Inc. and its sister company Entek International LLC, a processor of porous silica-filled polymer battery separators, operate in adjacent facilities amid commercial grass-seed-growing fields in Oregon's Linn County.
Jim Young started the original business in 1979 in the basement of his home and, through the years, has focused on innovation, productivity and taking care of customers as keys to success.
Young invented a machine for encapsulating microporous polyethylene membrane material for battery makers to use in separating the positive and negative plates in lead-acid batteries. Young's first model could replace 14 people manually stacking porous cedar or PVC leaf separators in a battery line.
For several years, Young and Peter Johnson were partners in a machinery endeavor known as Tekmax. Difficult times almost scuttled Tekmax, until the market accepted the firm's product. Things changed as the technology caught on, and Tekmax sold so many machines that processors began to run out of the gray material needed for the battery separators.
Johnson acquired Tekmax and, in 1984, Young established Entek International to develop a new way to produce the separator material and engineer machinery solutions. The Entek International equipment business evolved into Entek Manufacturing and eventually focused on all aspects of extrusion. Entek Extruders is a division of Entek Manufacturing.
Young developed a one-step process to manufacture the separators vs. competing two- or three-step processes. Raw materials enter through an extruder, and rolls of gray material emerge to be shipped to customers.
Young acquired a building in 1986, purchased five German-made twin-screw extruders, began in-house processing and shipped his first material for battery separators in 1987.
Silica's extreme abrasiveness, however, quickly damaged portions of each screw, and Young said he became disgusted when the original equipment maker was slow to address the processing problem. That drove Young into the business of making screws and barrels and then into other components.
Entek Manufacturing showed its extrusion capabilities at NPE 1997, and soon the firm began producing entire extrusion machines.
Entek International makes oxidation-resistant lead-acid battery separators in Lebanon and at a subsidiary, Entek International Ltd. in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. High polymer-chain entanglement prevents direct-melt processing of UHMW PE, but process oils permit gel processing.
Annually, the Oregon and England sites of Entek International make about 1.6 billion square feet of RhinoHide-brand separators, said Rick Pekala, the firm's vice president of research and development. “Throughputs must be 3,000 pounds per hour to be competitive.”
Each year via rail cars, Celanese AG's Ticona plants in Bishop, Texas, and Oberhausen, Germany, ship more than 15 million pounds of GUR-brand UHMW PE to the Oregon and England locations, and another firm supplies about 33 million pounds of silica.
An in-house-built vision system monitors quality and allows no more than two pinholes per roll of material.
Entek International and a key competitor, Polypore International Inc., dominate the market, supplying separator material to leading battery makers Johnson Controls Inc. and Exide Technologies Inc., as well as others.
Entek's principal customer for RhinoHide separators is Milwaukee-based JCI's power solutions segment. Polypore's Charlotte, N.C.-based Daramic unit is the key supplier to Exide of Alpharetta, Ga.
In 2002, Entek International began commercial production of a thin, porous unfilled UHMW PE-based separator for energy-dense lithium-ion batteries now in use in cellular telephones and laptop computers.
Sony Corp. had invented and commercialized lithium-ion batteries a decade earlier. Those same batteries will appear soon in power tools and eventually in hybrid-electric vehicles.
Entek manufactures more than 130 million square feet per year of its Teklon-brand lithium-ion separator material in a new building in Lebanon. In that market, Entek competes with Japanese companies such as Asahi Kasei and Tonen Chemical. Entek ships its separator material to numerous lithium-ion battery makers in China and South Korea. China BAK Battery Inc. in Shenzhen, China, is among the customers.
Pekala noted a cost problem with lithium-ion. Separators account for about 5 percent of the cost of today's lead-acid batteries but might represent 20 percent of the cost of a lithium-ion battery as the application penetrates the automotive market by about 2010.
The cost difference is less critical for small forms such as cell phones and laptops, but to compete in the automotive market, “we have to bring down the percentage of total cost relating to the separators,” Pekala said.
In an entry targeting the market for Gore-Tex-type material, Entek International is developing an X-Scape breathable membrane that is waterproof but lets water vapor through its porous structure. The membrane could be laminated to nylon or another fabric and then incorporated into a garment such as a jacket.
In addition, the firm is working to develop a porous, electrically conductive sheet that contains activated carbon and can be used as an electrode in supercapacitors, which often are used to store and deliver energy to a grid from windmills.
The sister companies have an arm's-length relationship, said Larry Keith, Entek Manufacturing president. “We quote work with them [and] sometimes [we] lose money.”
Entek International employs 220, plus 30 in the lithium-ion operation, all in Lebanon, and 130 more at the unit in England.
Entek Manufacturing employs 85.