Grupo Rotoplas, a top, privately owned Mexican rotational molder, is playing a key role in a project that involves molding more than 1,600 water tanks for the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in western Argentina.
The observatory's goal is to learn more about the origin of the universe. Named for French physicist Pierre Victor Auger, who died in late 1995, the observatory is near the isolated town of Malargue, in the middle of the Pampa Amarilla, or Yellow Plain.
The rotational molded water tanks are quite large: Each has a capacity of 3,170 gallons, a diameter of 3.9 yards and a height of 5.6 feet. Mexico City-based Rotoplas designed the tanks in Mexico, then shipped the mold and machinery to Argentina, where the company's subsidiary, Rotoplas/Dalka of Pilar, made many of the tanks.
Why so many water tanks? They're not for drinking or bathing. Rather, they play a key role in how the observatory will work.
The observatory's managers explained that it is a ``hybrid detector,'' employing two independent methods to detect and study high-energy cosmic rays.
One technique is ground-based and detects high-energy particles through their interaction with water. The other technique tracks the development of air showers by observing ultraviolet light emitted high in the Earth's atmosphere.
``The first detection method uses the observatory's main visible feature - the 1,600 water tanks that cover an enormous section of the pampa and serve as particle detectors. Each 3,000-gallon tank, separated from each of its neighbors by [about a mile], is completely dark inside - except when particles from a cosmic ray air shower pass through it,'' according to the observatory.
When the particles reach the detectors, their electromagnetic shock waves produce light that can be measured by photomultiplier tubes mounted on the tanks.
``Extensive air showers contain billions of secondary particles and can cause nearly simultaneous bursts of light in more than five tanks. Scientists can determine the energy of the primary cosmic ray particle based on the amount of light they detect from a sample of secondary particles.
``Slight differences in the detection times at different tank positions help scientists determine the trajectory of the incoming cosmic ray.''
Alan Watson, professor of physics at Leeds University in England, leads the international team behind the enterprise, in collaboration with Nobel Prize winner Professor James Cronin of the University of Chicago. Watson said the observatory will be completed early next year.
The observatory is the largest of its kind and covers an area the size of Rhode Island. More than 200 physicists from 55 institutions around the world are building the $50 million project.
Peter Mazur, who is responsible for locating tank manufacturers for the observatory, said project leaders ``hope to construct a similar observatory in Colorado in a few years.''
Exactly how many tanks Rotoplas made for the project is not clear. Diego Casas, director of water tanks, cisterns and septic tanks at Rotoplas' corporate offices in Mexico City, said 1,200 tanks already have been delivered.
He said the containers are designed to keep water pure for 25 years, a project requirement.
Mazur, however, said Rotoplas is providing about 800 tanks, of which 700 made by Rotoplas/Dalka had been delivered.
Some tanks have come from Formingplast SA in Ranelagh, Argentina; from Alpina in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and from Rotoplastyc in Carazinho, Brazil, Mazur said. ``The Rotoplastyc company is continuing to produce tanks for us now to help us complete the planned 1,670 tanks.'' That figure includes 70 spare tanks.
According to Rotoplas, a majority-owned Mexican company that has several institutional investors, the design and material specifications for the tanks were determined in the United States. The company pitched for the contract against U.S., Brazilian and Argentine firms after being invited to do so by Mexico's National Science and Technology Council, a branch of the country's ministry of education.
In Mexico, Rotoplas manufactures not only water tanks but water pumps, filters, valves and polypropylene hydraulic pipes. The company has a research and development center. One of the latest products, a self-cleaning septic tank, is to be launched this year.
Founded in 1978, Rotoplas has 1,500 employees in 13 manufacturing complexes, eight of which are in Mexico; the others are in Guatemala, Ecuador, Argentina, Peru and Brazil.
Casas said the company decided in 2005 to concentrate solely on helping to supply the general public with ``more and better water.''
``Most of our operations are in Mexico, but in water containers we have seen strong growth in Central and South America,'' he said.
``There are no reliable figures available on the size of the market,'' Casas added. ``In Mexico there are 21 million homes [including houses and apartments] and every one has a tank. Seven hundred thousand new homes are built in the country every year.'' In Mexico, 57 other companies produce water tanks, he said.
``In Guatemala, which we entered in 1997, we have been market leaders since 1999. In Peru we are market leaders also. In Argentina we are doing very well in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area and in other regions, and in Brazil we are in the high-quality segment of the market.''