One of the coolest things in Wichita looks like an extra-large, extra-shiny molasses cookie.
But this round mound of brown is actually aluminum nitride, an advanced material that can’t be found in nature. It has to be made using high heat and nasty chemicals.
But its benefits – such as helping to cool electronics components – are huge, and its maker, 5-year-old Nitride Solutions, appears poised for significant growth.
It started selling its products last year and hopes to break even operationally by June.
Nitride Solutions is in the middle of expanding into several thousand square feet of vacant space at its building at 3333 W. Pawnee, and will grow its workforce from 10 to 20 by the end of the year. It has agreed with the state to add 39 jobs within five years in exchange for tax breaks.
The expansion will allow the company to add key machinery to ramp up production.
“We’re increasing capacity by a factor of 10,” said founder and CEO Jeremy Jones.
It seems like a long journey. Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jason Schmitt, a student at Kansas State University and then a grad student at the University of Poland, developed the technology and started a predecessor to Nitride Solutions a decade ago in Manhattan, Kan.
In 2009, Jones came on as CEO after leaving Koch Genesis. They formed Nitride Solutions and moved it to Wichita in 2010.
In 2011 the two started assembling money and constructing the equipment. Nitride Solutions has received nearly $10 million in private investment from angel investors all over the country.
This year, the state also announced that it had awarded the company economic development grants and tax incentives. The company plans to spend $6 million on new equipment and to renovate the building.
Wichita Technology Corp., a local nonprofit venture fund, has been invested in Nitride Solutions for years and is very pleased with the progress.
“They are taking off,” said WTC president Trish Brasted. “Every day they are getting additional customers and are now in growth mode.”
She said that what people think of as overnight successes often take seven to 10 years, particularly in manufacturing with its high capital costs.
What is aluminum nitride?
Aluminum nitride itself is more than a century old, but it has been too expensive to make for many uses.
Schmitt developed a new, much cheaper way to make it.
“The world has really been searching for aluminum nitride and a way to manufacture it for about 20 years because it enables the next generation of electronics,” Jones said.
Aluminum nitride has several very special qualities that makes it immensely valuable: It sucks up heat better than almost anything else and doesn’t break down much in high electrical voltage.
That makes it potentially very useful in industrial electrical and electronic applications when high voltages generate so much heat that it would damage other components. The heat sink will pull that heat away and allow higher voltage more intense production.
How valuable is it? With a slight alteration in the process, they could make sapphires, which are made of aluminum oxide. But they’re just not worth the trouble and money.
Jones said a disk of aluminum nitride will sell for several hundred dollars.
The company uses three reactors to create the aluminum nitride disks. One reactor uses heat, 4,000 degrees of it; another uses complex chemical reactions along with heat; a third uses plasma, an excited state in which the electrons are stripped off the atomic nuclei.
The company has been selling product to the LED industry in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, replacing silicon in some extreme high voltage manufacturing environments.
Its next market is high-voltage switches in the substations for high-capacity electrical lines that move power around the grid. And beyond that, Jones said, what about cellphones or a huge range of consumer and commercial electronics?
“The goal of the company is to spread this technology pretty broadly,” Jones said. “We’re not looking at a niche market.”
Address: 3333 W. Pawnee
Founders: Jason Schmitt, Jeremy Jones
What it makes: Advanced material called aluminum nitride, which absorbs heat and withstands high voltage
Employees: 10, but has promised to hire 39 more within five years.