Company bridges East and West Technologies: Ashurst's scientists are working to refine and commercialize ideas developed in the former Soviet Union.

June 17, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

East meets West at a research lab in Relay where U.S. scientists are working to refine technologies developed in the former Soviet Union, turn them into products and bring them to the world market.

The efforts are being undertaken by Emtech Ltd. through its Ashurst Technology Group, a young technology transfer company that moved its corporate headquarters and research operations from Toronto last month to the former Lockheed Martin Corp. lab near Interstate 95 in southwestern Baltimore County.

If Ashurst succeeds, it could lead to higher-performance fighter planes, more homers by Little Leaguers, lighter bicycles, a new boat engine and a battery that could outperform the Energizer Bunny.

At the center of the activity is Benton H. Wilcoxon, a 46-year-old entrepreneur from Huntsville, Ala., who has spent much of his adult life working as an independent consultant in the fields of metals, electronics, computer technology and mining.

Wilcoxon, who founded Ashurst in 1991 with the idea of capitalizing on Soviet technology, got involved in Ukrainian technology later that year in Geneva, Switzerland. There he met the son of the head of the I. N. Frantsevich Institute for Problems of Materials Science, in Kiev, a prominent research group employing about 3,000 scientists that was seeking Western contacts for banking support, deal-making and joint ventures.

Wilcoxon went to Kiev and ended up developing a host of Ukrainian business relationships and linking up with Emtech, a Toronto-based company incorporated in Bermuda. When Lockheed Martin decided to close its Relay operation, Wilcoxon jumped at the chance to hire a half-dozen of its scientists and move Ashurst's research operations into part of the vacated lab.

Like most technology start-ups, Emtech, which will change its name to Ashurst Technology Ltd. later this month, is in the red -- it lost $8.2 million in its fiscal year ended in January, and its stock trades for under $1. For now, its only revenue -- $2.3 million last year -- is derived from the sale of iron ore from the Zhovti Vody mine outside Kiev, in which it holds a 43 percent stake. Its hopes for profits are pinned on how well it succeeds in developing commercial uses for the technologies that its scientists are working with.

One of the more promising ideas centers on the Zhovti Vody mine, once a major harvesting ground for iron ore and uranium for the Soviet military. The giant mine, with more than 200 miles of tunnels, is also the world's primary source of scandium, a rare metal known for its toughness and a "top secret" material used in Soviet fighter planes, including the MiG 29. Adding just traces of scandium to aluminum increases the weldability of the alloy. Other benefits include increased strength, durability, plasticity and fatigue resistance.

Working with Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., Ashurst scientists have identified other potential uses for the alloy, including metal baseball bats, lighter bicycle frames and stronger, less corrosive shells for boats.

Another product is aluminum-scandium welding wire, which Wilcoxon says is the first new welding wire technology in three decades. The chief advantage of the new weld wire, which Wilcoxon said is currently being tested by several U.S. companies, is that it provides a stronger bond when welding aluminum.

Aside from scandium-related technology, Ashurst also is working with other Ukrainian companies and scientists. Among its projects: The company has developed a prototype of a 70-horsepower, two-cylinder diesel engine that is a scaled-down version of the 1,200-horsepower motor used in the former Soviet Army's T-72 and T-80 tanks. Wilcoxon said the company will focus its efforts on developing the engine for use in power boats in the United States. He said it could also be used to power small pickup trucks in other parts of the world.

Ashurst is working with Ukrainian scientists to develop metal matrix composites (metals reinforced with hard ceramic particles), called TICAD, that Wilcoxon said are harder and stiffer and have greater strength at high temperatures than do conventional titanium alloys.

The company has discovered a chemical process that may improve the life of alkaline batteries, such as those used in flashlights. The company has hired Frank Parsen as a senior consultant. Parsen is a former vice president of research and development at Duracell, the Bethel, Conn.-based company that is the world's largest alkaline battery producer.

Joseph R. Pickens, Ashurst's director of research and development, said more work needs to be done on the battery, but he added that it has potential.

"Our hope is that after the Energizer Bunny falls over, ours will keep going," he said.

Ashurst doesn't plan to produce any of these products; Wilcoxon said the company does not want to be in the manufacturing business.

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