The name Coors and its connection to Golden, Colorado, is known the world over for more than most people think. While many of us are familiar with the Coors Brewing Company, there is another lesser-known enterprise connected to the Coors family more than a century old that touches our lives on a daily basis, that company is CoorsTek, and it has been a Mines partner since its founding.
A century later, the lesser-known sibling to the Coors Brewing Company has left casserole dishes behind and quietly grown into the world’s largest producer of engineered ceramics, with 48 plants in 13 countries producing more than 300 different ultra-high-tech materials for use in everything from military armor to cell phone components to energy-saving fuel cells. Key to its success has been its close collaboration with Colorado School of Mines scientists, who continue to explore significant questions about the properties and potential for the unique and diverse class of materials some refer to as ‘white gold.’ Now CoorsTek is making the largest single private investment in Mines’ history: $26.9 million to help build the 95,000-square-foot CoorsTek Center for Applied Science and Engineering, purchase a $1.5 million transmission electron microscope, and establish a new research fellowship program.
‘CoorsTek and the Coors family have had a close relationship with Mines since the very beginning,’ says CoorsTek Chairman, President and CEO John K. Coors ’77, the first of 11 Coors family members to have earned a Mines degree. ‘The new CoorsTek Center will elevate the level of research, scholarship and skills-building at Mines in connection with a company that can put directly to use the things that will be learned and developed here.’
Adds Mines President Bill Scoggins, ‘Mines has grown tremendously over the last 15 years in terms of enrollment. But the one thing that hasn’t kept up is infrastructure. Two years from now, thanks to this transformative partnership, we will be opening the largest, most high-tech facility the school has ever built.’
From Casserole Dishes to Superconductors
While the Coors Brewing Company has long been a household name in Colorado, CoorsTek has maintained a notably lower profile. What exactly does CoorsTek make? John Coors prefers to answer the question this way: ‘What would happen if you snapped your fingers and all the parts we make went away?’
First, he explains, the lights would go out, because the electrical grid depends upon engineered ceramic parts as insulators. Then, your computer and cell phone would stop working, because virtually every semiconductor chip in the world is now made with equipment using tough, heat-resistant and chemical-resistant industrial ceramic. Your car would stall, because durable ceramic seals play a critical role in the longevity of your water pump. When you went to get a drink from a fast-food restaurant, your cup would come up empty, because the dispenser valve is made with corrosion-resistant ceramic parts. People with life-enhancing artificial hips would have to rely on wheelchairs because they depend on engineered ceramics and metals.
‘You name a company, we probably make something for them,’ says Coors, referring to a client list that now hovers around 10,000 worldwide. ‘Often, they’re little tiny pieces that go into unique applications that make people’s lives measurably better.’
At their most basic, ceramics originate from fine dirt-like clay.
‘But when you look at the diversity of properties you get when you process that dirt the right way, it is pretty amazing,’ explains Ivar Reimanis, the Herman F. Coors Distinguished Professor of Ceramic Engineering and interim head of the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department.
Depending on how they are fabricated, engineered ceramics can be nearly as hard as diamonds, resist extreme heat and corrosion, possess exceptional insulating qualities, or conduct electricity super-efficiently. That makes them attractive alternatives for novel, tricky applications where metals and plastics won’t do.
In the late 1800s, German ceramists perfected specialized ceramics for use in laboratory equipment like mortars and pestles, which must withstand extreme heat and caustic chemicals. But after war broke out in 1914, that German source dried up due to embargos. ‘There were only two companies in the U.S. that were able to make it and we, a tiny little company in Golden, Colorado, were one of them,’ says Coors.
The company’s World War I-era entré into the scientific chemical-ware market put it on the map and provided a means of sustaining the company, many local families, and Golden’s industrial base during the prohibition years (1916-1933). By 1932, Coors Porcelain (as it was called at the time) had captured 90 percent of the U.S. chemical-ware market and employed more than 200 people even amid the Great Depression.
By the time World War II rolled around, the U.S. government was well aware of the promise of ceramics, and turned to the company ‘fast earning a reputation as the technological hub in the field’ to provide ceramic insulators for military aircraft, ceramic nose cones for radar-controlled defense rockets, and even top-secret materials for the Manhattan Project, according to the book ‘Ceramic Strength: CoorsTek at 100.’
In the ’60s, the company began to produce ceramic substrates for use in electronics. In the ’70s and ’80s it expanded its reach into the realm of oil, gas and mining, where companies sought ultra-tough materials that could take the punishment of constant use in abrasive conditions like chutes in a mine or tubes in an oil well. During the Gulf War in the ’90s, it developed lightweight, alumina body armor inserts that could stop a bullet.
‘Without them, there would have been significantly more fatalities,’ says Coors, who has over the years had numerous veterans, or loved-ones of veterans, personally thank him for the lives saved. ‘It’s pretty easy to get emotional just thinking about it.’
In 1988, CoorsTek helped establish the Mines-based Colorado Center for Advanced Ceramics, a national focal point for research on advanced ceramics. That same year, the Coors family funded a $2 million
endowment to hire the first Herman F. Coors Distinguished Professor of Ceramic Engineering. Today, the center boasts nine faculty and 24 graduate students.
‘The Coors family essentially spawned the advanced ceramics effort at Mines, something that is now internationally recognized,’ says Reimanis. ‘It’s very important for engineering educators and students to be aware in real time what challenges industry faces. The close connection to CoorsTek allows us to bring into the classroom examples that are current, from the company right down the street. It is invaluable.’
In turn, Mines researchers and students have helped the company answer some of the most fundamental questions about how ceramics are structured, what happens to them when subjected to heat, pressure or other stimuli, and how to better fabricate them.
‘Time to market is a critical issue. The company that solves the customer’s problems the fastest wins. So it is critically important for us to access technical resources wherever we can, and certainly Mines’ proximity is great,’ says Frank Anderson, vice president of research and development for CoorsTek. ‘We also hire a lot of Mines grads.’
Among them was Ruthie Coors Swartzlander, who graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering. During her time at Mines, she occasionally bumped into her father Grover Coors ’96, PhD ’01, who was earning his doctorate at the time.
‘I think we were the only father and daughter to ever be at Mines at the same time,’ says Swartzlander. ‘We had a race to see who was going to finish first, and he won.’
After graduation, she went to work with him, researching fuel cell technologies at CoorsTek. Within three months on the job, she made a mistake that ended up being a pivotal discovery. Her dad asked her to
make an anode, essentially a thin, porous ceramic-metallic composite that serves as an electrode in a fuel cell. The confident new grad gathered all the materials she thought she needed and went to work in the CoorsTek lab. But as she crafted the anode she left out a key ingredient.
‘It turns out that making ceramic is kind of like baking a cake and everyone was using a special mix that was really expensive. I got the wrong ingredients and put them together, and one ended up reacting with others in a way that no one had observed before.’ At first, her dad looked with skepticism at her creation. But further testing showed it was mechanically sound. The next day, they filed for a patent for the process (called solid state reactive sintering). One year later, the Mines-based Colorado Fuel Cell Center, a national hub for fuel cell research, was born.
Swartzlander’s discovery of reactive sintering has motivated extensive follow-on research in the Colorado Fuel Cell Center. Several graduate students have authored theses related to reactive sintering of fuel-cell materials and other advanced technical ceramics.
‘It simplified production of fuel cells and made them more commercially feasible, blazing the trail toward a whole host of new, sustainable energy technologies,’ says Swartzlander.
From Cleaner Energy to Stronger Tanks
On a recent afternoon in a third-floor lab in Hill Hall, graduate student Amy Morrissey MS ’13, slipped a needle-shaped sample of a ceramic fuel cell membrane roughly 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair into a million-dollar machine called an atom probe. With the flip of a switch, the probe ripped the material apart, atom by atom, first taking a 3D, ultra-high-resolution map of where each atom was and what elements were present.
‘Fuel cell applications are limited, and one reason is that there are still some fundamental scientific discoveries and challenges that we have to overcome as scientists,’ says Morrissey, a PhD candidate in the metallurgical and materials engineering department. ‘Equipment like this is getting us there.’
A key first step in understanding the strengths and shortfalls of existing materials is to observe their structure at the atomic level, says Brian Gorman, an associate professor of metallurgical and materials engineering and director of the interdisciplinary Materials Science Program at Mines. For instance, by looking closely at ‘grain boundaries,’ the interfaces where tiny, sand-like bits of ceramic come together to make a whole, they can discover what atomic snags might be hindering the smooth flow of hydrogen across a fuel cell, or making glass vulnerable to breakage at those boundaries.
‘When we had just clay and fire, that was the earliest engineered ceramics. Nowadays, we have indestructible windows, space shuttle tiles, superconductors, and solar cells, all made of engineered ceramics. None of that would’ve been possible without studying the atomic structure,’ says Gorman.
Looking to the Future
CoorsTek’s $26.9 million investment, paired with $14.6 million from the state of Colorado, will enable the school to build what President Scoggins calls ‘an integral campus landmark and dynamic hub of rich intellectual exchange.’ The CoorsTek Center will primarily support the College of Applied Science and Engineering at Mines with laboratories, classrooms, and centralized teaching and research space all on the grounds of the current physics building, Meyer Hall.
Reimanis sees the investment as a turning point for Mines, and one that will enhance its technical capability, draw high-quality faculty and research grants, and in turn support improved education of students who can go out into the industry and make change. ‘I think it will have a real snowball effect,’ he says.
John Coors, whose two sons and several nieces and nephews have attended Mines, agrees.
‘This is not just about a building. It is about much more,’ he says. ‘It’s about connecting students, researchers, faculty and industry, and having an impact not just on this place, but around the world in ways we cannot even begin to predict today.’
Coors added, ‘this investment in the CoorsTek Center at Mines should produce several great outcomes. First, Mines will be a more powerful institution. We will be able to attract more worldclass research scientists, faculty and students from around the country and around the world. Next, we expect breakthrough results in development of new materials, improved processes and new approaches to using our collective competencies to make the world measurably better. Ultimately, we are out to transform lives through what the school has to offer: the lives of those of students here today, those who are coming in the future, and those of people around the world. I believe in value creation, taking what we have been given and what we have achieved then leaving something greater behind. There should be something
more for those who come after us. As I think about what we have just announced, I consider this an investment in people we will never meet, who will live better lives because of our collective commitment to Mines.’