Tester tours Butte research lab

The Montana Standard

by Justin Post

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., visited Butte Friday to tour a titanium research laboratory that is working to develop a new, environmentally friendly process of refining various types of ore.

Universal Technical Resource Services, or UTRS, received $4.8 million in federal money last year and is seeking another $8 million in the upcoming budget.

"After the financial year 2011 process we feel we won't need any more money for research," said Mike Lewis, the company's director of business development.

UTRS, which employs six full-time people, has a patent pending on the equipment it showed Tester Friday and hopes to operate in full production within the next two years, he said.

Lewis described the new process as sensitive intellectual property and reporters touring the facility with Tester were prohibited from taking video or photography of some equipment.

Lewis did say that UTRS has successfully manufactured liquid titanium using a prototype furnace designed and developed by Montana scientists.

"Nobody's been able to do it," he said. "We're doing it. We've got a good team here and we're making some good progress."

Lewis told Tester the equipment being researched at the facility, located at 116 Parkmont, has successfully manufactured a range of titanium alloys using a variety of titanium ores.

He said that fact strengthens the prospect of successfully adapting the technology for commercial-grade reactors, or furnaces.

James Cox, UTRS's principal scientist, said the project is sponsored by the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center.

The research being conducted in Butte is in response to the Army's call for inexpensive and readily available titanium manufactured using a greener process.

The current refining process has been in place since the 1940s and requires hazardous chemicals such as tetrachloride, high energy consumption and multiple costly steps, Cox said.

Based in Cherry Hill, N.J., UTRS plans to refine ore at the commercial level with one or two steps and without creating a risk to the environment, he said.

"Our research indicates that this process will be more economical, environmentally clean, and not use hazardous chemicals," Cox said.