By Tara Vreeland, News On 6
QUAPAW, Oklahoma -- It's a typical sight in Oklahoma; fields filled with large round hay bales. But the neighbor closest to one piece of farmland in Quapaw is a manufacturing plant that's out of this world.
It's a $51 million, 40,000-square foot facility where Umicore makes germanium wafers.
"One of the first process steps is where we grow germanium. High pure germanium crystals," said Peter Dobbelaere, Tulsa Plant Manager. "And that by itself is very neat technology but it could take up to three days to grow one perfect crystal. But they need to be perfect to serve the purpose."
The element germanium is grown, shaped, flattened, edged, etched, polished into almost impossibly perfect mirror-like discs, or wafers. The wafers are a template for solar cells, kind of like a pizza crust, that are used in satellites and other space applications.
"If you didn't have that germanium template it would go all random like a pile of sand," said John Tyler, Research Engineer, Missouri of Science and Technology. "And that's very inefficient as far as solar current cells."
The wafers were used in NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, Pathfinder and Sojourner.
Need a more down to earth example? The high tech, ultra thin discs are also used in more everyday items, like solar powered cars and more.
"More specifically LED applications which you can see everywhere from lights, car lights, street lights, you may be familiar with LED TV's," Dobbelaere said.
Quapaw eclipsed the competition. Umicore chose the Sooner State over Phoenix and Albuquerque for its U.S. expansion.
"It will create 150 full time jobs and of course it was a very large investment to make this magnificent building and all the high tech machinery that they brought into it," said Natalie Shirley, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Tourism.
Umicore says Quapaw economically made sense, and given all the surrounding farmland, there's room for growth.
Engineers say it takes about two weeks from growing the germanium from the seed to packaging the wafer to ship to clients.
Umicore says the Quapaw plant will make 400,000 wafers per year.