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[caption id="attachment_34365" align="alignright" width="360" caption="The manufacturing floor with sapphire crystal growers in the final stage of assembly, prior to shipment"][/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- Demand for its sapphire crystal growing tools has sent Thermal Technology LLC into overdrive.

The Santa Rosa maker of high-tech vacuum furnaces is taking on space and 55 new employees to deal with a spike in orders from Asia, according to Matt Mede, Thermal’s president and CEO.

The crystals are used in substrate wafers for high brightness blue and white LEDs (light-emitting diodes) found in traffic lights, backlit televisions and screen displays.

“China is very generously subsidizing the building of LED factories with the goal of being the world leader in the technology,” said Mr. Mede.

[caption id="attachment_34366" align="alignleft" width="182" caption="A 90-kilogram sapphire crystal boule produced by the company’s equipment and used for LED substrate production"][/caption]

Taiwan and Korea are also investing heavily in LED production.

Thermal Technology, which added the crystal-growing systems to its line of high temperature vacuum furnaces within the last few years, has nine major Chinese customers, two in Taiwan and two in South Korea.

“We currently have 84 sapphire-growing systems on order from 13 customers, all of them from the Pacific Rim,” said Mr. Mede. “We expect to fill about 300 orders over a period of two years, starting to ship this summer. Our goal is to ship 100 systems by the end of this year and 200 in 2012.”

To do that, 70-employee Thermal has leased an additional 25,000 square feet near its facility on Airport Boulevard, and added 25 employees to its staff..

“We plan to add about 30 more,” said Mr. Mede, who has to go far afield to fill some of the engineering positions.

“Assembly workers are fairly easy to find, technicians a little more difficult. Engineers we’re trying to draw from all over the country,” he said.

[caption id="attachment_34367" align="alignright" width="288" caption="Thermal Technology’s sapphire crystal grower with a technician"][/caption]

Founded as Astro Industries in Santa Barbara in 1967, Thermal Technology was formed by a 1984 merger between Astro and another vacuum industry pioneer, Richard Brew & Co. in New Hampshire. The new company moved to Santa Rosa in 1988.

Thermal Technology developed markets for its furnaces throughout Asia, and the U.S., selling to major universities, Fortune 500 companies and many smaller companies.

In 2007, owner George Johnson sold the company to Inteco Holdings US Inc., an LLC partnership between Mr. Mede and Dr. Harald Holzgruber, who owns a similar business in Austria.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

Since the acquisition the partners have brought on several new technologies. In addition to the sapphire-growing tools, Thermal makes crystal growing equipment for windows in aircraft and spacecraft.

A third new product line involves spark plasma sintering, a very new technology with applications for both the aerospace and automotive industries.

Spark plasma sintering is a process of passing a DC current through a ceramic powder, creating an ultra-dense material without using an external heating source.

“The process shows clear benefits over conventional methods of materials densification,” said Mr. Mede.

According to Erica Corral, Ph.D and assistant professor at the University of Arizona who conducts research on ultra-high temperature ceramics and composites for use in hypersonic vehicles, Thermal Technology’s machine is especially advantageous.

“These highly bonded materials have to be heat treated to 2,000 degrees Celsius in order to be converted from a powder to a dense crystalline material system,” she said.

While conventional methods of materials processing require hours to reach and maintain peak temperature, Thermal Technology’s spark plasma sintering machine can conduct the whole run in minutes.

“Everything [in this field] is coming together right now,” said Ms. Corral. “We actually have the technology that we need to make some of these material systems – both the novel equipment to create the samples and the analytical equipment to probe and learn more about the microstructures. So a lot of need-based research dollars are being invested.”

Thermal Technology will have revenues of $60 million this year, four times last year, said Mr. Mede. During the past two years growth was slowed by the economy.

He expects the company’s LED segment will flatten out after 2013, when the equipment will be at over-capacity.

“After that LED growth depends a lot on what manufacturers like GE and Phillips are doing with light bulbs and how quickly they’re adopted. You can buy an LED bulb from Home Depot now for about $30. The industry wants that price to come down to $4.

“You see studies analyzing the number of sockets out there and the numbers are huge,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s taken a multi-year lease on the new expansion space, which may or may not become permanent.

Preston Smith of Cornish & Carey Newmark Knight Frank arranged the lease.

“I moved Thermal Technology into their current address. They were lucky to find space so close when they needed to grow,” he said.