by Adolfo Pesquera
Here's a brainteaser.
What does a long-forgotten ballistics engineer have to do with a once prominent Texas home builder, one of America's favorite food companies and a mysterious tiny bubble that could conserve billions of gallons of Earth's freshwater?
Answer: They all have a role in the emergence of VRTX Technologies, a Schertz company whose only product makes little bubbles.
General Mills Inc., the Minneapolis-based international marketer of breakfast cereals, was an early adopter of VRTX's bubble machine. That machine was the brainchild of San Antonio ballistics engineer Cliff Ashbrook, who came up with the technology by shooting bullets in a water tank. And the grandchildren of Texas home builder Ray Ellison Sr. are now the majority owners of VRTX.
"I believe this is the future for water treatment," said Mike Dwyer, a Chicago-based sales manager for VRTX. "It's environmentally friendly, can accomplish all the goals of conventional treatment systems, and it saves water."
The machine offers a chemical-free way to purify water used in cooling towers, the prevalent system used to cool commercial buildings. Depending on the building's use, cooling towers consume from 20 percent to 50 percent of the water that goes into most large buildings, and almost all of the buildings use chemicals to keep contaminants at bay.
The 18-employee company isn't revolutionizing the cooling industry, though.
"Probably 99 percent of the market is still using chemicals," VRTX CEO David W. Nicholas said.
Meanwhile, VRTX is chipping away at the market in its quest toward profitability.
"We are probably going to be in the neighborhood of tripling sales this year," said Nicholas, who would not disclose revenue figures or losses. "We expect to approach break-even some time in the next 12 to 18 months."
In 2002, General Mills won the Minnesota Governor's Award for Excellence in Waste and Pollution Prevention.
General Mills' award had its genesis in a 1995 hazardous-materials training session among employees of the company's Chanhassen, Minn., plant. Workers asked for an alternative to the toxic chemicals needed to operate the factory's cooling towers.
Factories, office towers and other large buildings use cooling towers to get rid of indoor heat. They work by blowing vast quantities of water down a manmade waterfall. The water that doesn't evaporate is recycled, but to prevent bacteria buildup and scaling on the equipment, chemical treatment has been and remains the standard industry practice.
General Mills found no viable alternative to chemicals in 1995, but VRTX came into existence in 1998. The following year, General Mills installed VRTX equipment at the Chanhassen plant.
After a test period, General Mills reported an amazing chain of results. Water usage was cut 40 percent for a yearly savings of more than 3.6 million gallons. All toxic chemicals used for cooling-tower operations were eliminated, 6,544 gallons a year.
That means no more sodium hydroxide, sodium molybate, sulfuric acid, chlorine or biocide that could work their way into the groundwater.
Annual factory emissions fell by 2.4 million pounds for carbon dioxide, 6,200 pounds for sulfur dioxide and 6,000 pounds for nitrous oxide.
General Mills reported an annual savings at the plant of $108,000 and said it would install 21 more VRTX (pronounced "vortex") devices at its other plants.
Jerry Wohlers, a manufacturer's representative with Chanhassen-based Power Process Equipment Inc., sells cooling-tower parts for various manufacturers. His VRTX clients in Minnesota include General Mills, Schwann Food Co. and Lund's Foods, he said.
In Minnesota, VRTX has a proven record, Wohlers said, and it's competitive.
"In 99 percent of all cases, we're coming in at less cost (than chemical treatment)," Wohlers said.
By Wohlers' account, VRTX's expansion in Minnesota sounds inevitable because the state government is insisting all public institutions using state money for their facilities use approved environment-friendly architectural standards.
If VRTX secures its foothold in the industry, the company's potential for growth is tremendous.
Industry analyst Freedonia Group estimates the water-treatment-chemical industry's U.S. market at more than $3 billion, with a growth rate of 4.5 percent this year.
Resistance comes chiefly from the facilities managers who are VRTX's point of contact for sales. Use of a chemical-free system is still too new a concept for many, Nicholas said.
But the principle behind the VRTX device is mechanically simple.
"Our goal is to make as many bubbles as we can and collapse them as fast as we can," Nicholas said.
That concept came from Ashbrook's experiments, shooting bullets into a water tank.
He noticed that sediment builds up on the tank's floor and theorized that in-solution particles were somehow displaced by the violent vortex caused when bullets zip through water.
"Ashbrook thought you could do interesting things with a vortex zone," said Nicholas, adding that the inventor has died.
Time proved Ashbrook right. A hydrodynamic cavitation device -- which produces bubbles as an object forces its way through liquid -- evolved from that idea.
"Pumped water runs through a set of horizontally opposed nozzles," Nicholas said. "This causes the sudden formation and collapse of low-pressure bubbles."
At the center of a conical nozzle that spins at 600 mph, a vacuum forms where bubbles measuring 50 microns -- about the width of human hair -- implode.
"Bubbles collapse asymmetrically, and a microjet forms," Nicholas said. "This collapse blows the bacteria cell wall apart."
Oddly, tiny hot spots forming at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit occur in the bubbles, but water temperature remains ambient.
All this violence doesn't just kill bacteria. It strips minerals from water, preventing them from adhering to cooling-tower parts and causing scaling. This newly formed sediment gets filtered, and clean water is recycled.
Chemical treatment also recycles water, but chemicals function on the premise that they'll keep sediment in solution longer. This soup of dying bacteria and minerals eventually must be purged, Nicholas said, "or you end up with thick water."
VRTX started as a property of Boston-based A.W. Chesterton Co., a manufacturer of industrial fluid seals, which bought the technology from Ashbrook. Chesterton had litigation problems with one of its other holdings, Nicholas said, and sold VRTX to raise cash for its legal battles.
VRTX was always in Bexar County, but it wasn't locally owned until the Ray Ellison Grandchildren Trust took majority ownership in 2002.
"I think it's a fabulous product," said Baker Duncan, a Ray Ellison trustee on the VRTX board.
Ellison was famous for creating one of the largest home-building companies in Texas in the 1960s through the 1980s. But his heirs hope VRTX may someday overshadow Ellison's home-building legacy by toppling the dominant chemical companies.
VRTX is the trust's only venture capital investment, Duncan said.
"Like all venture capital, you've got to have fairly deep pockets because it seems like it calls for more most of the time," Duncan said.
The trustees' investment strategy for VRTX is to expand it aggressively, Duncan said, adding that they'll back Nicholas "to the hilt."
The trust has no plans to sell the company, Duncan said. The sale of a trust's assets isn't considered until it reaches a certain level of maturity, he said, "and the company is not viable, yet."
Dwyer, the Chicago sales manager, understands better than most the challenges VRTX faces. Dwyer, who spent 25 years selling water-treatment chemicals, came from what Nicholas calls "the dark side."
"It's a hard sell," Dwyer said of the VRTX device, "mainly because other technologies have been used in the past."
Despite VRTX's proven record, potential clients still lump it together with magnets and electrowave devices that didn't perform well.
Reluctance to the product in the United States has no parallel overseas. VRTX has an office in Amsterdam, and sales in Europe are doing much better, Nicholas said. "They're much more environmentally aware," he said. "Water is more expensive there. Sewer treatment is, too. Some countries, Sweden and Finland, want to completely eliminate biocides due to concern for groundwater."