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Innovative furnace ultimately doomed Cameron Glass

April 18, 2010 10:30 pm  • 

When planning the Kalama wine bottle plant, the Cameron family wanted to make a statement, and they took a high-stakes risk with the most important piece of equipment in the $109 million factory.

They wanted to produce colored glass with environmentally friendly technology that would avoid burning coal, natural gas or another polluting fossil fuel. Against the advice of a major glass equipment manufacturer, the Camerons, who had no winebottle manufacturing experience, decided to build the world's largest electric-powered glass melter.

Although other factors undoubtedly played into the failure of the plant, the decision to go with a giant, all-electric melter ultimately caused the downfall of the plant, industry sources say.

Those same sources believe the plant's new owner, Bennu Glass LLC, could learn from the Camerons' mistakes and redevelop a plant to bring back familywage jobs and serve as a prototype on how to power future domestic glass plants.

"It can be reopened, and it is the great white hope of the area. Those 90 jobs are important," said Ian Kemsley, president of Portland-based Aegina Glassworks. He studied the plant's three-year history in an unsuccessful attempt to buy it at foreclosure auction.

The Camerons "wouldn't get off the hobby horse" about building the 470-ton electric furnace, or glass melter, Kemsley added, even though they had been warned the furnace could run into problems producing colored bottle glass, which is needed for red wine.

Reached by phone in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Don Cameron, former Cameron Glass chairman, declined to comment for this story.

To great fanfare, the Camerons broke ground on the plant in the summer of 2007. The plant went online at the end of 2008, but the melter suffered a massive molten glass leak within a month of startup, costing the company $12 million.

After restarting the facility, the Camerons shut down the plant in September and declared bankruptcy a month later. It was a difficult event for the community, but the warning signs of an impending disaster were there even before the Camerons started construction, Kemsley said.

Nikolaus Sorg GmbH & Co, a German manufacturer of glass melters, had been approached in 2006 to build the furnace at the Cameron plant, but the German company declined, Kemsley said. Sorg told the Camerons that an electric melter designed to produce 270 tons of bottles daily had a good chance of failing if it was used to produce colored glass, according to Kemsley.

Eventually, the Camerons commissioned a British firm to make the furnace to its design specifications. As it turned out, the melter worked fine when the plant first started producing clear glass bottles. However, when the plant tried making green bottles, metal particles inside the molten glass posed a problem inside the furnace that led to the massive Jan. 4 leak — almost exactly what the German company feared, Kemsley said.

The molten mix didn't heat evenly, leaving giant, hardened boulders of glass rumbling around in the molten material in the furnace, Kemsley said. A smaller electric furnace could have worked, but on such a large scale the technology just couldn't maintain the 2,000-degree temperatures needed to keep all the glass in a molten form, he said.

"It was star-crossed from the beginning."

For decades, natural gas has been the primary power source for glass manufacturers, and the industry needs to change, said John Brown, technical director of the Glass Manufacturing Industrial Council, an Ohio-based federal trade group.

Glass-making is energy-intensive, and the industry uses more power per pound of product than any other manufacturer, Brown said. Rising natural gas prices hit glass makers hard, and coal power is too dirty, he said.

"We have to have a new paradigm for the future," Brown said.

The Camerons' furnace, powered by hydroelectricity, was a step forward for the industry, he said. Unfortunately, it was likely too large, said Brown, who was not involved in the Cameron plant but spent 40 years as an engineer in the glass industry.

Brown said he wished he could have helped with the design, but the Camerons did not seek advice from the glass manufacturing council.

When the plant shut down, the congealed glass cooled inside the furnace and ruined it, and a replacement would likely cost as much as $4 million, according to industry sources. But the plant, under Bennu's ownership, could operate again, Brown said.

"I absolutely feel like they could do it. There's no reason why it shouldn't work."

The Camerons' experiment with an all-electric melter was a noble effort, and the story of the plant is instructive for other glass manufacturers, said Michael Greenman, executive director of the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council.

"It's clear that in the future, glass will be melted by electricity," he said.

Kemsley is banking on it. A computer software designer by training, Kemsley founded Aegina Glass works in 2008. The company is developing a new, environmentally friendly technology to heat glass using microwaves, which Kemsley hopes to sell to manufacturers.

The United States is the largest consumer of glass products worldwide — giving domestic manufacturers an advantage over foreign competition, Kemsley said.

The failure of the Cameron plant — and the potential resurrection under Bennu — is a story that stretches far outside the Pacific Northwest region, he said.

"It is a lesson in the type of manufacturing America can do and compete," Kemsley said.