From Rockets to Hot Rods

From Rockets to Hot Rods to the Tohono O'odham Native American Nation. Some stories take unusual twists: Ten years ago, with the help of a research grant from the Office of Naval Research, a couple of young and imaginative engineers in Arizona (and a few of their friends at the University of Michigan) came up with a ceramic-based material that was capable of withstanding intense heat, sharp thermal gradients, and crushing pressures. Soon, Tony Mulligan and Mark Angier launched a small business - Advanced Ceramics Research (ACR) Inc. ­- and started producing everything from rocket nozzles and turbine engine components, to ceramic satellite propulsion engines and oil well drill bits (not to mention bicycle brake pads, and air ducts for Ferrari hot rods).

Today, ACR also manufactures a remarkable water soluble polymer matrix composite that goes by the name Aquacore. When poured in a mold and baked, Aquacore forms a water soluble mandrel (solid manufacturing form) which can then be wrapped with fiber and resin and cured to make composite products - everything from artificial hearts to torpedo casings. The inside Aquacore mandrel can then be washed away with ordinary tap water.

"The resulting product and the resulting wastestream is entirely and completely eco-friendly," says ONR program manager John Williams, "And is just the sort of product and process the Navy is interested in funding for its own purposes."

But Mulligan had a small problem. "We needed a plant in which to do the hot pressing and quality control. So, we decided to approach our neighbors living on the San Xavier Reservation southwest of Tucson," he said.

In July, ACR signed an historic agreement with the San Xavier Development Authority, an independent organization comprised of tribal members of the Tohono O'odham Native American Nation.* This agreement is now set to bring hi-tech research and production to the Sonoran Desert reservation in the form of jobs for some 300 tribal members. The tribe will have a 51% interest in the joint venture. Groundbreaking and work on the new facility will begin in the fall.

"We are very proud that the Tohono will be the first Native American Nation to formally enter the hi-tech field," says Austin Nunez, Chairman of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation. "This will bring greater economic diversity to our tribe, and the promise of a more prosperous future for some of our younger tribal members."

*The Tohono O'odham Nation, inhabiting a large section within the Sonoran Desert of south-central Arizona and northern Mexico, had for many years been known by their Spanish-given name, Papago. In 1986, the nation reverted to their original name, meaning Desert People.

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