In a closed, secret city, the Cold War prepared to heat up as Russian scientists quietly developed powerful technology intended to defeat their number one enemy: us.
Even Russians knew little about Severodvinsk, that mysterious city on the White Sea that remained invitation-only to enter, as recently as four years ago. Far from the clank and clatter of everyday living, titanium nuclear submarines were built and made ready for launch. These superior crafts could dive deeper, run faster and stay down longer amid the massive pressure of the ocean, with one small machine the key to their strength.
The West knew nothing about it for 30 years. But when the walls came down, the submarine secrets sailed to Birmingham with Efim Statnikov, a brilliant Russian scientist.
A Birmingham company, Applied Ultrasonics Inc., perfected Statnikov’s technology and now American ship builders benefit from its power, along with other industries that depend on welds to hold together key structures, such as bridges, oil rigs or heavy equipment.
The company explains the technology this way — their Ultrasonic Impact Treatment (UIT) strengthens welds by modernizing a technique traceable to the ancient swords of the Samurai. As any blacksmith or sword maker knows, heating and pounding metals force the grains to move closer together, creating a superior bond.
Using rapidly firing sound waves, the ultrasonic process further seals welds, making them last up to four times longer than regular welding techniques.
The UIT uses ultrasonic technology to push pins into metal 27, 000 times a second, an effective and rapid way to reorient the grains in metal. Using a transducer to energize the pins, the UIT crafts a tight pancake grain structure, a difficult surface to break.
When the Russians in 1959 found that using stainless steel to weld titanium submarines didn’t work, they recruited Statnikov to find an answer. He ultimately commanded the research laboratory, and in the 1960s, the research institute, which was basically a ship-building university. He worked there until 1995, when he was able to get out of Severodvinsk to visit with Leonid Kelner, a Ph.D. Russian physicist living in America.
Kelner was one of 300 Jewish families allowed to leave Russia in 1972 — a deal created to impress President Richard Nixon during his visit. But the deal required Kelner and others to pay the equivalent of two years’ salary for the permits, lose good jobs because they wanted out and then leave with $100 in their pockets.
“I was lucky. A friend who applied before I did waited another 20 years for permission to leave, ” Kelner says.
Four years after Kelner left, he moved his family to the U.S., where he worked on nuclear non-proliferation. As he inspected operations such as those in Severodvinsk, he searched for signs that Russia was decommissioning its nuclear weapons properly, even in the secret city.
He also looked for scientists working in weapons development who had the potential to convert into peaceful, commercial inventors — his version of turning swords into plowshares. Ultimately, his work helped start 30 new technology companies in Russia.
“I don’t want war for sure, ” says Kelner, a board member of Applied Ultrasonics.
In 1994, Kelner was managing a technology business in Virginia when he received U.S. State Department funding to create a Moscow technology incubator. Statnikov, who held the Russian inventor’s certificate for the ultrasonic process he’d developed, called Kelner’s Moscow office in 1995.
The technology he had been using on submarines and advanced torpedoes could be used on the half a million steel bridges in the U.S., 30 percent of which are in need of repair, according to Kelner.
“We wanted to take the technology from weapons into civil engineering for the benefit of all mankind, ” Kelner says.
At Kelner’s urging, Statnikov moved first to Europe, and then to the U.S., where Kelner had raised $1 million, primarily from Alabama angel investors, in addition to the $25, 000 raised initially.
Statnikov moved to Birmingham.
For the first nine months, they studied welded joints, proving that UIT treatments could make the welds last four to five times longer. In the fall of 1997, the perfect test came along — a Georgia bridge over Lake Allatoona that was slated for demolition. The aged bridge was riddled with cracks, unsafe by any measure. After ultrasonic treatment, the demolition was cancelled, and the bridge is still in use.
“I was impressed with the technology. If we can treat a bridge so that it lasts 100 years instead of 25, we have saved taxpayers millions, ” says Kelner.
Another $5 million was raised in 2006, again primarily from Alabama angel investors. The product was improved, adding a sophisticated transducer. Statnikov oversaw development and ran the Ultrasonics lab until his drowning death in 2009 at age 73 in the Gulf of Mexico.
“He used to swim in the White Sea, which never gets warmer than 40 degrees. He must have gotten caught in a strong current, ” says Kelner, of his longtime friend and associate. He describes Statnikov as difficult at times to work with — someone who never adapted to capitalistic ways from a communist background — but always passionate about sharing knowledge and solving problems.
Today, James Bridges works as interim CEO and Taylor Hanes as COO, overseeing work for a variety of clients worldwide. Ironically, the company is working to improve the welds on the ships of the U.S. Navy, the old enemy the technology was designed to foil. In the private sector, a floating production unit in the Gulf, Helix Producer 1, used ultrasonics to convert a ferry into a unique ocean vessel for oil production.
“Their technology works to extend the life of welded metal years beyond ordinary metals. Their technology gives us the efficiency, speed and control we need to get our vessel to work, ” says Tony Owen, Helix Producer 1 project manager for Talos Inc.
Current projects include a bridge in Indiana, an oil and gas project in South America and testing on aerospace applications. The new generation of UIT machines are for sale or rent, or you can hire Applied Ultrasonics to send a field engineer to perform the treatment.
“We work to make it safer for people to sail, drive and work. And we can save governments and companies millions in equipment downtime, ” says Hanes.
Offices in Australia, Europe and Japan send business to the Birmingham operation. The Alabama office employs 10 people, mostly engineers.
“What impressed me the most is the almost unlimited market. If it uses metal, it has welds. If it has welds, we can make it last four times longer. It’s a no-brainer, ” says Bridges.
Verna Gates is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Verna Gates • photo by Art Meripol