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GrafTech International: Keeping the Curiosity Cool on the Way to Mars


In November of 2011, NASA launched the unmanned Curiosity rover aboard an Atlas V rocket on a mission to Mars. It landed there seven months and 350 million miles later. One of the many challenges NASA overcame was protecting Curiosity from the intense heat (estimated at 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit) generated as it penetrated the Martian atmosphere.

A Parma, Ohio-based manufacturer, GrafTech International, developed and manufactured the thermal solutions that were integrated by LockheedMartin into a nearly 15-foot heat shield that was attached to Curiosity. This technology made possible the rover’s 98-week mission, which is helping scientists understand the past and current environment on Mars by exploring the Gale Crater, and sending back stunning images.

The Mars-voyage application may be one of the most exotic for GrafTech. But the company is a longtime technology leader, and traces its roots to the formation of the National Carbon Company in 1886, when the thought of exploring Mars was little more than a dream. National Carbon later merged with Union Carbide. The graphite/carbon division took the name of GrafTech International in 2002.

Today, GrafTech still uses the innate properties of graphite to provide thermal management solutions for advanced energy technologies. Its markets include aerospace, defense, energy generation and storage, fluid sealing, fuel cells, industrial heat management, lighting thermal management, nuclear power, oil and gas, semiconductor manufacturing, solar technology, and steelmaking, among others. It has embraced lean principles in its operations for many years.

GrafTech has customers in more than 50 countries, and keeps a close eye on global GDP. In late 2013, citing the IMF’s fourth straight quarterly downward revision in global GDP projections, management announced it will reduce costs through changes in inventory practices and by closing production facilities in Brazil, South Africa, and Russia. Its remaining, state-of-the-art plants will be prepared to increase capacity as the graphite-electrode market improves. Their plan is a good example of the constant fine-tuning that manufacturing companies must do to compete in the fast-changing global marketplace.

Meanwhile, the achievements continue. GrafTech was chosen to provide advanced-material components for NASA’s Orion manned space vehicle, which is slated to make its first test flight in September 2014. And a specialized, modern manufacturing facility dedicated to making a thermal management product used in advanced electronics, including tablets and smart phones, opened in Sharon Center, Ohio, in 2013, creating 45 jobs. Graphite can pull heat away from the electronics in tablets, laptops, and smart phones, thereby allowing industrial designers to make electronic devices thinner.

As new techologies are developed in the years to come, the thermal-management uses for graphite will continue to grow, and GrafTech will be well positioned to redefine limits and drive those advances.