By Eric Peterson | Jan 25, 2019
Grand Junction, Colorado
Scintillating crystals and radiation detectors
Grand Junction, Colorado
Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Crystals and radiation detectors
Alpha Spectra manufactured more than 150,000 radiation detectors in its first 33 years in business. The company is one of the largest producers of NaI(Tl) crystals on the planet.
"It's a synthetically grown crystal," Wilkinson explains. "When gamma radiation strikes the crystal -- which we call a scintillator -- a tiny burst of light is created within the crystal."
Sensors detect the light, the amount of which is proportional to the radiation intensity, and produce an analog signal that is digitized in the detector. That allows users to determine which isotopes are present by way of spectroscopy. "Each isotope has its own signature, and that's the basis of the technology," says Wilkinson. "It's 1,000 times more sensitive than a Geiger counter."
Wilkinson worked in the chemical industry in Cleveland before he came to Colorado to study nuclear physics at Colorado School of Mines and medical physics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Then radon became a big issue in the U.S. after an employee of a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania set off radiation alarms coming into work in 1984. The culprit was residential radon, and the EPA soon set guidelines for acceptable levels.
"In 1986, we started as a radon analysis lab in Denver in my apartment . . . until I got the boot from my landlord," says Wilkinson, who owns the company with his wife, Kathryn.
That catalyzed Alpha Spectra. "We were very successful," says Wilkinson. "We got to be the largest radon analysis lab in the western United States."
After moving from Denver to Lakewood, Alpha Spectra relocated to Grand Junction in 1993. "We needed a new facility," says Wilkinson. "That's when I started looking up and down the Front Range from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. I really didn't find anything."
He looked to the Western Slope and found a more affordable real estate market and leased a 20,000-square-foot building with an option to buy, which he did a few years later. "I remember the real estate guy saying, 'You stole this building.'"
Alpha Spectra manufactured kits for residential radon testing for national distribution and enjoyed a bull market for a decade. "I knew it wasn't going to last forever," says Wilkinson. "People get their houses tested once and that's it."
By 2000, the radon testing market was in decline, and Alpha Spectra pivoted. "I started buying equipment to repair the equipment we make now," says Wilkinson. "I found a laboratory that would sell us Nal(Tl) crystal blanks so we could start building detectors."
But the supply chain wasn't ideal, so Alpha Spectra developed a proprietary process to grow the crystals in-house. "I didn't want the 800-pound gorilla in the industry telling me I copied them, because I used to work there."
The timing coincided when the existing NaI(Tl) crystal supply chain was conglomerating as a France-based Saint-Gobain bought up 95 percent of the market share.
Conglomeration opened the door for competition. "With a monopoly, [customers] are looking for another supplier," says Wilkinson.
By the late 1990s, Alpha Spectra's manufacturing operation was up and running. "Now we're fully integrated," says Wilkinson. "I'll brag and say we're growing the best Nal(Tl) material in the world."
But it's not just quality, it's quantity: "We are the second-largest grower of that scintillator in the world now."
Alpha Spectra has more than 1,500 designs for different scintillation detectors. "Every time we build one, that becomes a foundation for another prototype," says Wilkinson. "It happens every day."
Over half of the company's business is exports, he adds. "We're worldwide. The only continent we don't have product on is Antarctica -- but there might be an experiment that would buy our product to put in the ice."
Alpha Spectra sells crystals and devices to a number of researchers at universities and national labs. "Research and development is huge, but it is sporadic," says Wilkinson.
Some researchers are investigating dark matter, a driver for Alpha Spectra in recent years. It led Wilkinson to develop a method to grow a purer and thus more sensitive crystal. "Our crystals got much brighter and better," he says.
The company's top market is homeland security, followed by health physics, oil and gas, environmental sampling, and other industries. "We are pretty much the sole supplier [of crystals] to the world leader that manufactures handheld devices," says Wilkinson.
The company has expanded into other scintillators, including sodium iodide, and is on the lookout for more. "We're investigating new materials," says Wilkinson. "There are others we are doing research on to see if we can capture a new market."
Growth has been "flat" in recent years, says Wilkinson. The company grew to about 45 employees in 2008, but had to lay off some in the wake of the financial crisis that year. "That's not an easy thing to do," he says. "It's like a family."
Alpha Spectra is recycling the crystals from failed detectors. "We're very eco-friendly," says Wilkinson. "We can clean it up and put it in a detector. . . . We're the only ones in the industry doing it."
Challenges: The R&D pathway to manufacturability. "Right now, we are working on a couple new scintillators," says Wilkinson, but it's no simple task: "There are literally hundreds [of scintillators that scientists] can grow that are a couple millimeters square, but the challenge is to make it bigger."
For ultra-low background counting applications, such as in the search for dark matter, the company is faced with logistical issues that require shipping crystals by sea, Wilkinson notes. "If you shipped it by airplane, the background cosmic radiation would affect our product. It's that sensitive."
New entrants to the market pose another challenge, he adds. "Who's our new competition? China."
Opportunities: New products and applications. Wilkinson sees oil and gas exploration as fertile ground, and filed a patent on relevant technology for the market in 2018. "I do most of the sales," he says. "That's a market I haven't focused on. It's a huge opportunity."
Needs: Technical talent. "We're looking at hiring a couple people now," says Wilkinson. "It looks like it might be picking up a little bit." He says he needs to think about staffing for the long term: "There's a long training curve with new employees."