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More than just another `cog'

$25 million plant in White City plays vital high-tech role

WHITE CITY-- The Rogue Valley's newest high-tech manufacturer is up and running.

BOC Edwards' $25 million plant began production about a month ago and celebrated with an open house Wednesday. The plant employs 33 people and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 2000, the company plans to have 50 employees here.

The plant purifies gases that are used in the semiconductor industry to clean and etch the silicon wafers that run computers. Its clients include companies such as IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.

We're a key cog to the whole semiconductor business, says Mike Eilola, plant general manager.

Production was to begin last year, but the company throttled back because of a slowdown in the semiconductor industry, says Eilola.

With the industry largely back on track, orders are rolling in. Currently, BOC does about 70 percent of its business in the United States and 30 percent abroad.

BOC Edwards is a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based BOC Group. It has eight plants around the world, employs around 40,000 people and has annual sales of about $800 million.

The average wage of workers at the White City plant is around $14.50 an hour, though a number of workers are salaried professionals with chemistry backgrounds.

Though it was just completed, the plant likely will have a new owner and name soon. Air Liquide, based in Paris, and U.S.-based Air Products & Chemicals Inc., announced plans this summer to buy BOC Group for $11.5 billion, splitting the U.S. company's assets between them.

It remains unclear which company will get the plant, but BOC officials say the deal isn't likely to bring significant changes here.

In fact, they say White City was selected with the idea that the plant could grow. The company bought 40 acres in Whetstone Industrial Park east of West Antelope Road near Kirtland Road. About 8 acres are used now.

The plant will process six gases used in the semiconductor industry: silane, boron trichloride, chlorine, hydrogen bromide, tungsten hexafluoride and hydrogen fluoride. So far, it has begun processing two of the six and plans to begin processing the others in coming months.

The chemicals are trucked to the plant in 100- to 2,000-pound containers in both gas and liquid forms.

They are purified through a two-step process called fractional distillation. First, particles that are less dense than the target chemical are boiled off. Then, the subject chemical itself is boiled off and captured, leaving particles that are more dense than the target chemical behind.

Then the target chemical is pumped into purified 40-pound cylinders that are similar to welding canisters.

We want a perfectly dry and clean container, says Eilola.

Engineers work to ensure that gases are free of contaminants.

The processes are very automated to ensure consistent quality, says chemical engineer Jessica Ross, noting that the company's customers require a pure product. They always have to produce better chips and it starts here.

The plant has extremely sensitive equipment to measure levels of purity to the number of particles per billion.

The gases do have hostile properties -- some are flammable, caustic, explosive or toxic -- but BOC officials say they are handled safely. Eilola says the company has worked through each process with county officials to ensure that controls are in place.

It is safe, he says. I'm very comfortable with the safety of the plant.

The plant is designed to have no emissions. State air-quality officials have installed sensors that take the unusual step of halting production if emissions are detected.

Visitors clad in paper boots tour the 'clean room' at BOC Edwards' new gas plant in White City Wednesday. The plant purifies gases to be used in the semiconductor industry. - Photo by Bob Pennell