Ask someone at Ninth and Hamilton streets to point to a nearby company known for its work in cutting-edge technology, that boasts NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advances Research Agency (DARPA) among its clients and does business in places as far-flung as China, Thailand, Brazil and Australia, and where do you think they will point?
Don’t answer too quickly. They may be looking in the wrong direction.
Though PPL Inc. may be Allentown’s corporate giant in many ways, there is a business on the south side of Hamilton that has been quietly building a reputation as a pioneer in the emerging 21st Century technology of supercritical fluids. Based in a non-descript, five-story building that once housed a retail outlet, Applied Separations is a leader in building the devices used to produce supercritical fluids – the substance created when a material is captured between its liquid and gaseous states.
Supercritical fluids have been used for processes as diverse as decaffeinating coffee and extracting spice oils to creating ultra-efficient insulations and preserving artifacts retrieved from sunken Civil War submarines and archeological digs.
“We have an education issue,” says owner and co-founder Rolf Schlake. “Right now we are seeing a real growth in our industry because people are becoming more aware of it.”
Schlake employs about 50 to 60 people in the company’s headquarters building, where they assemble the devices primarily used to create a supercritical fluid from carbon dioxide. Founded in 1988, Applied Separations is a product of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, where it was originally based, and the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, one of its original financial supporters.
The company moved into the 35,000-square-foot building on Hamilton Street in 1998 and occupied only 2,000-square-feet of space. Today it fills the entire building and Schlake is renting additional space a few blocks away. In addition to the supercritical fluid devices, Applied Separations also boasts two recently constructed clean rooms where it assembles and packages DNA kits for use in forensics that are shipped to clients all over the world.
As a leader in “green technology,” Applied Separations is helping industries change the way they work by reducing costs, solvents and pollutants while extracting medicines and other substances from natural products.
In addition to the food and pharmaceutical industries, supercritical fluids are used for things such as sanitizing medical implants and just this month Applied Separations was awarded a Ben Franklin grant to work with the Philadelphia University – formerly the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science – to create a new dye system for clothing using supercritical fluids.
“The objective of the company is to continue to make the machines that produce supercritical fluids,” Schlake said, “but also to look at new applications and go after the business in those industries.”
But the company’s pioneering nature doesn’t end with its high-tech innovations. Applied Separations is also a leader in employing urban residents and training even those with minimal education to perform the detailed and technical tasks required to produce the lab devices and DNA kits.
Schlake has been recognized by the White House for his willingness to hire and train local workers, and says about 50 percent of his staff lives in close proximity to his downtown facility.
“You have to go with your gut, but by the same token, it’s a balancing act,” he says about his hiring practices. “Many of the people who didn’t graduate from high school have the aptitude to do the work. Bring them in, train them, treat them right and some can even move into supervisory positions.”