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9/30/2004

On Tang and a prayer

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Cal

LONGMONT — The inventor of Tang was in town this week, visiting the company he has just become a part of.

That company, Ionic Fusion, is on a roll. Incorporated in 2001, Ionic has had several positive developments in the past few months.

At the end of 2003, the company announced that a group of south Florida investors had put $1.3 million of first-round financing into the company. Then, this June, Ionic Fusion announced plans to buy Loveland-based fuel cell company BekkTech.

Now, the company has announced the addition of Alvin A. Snaper to its advisory board. Snaper, a holder of more than 600 patents and the inventor of such well-known products as Tang — the orange “astronaut’s drink” — and the IBM Selectric Type Ball, was in town this week with his wife, Kathleen, visiting Ionic’s Longmont headquarters.

“We first came in contact with him about two years ago,” said Joe Ryan, Ionic Fusion’s president. “Al became interested in our technology, and we became interested in him from a business standpoint, but also as a person.

“He has some very interesting patents that relate to our core competencies.”

Snaper has long been involved with the process known as “thin-film deposition,” and was intrigued by the advances Ionic Fusion has made in the coating industry. Many of Snaper’s patents are coating-related, including a process he developed for Gillette Razor Blades.

“What Ionic Fusion is doing was different,” Snaper said. “This area of technology has got an infinite variety of applications.”

Ionic Fusion has invented a unique “plasma deposition vacuum technique” by which the company “impregnates” materials — such as precious metals — into the surface of metal, plastic and paper.

“We’re taking thin-film technology to a new, higher level,” Ryan said, “impregnating thin-film into substrates and creating new structures.”

While coating is part of his background, Snaper’s experience has come in a variety of industries. The 75-year-old New Jersey native has consulted for or worked for companies and organizations including IBM, NASA, Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and Union Carbide.

For all of his accomplishments, the invention he is most asked about is Tang, of course. There’s a sense that this incredibly gifted man gets a little tired of that particular question, but he is kind enough to indulge the questioner.

In the early 1960s, Snaper said, he was working as a chemist for a division of General Foods, working at a plant in Hollywood, Calif., built when the area was more orange groves than celebrities.

The company was having a problem, Snaper said, figuring out what to do with the orange pulp waste material being generated by the plant.

The inventor solved the problem by developing a process that took the pulp waste material and converted it into a dried, powdery substance that, when added to water, produced an orange-flavored drink that later became world famous.

“They test-marketed it, NASA picked it up, and it took off from there,” Snaper said. “It was strictly a waste-disposal problem.”

An energetic and engaging man, Snaper continues to push the envelope in terms of inventions and patents through his holding company, Neo-Dyne Research Inc., which he calls his “private hobby shop, if you will.” He shows no signs of slowing down in his work.

“I have 100,000 firefly tails sitting in my freezer from an old project I was working on for NASA,” he said.

The world is a much different place than it was when Snaper first began his professional career back in the late 1940s. But he said that in the past decade or so, even he has been amazed at the strides technology has made, thanks in no small part to companies like Ionic Fusion.

“A lot of things have happened that really would have been unbelievable 20 years ago,” said Snaper.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.