With his family, he has started a company to develop and market electrically conductive pastes he invented to improve connections in electrical equipment.
John Ebbinghaus with his daughter Lisa Rinaldo
By Tom Gibson
In 1973, John Ebbinghaus found himself working at Litton Guidance & Control Systems near Los Angeles, and he was given the assignment to create electrically conductive paste for the Navy to use on aircraft carrier electronics test equipment. “They tried it, and it worked,” he recalls. But when he submitted it to Litton’s patent department, they declined to pursue patenting because the company was not in that kind of business. “They released it to me. But because I had a heavy workload, I didn’t really pursue it.”
Actually, though, Ebbinghaus would occasionally dabble with his invention, as he worked on the side to package and sell it, developing half a dozen paste formulas between 1973 and 2010. The effort picked up after he retired from Litton in 1989. “Only over the past eight or nine years have I been successful in developing and marketing new products,” he reveals.
With his daughter Lisa Rinaldo, Ebbinghaus has started a company called Prohm-tect USA in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to manufacture and sell electrically conductive pastes. In a unique family-business arrangement, Lisa and her brother John, Jr. own the company, Lisa handles marketing and other duties, and John, Sr. serves as their engineering consultant. Call it an ideal situation for a retired engineer, a new chapter after a long and fruitful career in the corporate world. Ebbinghaus lives in Mission Viejo, CA and at 87 enjoys good health. He finds the venture fun and rewarding. “It has worked out pretty well. It’s been good to us. She’s doing a wonderful job.”
So just what is electrically conductive paste? It’s designed to improve the conductivity of bolted, clamped, or crimped electrical connections and protect them in corrosive environments, saving equipment from costly repairs or down time. Their primary application is currently in fuel cells and other power generation equipment, but they have the potential for use on a host of other electrical equipment, both consumer and industrial.
Originally dubbed Ohm Killer, the pastes consist of minute micro-sharp metal particles suspended in oil, providing multiple pathways for electrical current in a connection. Ebbinghaus says, “Ours is a special very-high-temperature non-hydrocarbon oil manufactured for use on military aircraft. And that’s about as much as I can tell you because it’s proprietary material.” His selection of materials and development of the processes has proven key to the success of Prohm-tect products. All the formulas come in a variety of sizes ranging from 1-cc syringes to 300-cc caulking tubes, and custom blends can be formulated.
The pastes fall into two broad categories, one using silver particles and the other using a special stainless steel alloy. The silver formula reduces resistance and heat in the electrical interface, an important factor in fuel cells, which typically function as part of an electric-generating power plant for a hospital, university, or other large facility. Ebbinghaus developed a formula for a fuel cell company that resulted in the conductive efficiency going from 21 to 94 percent. “They started retrofitting their units all over the world. That’s when the orders went up,” he recalls.
Prohm-tect is also drawing interest from the wind power and solar energy industries. “I hope that one day Prohm-tect will be the go-to name for electrically conductive paste used on thousands of fuel cells, wind turbines, and solar installations,” Lisa says. “I’d be pleased to know our products are helping the alternative fuel industries maximize their electrical production for the world, and I think my dad would too.”
An early technical start
Having grown up in New Rochelle, New York, Ebbinghaus graduated from a technical school, where he majored in aircraft mechanics and sheet metal work. He was drafted after that and spent a couple of years in the Army. When he got out, he attended Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, New York on the GI Bill. It later became Clarkson University, and he graduated from there in 1955 with a 4.5-year Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (BME) degree.
His first job actually came before he went to college, at Litton Adler Electronics in New Rochelle, where they manufactured electronics for the military and commercial TV stations and also built a transportable 50KW transmitter/studio for Radio Free Europe. He worked as a supervisor of the mechanical manufacturing portion.
Electrical paste comes in syringes so it can be applied accurately.
After college, Ebbinghaus’ first engineering job came with American Bosch Arma in Mineola, New York, where he worked on the Atlas ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The inertial guidance system developed there became the first to guide a missile down-range. “My career was based on aerospace and flying, and I worked on gyros and accelerometers for the Atlas missile guidance system,” he relates.
That helps explain how a mechanical engineer like Ebbinghaus ends up working in the realm of electronics. “Every electronics device requires a mechanical engineer,” he states. “I consider myself an electromechanical engineer because I’ve worked on a lot of electronics — heat exchange, connections, and materials.” As Lisa puts it, “My father has had a very colorful career in mechanical and materials engineering.”
While at American Bosch Arma, Ebbinghaus worked on a job at Vandenburg Air Force Base near Santa Maria, CA. The company was slowing down and about to lay him off. He had a friend that had already joined Litton and had previously worked for American Bosch Arma, and the friend called him saying they had a job for him with Litton Guidance & Control Systems in Woodland Hills near Los Angeles. When he flew back to New York, he remembers landing in a blizzard. “I said, “I don’t care what kind of an offer they make me, I’m going to take it and get out to California’” to escape the winter weather.
At Litton Guidance & Control Systems, Ebbinghaus did design and analysis on aircraft, missiles, re-entry vehicles, submarines, helicopters, tanks, and surveying-equipped Humvees and served as manager of mechanical engineering for factory and customer test equipment. He was also assigned as a reliability project engineer for tracking and improving the reliability of inertial navigation systems used by Navy aircraft such as the F-14 fighter jet and cruise missiles.
Competition out there
Many competitors also produce electrically conductive paste, including companies in the United States and about 150 chemical companies in China. However, Prohm-tect says they use inferior ingredients such as silicone, and this is especially important in fuel cells because the high temperatures can cause a residue to remain when the paste evaporates. Competitors also use a hydrocarbon lubricant, which is also bad for high-temperature applications.
Besides fuel cells, wind turbines, and solar energy systems, Prohm-tect’s electrically conductive pastes have applications in a variety of more mainstream industries. They make formulas for computer connections, USB ports, and other electronic applications; auto and marine applications such as wiring, batteries, and lights; and communications equipment such as antennas, CB equipment, and batteries. It works well on generator connections exposed to the weather, such as those in construction. Ebbinghaus reports, “I’m going out to the various boat repair places and hand out samples and get the business built out here. I think it will do very well.”
Looking down the road, Prohm-tect plans to set up a production facility at the South Dakota Technology Business Center by June 2014. And they are having discussions with nearby South Dakota State University about the use of their testing lab and getting advice from their Electrical Engineering Department.
All this leads Ebbinghaus to proclaim, “The business overall looks very good.” They see the silver paste business doubling in the next year and quadrupling over the next three or four years. “These fuel cells have not really been recognized as green power yet, but they’re getting there now.” As evidence, he sees them used on floating barges in the Port of Los Angeles to power the unloading of ships.
From another angle, Ebbinghaus says, “We’re well positioned to get into the European market. My son lives in Denmark, and they’re part of the European Union, so he could manufacture the products and sell them there.”
This drives home the family nature of the business and how they work together despite being separated by huge distances. “Though we have always been close, I feel this is a special bonding time we have together, working on the business and sharing the joy of watching it take off,” Lisa reflects. “I feel honored to carry it forward in the coming years and build on the effort he’s put into developing the formulas over the years.”