Kemp Co. has been something of an innovation factory during its 106 years in Baltimore and Glen Burnie:
* Founder Clarence May Kemp's inventions include what may have been the first patented solar water heater.
* The company holds five patents and more than 100 others have expired.
* It has applied for a patent on a process that it claims will reduce sharply the cost of generating nitrogen, an inert gas that plays a key role in many industrial processes.
The PSA--pressure swing absorption--device compresses air and passes it over a carbon molecular sieve, extracting the nitrogen. The gas is used to help control steel processing, to preserve food by protecting it from bacteria, to prevent chemicals from burning by keeping oxygen from them and to pump into oil fields to force up additional crude that cannot be extracted by other methods.
Nitrogen is the most plentiful gas in the earth's atmosphere, so it costs less to isolate than other inert gases. Before the PSA method was developed, nitrogen was separated from the air either by distilling it from frozen air or by burning air.
Kemp Co. Executive Vice President James A. Zahniser says that the PSA method costs less than half as much as the cryogenic process and, although it costs no less than the combustion method, it is simpler and uses equipment that is easier to maintain.
The PSA process was developed by five employes over three years of research. A breakthrough occurred when Kemp's researchers found that the Germans had created a carbon molecular sieve for separating nitrogen. Kemp has licensed that technology from the Germans and has licensed its PSA technology to them.
The company was founded by Clarence May Kemp in 1877 on Charles Street in Baltimore, but was moved to Oliver Street within a few years, staying there until 1961 when it moved to Glen Burnie.
Kemp had seen exhibits featuring natural gas at the World's Fair in Paris, and the prospects had excited him, leading to the formation of the company as a supplier of burners and other gas equipment. He soon switched his focus to supplying businesses.
According to Zahniser, Kemp was a very prolific inventor. Among his patents was one granted on April 28, 1891, for the Climax Solar-Water Heater. A Kemp catalog dated May 1894 indicates that the heater used interconnected black steel cylinders in a glass-covered box to heat water. "Gentlemen who occupy their residences alone during the summer months, while their families are absent, can have the convenience of hot water day or night without delay or attention," the catalog description notes.
An advertisement for the device was reprinted in a trade journal a few years ago. It drew several responses, including one from an agent in Africa who apparently didn't realize the age of the advertisement and who said that he wanted to be a dealer. In his letter, he did express surprise at the price for the heater--$25.
Another Kemp invention was a non-freezing fire hydrant, whose water supply and valves were placed below the earth's freeze line. He also held the first patent on a type of pipe-threader.
In the early 1900s, Kemp shifted emphasis to industrial customers. Zahniser said that the company held a near-monopoly on the so-called lead pots in which metal was melted for use in typesetting equipment at newspapers and other printing operations all around the country. That market no longer exists because most printers produce type photographically.
Early on, the company also developed equipment to produce a synthetic gas from vaporized naphtha for use by the textile industry for burners to singe stray threads on newly made cloth.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kemp worked with what is now Exxon Corp. to produce a method of preventing water vapor from freezing the compressed-air systems that power oil-refinery controls. This is still Kemp's major product, according to Zahniser.
Kemp also worked with steel companies to reduce oxidation of steel during high-temperature processing by burning natural gas and injecting the byproducts--nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen--into the furnaces to keep oxygen away from the metal.
C.M. Kemp Co. has two plants in Glen Burnie with about 230 office and production personnel. There also is a sales office in Houston with nine employes who deal with the oil refining industry. Other big customers are the synfuels and chemical industries. Maryland is a minor market for the company, although Bethlehem Steel Corp. does use some of Kemp's equipment in its Sparrows Point works.
Nitrogen generators and compressed-air driers are made at the main building in Glen Burnie, while burners, carburetors and, mainly, flame arrestors are made in the other plant.
Zahniser estimated that Kemp has between 60 and 70 percent of the nitrogen-generator market, and has about 2,000 nitrogen-generator systems in the field. He said that nitrogen generators now account for between 20 percent and 30 percent of the company's product mix, and added, "I can see it doubling over the next five years."
Five senior members of management bought slightly more than 50 percent of the voting stock of the privately held company from the principal owner, W. Kemp Lehman, in 1979.