The noise pollution from National Airport has fueled some of the most vicious public policy debates this area has seen, but the roar of jet engines is just what one local company is banking on.
Noise Cancellation Technologies Inc. of Linthicum, Md., is one of a handful of companies around the world trying to solve the problem of persistent noise: the rumble of an airplane's engines, the drumming of industrial machinery, the vibration of a running car.
Noise Cancellation Technologies is developing sound wave technology to dissolve noise before it reaches human ears.
Agreements Noise Cancellation Technologies recently entered with General Motors Corp., Tenneco Inc. and the University of Maryland have pushed the local firm out of the research and development stage and into a the commercial market.
Although the company has been actively selling variations on its technology since late 1987, and although it had revenue last year of about $1.6 million, it has not yet turned a profit. But that may change as soon as this year, said company vice president Eldon Ziegler.
When its current owners acquired Noise Cancellation Technologies in 1986, the company was based in Florida, had no viable product and was on the brink of bankruptcy, Ziegler said. All it had was a patent on a rudimentary process for using mathematical algorithms to disband sound waves.
A group of investors hired Ziegler, a mathematician, to evaluate the company's nascent technology. Based on his evaluation they bought the company and moved its operations to Maryland, although its skeletal corporate headquarters were moved to -- and remain in -- New York. The company employs 35.
Leading the company's research and development operations, Ziegler and his staff developed the technology to analyze the sound waves of a particular noise and then project equal but opposite sound waves that effectively cancel out the original waves. The result is silence -- or at least a lot less noise.
Noise Cancellation Technologies, which has obtained further patents on the technology it has developed, entered a joint venture last month with General Motors's Delco Parts division to develop an engine mount that will improve a car's fuel economy by allowing its engine to idle at much lower speed than is now possible. In cars today, an engine idling at a low speed creates significant vibration noise.
The company also is working on a joint venture with the muffler manufacturing subsidiary of Tenneco to develop an electronic muffler, after a prototype NCT built for the Houston-based oil and gas conglomerate proved successful.
And six months ago, Noise Cancellation Technologies signed a licensing agreement with the University of Maryland to use technology developed by a Maryland professor to make its own products adaptable to more complex noise-producing situations.
Sound wave-canceling technology could be used anywhere a constant, low frequency noise exists, Ziegler said. The technology is most obviously needed in airplane cabins, along air traffic routes, in oven exhaust fans and refrigerators, in cars and car engines and in factories, he said.
The few companies that are in this field generally have areas of specialty, Ziegler said, because there are so many possible applications. For example, there is a firm in Wisconsin that is working solely to reduce the noise in air conditioning systems, he said.
Ziegler said the automotive industry seems to hold the most promise as a major market.
"Noise cancelation is a booming business," said Jack Keebler, the engineering editor for Automotive News. "Cars are getting lighter because we have to get a better fuel economy, but when you make cars a lot lighter, you take out a lot of the noise-attenuating materials. So you need a new type of technology that doesn't weigh a lot."
Right now, noise cancelation is only in the research stages in the automotive industry, Keebler said.
"It's something they just heard about, and they're all spending a lot of money on it," he said. "It could provide the very important weight savings the engineers are looking for."
In daily applications, such as in a car engine, the company's technology could mean reductions in engine noise of 10 to 15 to decibels, Keebler said, while the human ear can easily detect a reduction by just one decibel.
"To an acoustics engineer, that's like being offered the Holy Grail," he said.