Think of perlite as volcanic popcorn.
Amorphous volcanic glass – aka perlite ore – contains embedded water. Grind the ore into small pieces and heat it above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the glass will soften enough for the water to expand explosively, creating a low-density product with myriad uses.
For nearly 70 years, Supreme Perlite has developed its namesake product to serve ever-evolving markets, from home construction to stormwater filtration. Thanks to its key characteristics – it’s lightweight, insulative and environmentally benign – perlite promises to serve markets that have yet to emerge.
Supreme Perlite, located in north Portland, was founded in 1954 to produce a lightweight replacement for sand used in interior plaster and stucco. Six years later, it was bought by Pete and Lucille Petterson, establishing an unbroken chain of family ownership that is now in its third generation.
Before buying the company, says President Nick Avenetti, the Pettersons were developing property in Hillsdale and southwest Portland. When they saw how much work it was for plasterers to apply sand-based plaster, they recognized the weight-saving potential of perlite, sold their property and bought Supreme Perlite.
When manufactured wallboard supplanted hand-plastering, Supreme Perlite evolved to supply insulative products such as refractory brick linings used in the aluminum industry. In the 1970s, a significant market opened with the development of so-called “peat-lite” growing media. Researchers at Cornell University developed a perlite-intensive alternative to topsoil that produced consistent plant growth and didn’t require sterilization to eliminate weed seeds or pathogens. Ever since, Supreme Perlite has produced a variety of products for the nursery and greenhouse industries in the Willamette Valley and elsewhere on the West Coast.
Perlite also turns out to be an ideal filter medium, and Supreme Perlite is used in a range of applications. These include filters for stormwater systems, which are used across the globe, as well as engineered embankments that remove pollutants from runoff, says Alan Kiraly, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Supreme Perlite also continues to serve existing construction and insulation markets while working to develop new ones. A particularly promising market could develop with the popularization of green construction methods that eliminate foam as an insulation product, says Kiraly. Perlite, which is simply expanded glass, is a naturally occurring and environmentally benign alternative.
In addition to developing new markets, Supreme Perlite has focused on boosting efficiency and employee safety. The company, which employs 19 people, has installed an automated bag-filling line, reducing work that is hard on the body while creating opportunities for employees to do more technical work. This work includes not only running the bagging machinery, but also Supreme Perlite’s recently installed furnace systems, which are both automated and more energy efficient than those they replaced.
From its location just south of Marine Drive, Supreme Perlite serves markets not only in the Pacific Northwest, but as far away as Hawaii and Pacific Rim.