How a Nanotech Startup Could Change Your Life: The Modumetal Story
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much in many centuries. People have altered the chemistry of metals by adding ingredients, to produce things like stainless steel or titanium. People have changed the microstructure of metals by heating or cooling the materials just so.
What Modumetal is trying to do instead is exploit the properties of interfaces—nano-scale interactions between different layers of metal folded over and over. It’s somewhat analogous to the way ancient samurai swords were crafted in layers, Lomasney says.
“We can create phenomena that we didn’t know were possible,” she says. “We’ve given the industry a new dial. Now you can create a step change in performance. Fundamentally controlling what happens at the interfaces is what’s going to change the game.”
The key is that this process is hands-off and automated, once Modumetal gets started with a vat of metals dissolved in an acid solution (see photo, below). By controlling the temperature of the bath and the timing of electric current through a conducting rod, Modumetal’s engineers “grow” layers of novel metal alloys, which can be used to make everything from lighter, heat-resistant wind turbine blades and corrosion-resistant coatings, to metallic woven graphite for vehicle armor (see photo, further below) and specialized foam materials for automotive suspension systems. Vats of metal solutions churn away in the basement of the Modumetal lab, along with testing equipment like a Charpy impact tester, which measures the toughness of a material in response to a bullet slamming into it, say.
Lomasney draws a parallel to the days of Henry Bessemer, an English engineer in the 1800s who reinvented the process of steel production, making it widely accessible for making railroad ties, skyscrapers, and so forth. “We’re doing the same thing for nanotech,” she says. “It hasn’t really changed your life or mine yet. It’s not a commodity you can go out and buy. We’re going to make it possible.” One example would be if people could someday order corrosion-resistant “modumetal” to be used in everything from their cars to bridges to buildings—a multibillion-dollar market.
I pressed Lomasney on how a little company like Modumetal could pull this off. “We have great aspirations of growing the company. It’ll be through sales,” she says—not through venture funding. “It’s a completely different market dynamic than you would see with software. It’s not sale-by-sale. We’re not trying to conquer one customer at a time.” If you look at the requirements for bridge coatings, for example, they’ve been approved by government agencies to meet certain specifications, she explains. If Modumetal can meet those tough specifications, the company will be in great shape. “We’re not trying to sell the material one application at a time. That does lead to very rapid growth rates,” she says.
Modumetal competes with other nanomaterials firms like Xtalic, Integran Technologies, and The NanoSteel Company. So success certainly won’t come easy, Lomasney admits. “We have work to do. We’re at a transition point for the company.” The biggest challenge now? “Too many opportunities,” she says. “We get calls from potential customers all the time. The hardest part is saying no.”