Modumetal Inks Deal with Steel Producer SDI to Put Nanotech to Work in Bridges and Buildings

5/10/10Follow @gthuang

Seattle-based Modumetal is taking an important step forward today in its quest to reinvent the metals industry. The nanotech and advanced materials company is announcing a partnership with Steel Dynamics (SDI), based in Fort Wayne, IN, which will put its nanolaminated coating technology into industrial-scale steel applications.

Financial terms of the partnership weren’t given. But SDI (NASDAQ: STLD) is one of the largest steel producers and metals recyclers in the U.S. Its primary focus is on big construction projects like buildings and bridges. Some other prominent steelmakers include U.S. Steel, Nucor, and European giant ArcelorMittal.

“It’s a big deal for us,” says Christina Lomasney, Modumetal’s co-founder and CEO. She says that working with a large steel company like SDI “represents such a huge opportunity,” and that it “validates the scalability of the nanotechnologies we’re working on.”

Modumetal grows what it calls “nanolaminated structures” in vats using a patented chemical and electrical process. These materials are new kinds of metals that are stronger and lighter than steel and have other advantages as well. For example, the company’s materials can be used to make high-tech coatings that resist rust and corrosion much better than the zinc coatings of traditional galvanized steel. Most of the steel produced in the world is galvanized, Lomasney says, so this is one of Modumetal’s first big markets to tackle.

The idea is that the company’s nanolaminates can provide better performance than conventional zinc, so steel producers can use a lot less material to achieve the same anti-corrosion specifications. “For the steel industry, it’s a cost savings advantage,” Lomasney says. “We think we can save [at least] half the cost of conventional galvanizing.” That could ultimately translate into cheaper manufacturing costs for things like cars, buildings, and bridges.

Lomasney says her company will provide the “entire production line” of machines and equipment to help SDI produce nanolaminated steel in the next six months. “We take steel and turn it into ‘Modu-galvanized’ steel,” Lomasney says. “The actual operation is going to be a joint collaboration. The initial scale-up is probably going to be in Seattle.” To that end, Modumetal has expanded into a large warehouse next to its headquarters at a shipyard on Lake Union. The company now has just over 20 employees.

“This is going to be our first scale-up application,” Lomasney says. She adds that the Steel Dynamics deal is one of several partnerships to be announced in the future: “We’re looking at applications in aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, and consumer products.” (She declined to give any specific examples of the latter.)

Last week, Modumetal won a national innovation award from the Angel Capital Association. It has also won a number of defense contracts and government grants in the past few years. The company was founded in late 2006, and its investors include Seattle-based Alliance of Angels, Second Avenue Partners, and WRF Capital. Its competitors include firms like Xtalic, Integran Technologies, and The NanoSteel Company.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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