14 February 2013

For Advanced Materials Like NanoSteel, Patience and Focus Are Virtues

"Could the humble sea urchin hold the key to carbon capture?"

I get a lot of press releases and articles. Most of them I ignore: a revolutionary high energy green food or lifestyle product, which I don't cover on The Green Skeptic.

But the other day, as I was preparing for the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technology/Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic luncheon panel on advanced materials and nanotechnology, I came across one with this headline: "Could the humble sea urchin hold the key to carbon capture?"

An article on the subject by Dave Lewis also came in from my friends at The Energy Collective. Both were about some new research conducted by experts at the University of Newcastle in the UK. They’d recently published a paper, "Nickel nanoparticles catalyse reversible hydration of carbon dioxide for mineralization carbon capture and storage."

Why was it relevant to our discussion yesterday?

The researchers, Gaurav Bhaduri and Lidija Šiller, discovered that nickel nanoparticles catalyze the reaction that turns CO2 in water into carbonic acid.

Their discovery came after finding high concentrations of nickel ions on the surface of sea urchin larvae, suggesting to them that nickel plays a role in forming the sea urchin's exoskeleton.

"You bubble CO2 through the water in which you have nickel nanoparticles and you are trapping much more carbon than you would normally," ┼áiller told a reporter at the BBC, as quoted by Lewis. "And then you can easily turn it into calcium carbonate."

Calcium carbonate – we call it chalk – makes up around 4 percent of the Earth’s crust and acts as a carbon reservoir. Thus, it’s possible this research could lead to new ways to capture CO2 at its sources.

Admittedly, this is only research at this stage, still a long way from any practical applications, but as we heard from our panelists yesterday, this is how things work in the advanced materials space.

Breakthroughs in advance materials are happening every day. Whether catalysts and solvents improving energy generation and storage or membranes for better water filtration and air purification.

From materials fostering greater energy efficiency to nanomaterials used in the latest clean technologies, advanced materials provide solutions to make products more efficient, less expensive, safer, and even longer lasting.

In fact, advanced materials are all around us, and some are so ubiquitous as to be taken for granted: from superconducting materials in our computers and smartphones to LEDs for lighting; from lightweight bicycles to turbine blades, magnetic storage devices, and even shampoos.

Yesterday's panel provided a great opportunity to explore the world of advanced materials and nanotechnology with a group of investors and entrepreneurs in the space. Tucker Twitmyer of EnerTech Capital, Joseph King of DuPont Ventures, Mike DeSimone of DeSimone Group Investments, and David Paratore of NanoSteel.

NanoSteel logo
NanoSteel, as the name implies, is a leader in nano-structured steel material designs. Paratore, the president and CEO shared the story of how their relationship with automaker GM developed.

Through EnerTech, NanoSteel got a meeting with GM. The meeting didn't go well. It was clear they thought NanoSteel's technology was "cute," but not ready for them.

"If you can help us save weight in our automobiles by offering very high strength steel with high formability, come back and talk to us," GM said.

At the time, they couldn't. But NanoSteel now had a target and started to focus on it. As they did, they got closer and closer to realizing what the company was after and hence a relationship ensued.

Finding your focus is key, Paratore suggested, relentless focus on the commercial value of your enterprise. Without it, you risk being just an academic exercise.

That GM had a problem worth solving – and one that NanoSteel hadn't considered before – was a bit of serendipity.

Stories like that are not unfamiliar in the advanced materials space. Mike DeSimone told of how the iPhone got its glass.

"Gorilla Glass" was the brainchild of researchers at Corning in 1960, but it was an idea whose product had not yet come. It languished on the shelf for many years, until Steve Jobs was struggling with what became the iPhone.

Jobs wanted a glass that wasn't plastic, which scratched easily; something that thin, light, and damage-proof.

Corning had developed just such a glass in 1960 – then called "muscled glass" – but it was mothballed after Corning couldn't find enough commercial applications for the product.

Jobs learned about it and convinced Corning’s CEO Wendell Weeks to produce the glass for Apple's iPhone.

As of October 2012, according to Corning, Gorilla Glass has been used in over one billion mobile devices. Not bad for a mothballed advanced material.

Both Tucker Twitmyer and Joseph King warned that investors need to have a long time-horizon when they think about investing in advanced materials. Yet, they offered, the long-term "shelf life" of these products can make the companies producing them very attractive.

And it was clear from the two stories shared -- and other stories from companies such as OxiCool -- that there's a need for connectors. People who can be a part of the "seeking ecosystem" of a company – for either the one with the solution or the one with the problem.

My five takeaways about the advanced materials space (that are, frankly, applicable to other subsectors in cleantech) from yesterday's panel:

  1. Advanced materials are everywhere – in some cases we're talking about new materials and in others old materials with new properties used in a different way, a change in the core application. 
  2. Patience is required, both as an investor and as an entrepreneur: the time horizon is long, but so is the shelf-life. 
  3. Focus is key for entrepreneurs – relentless focus on commercial value, as Dave Paratore put it, but also remaining nimble enough to recognize and adapt to opportunities. 
  4. For service providers, there are opportunities to help companies in the space build relationships and partnerships, make introductions, to be part of the company's "seeking organization." 
  5. IP = value creation in advanced materials science.

(Disclosure: The author is co-founder and board member of the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic and sits on an Advisory Panel for The Energy Collective.)