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Posted: December 2, 2007
Delaware companies on cutting edge of nanotechnology
(Nanowerk News) In some ways, former DuPont Co. chemist Berhan Tecle sees nanotechnology as coaxing atoms and molecules to misbehave in useful and profitable ways.
It's as good a way as any to describe the business of Tecle's startup company, Ultrafine Technologies LLC, one of Delaware's nanotechnology pioneers.
Ultrafine, with three full-time employees, now spends much of its time trying to perfect the making of next-generation solar cell semiconductors from layers of "nanoscale" particles -- those 100 nanometers or smaller. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A million nanometer particles can comfortably line up across a pinhead.
Materials usually have to be forced in controlled environments to get nanosize and stay that way, often in unusual arrangements or combinations with other materials.
"When I found out that you can really capture atoms and molecules and manipulate them in a way that you can build materials, that became very interesting to me," said Tecle, who works closely with the University of Delaware.
Tecle's company is only one Delaware organization with a growing stake in nanotechnology.
The state economic development agency has identified nanotechnology as an area in which Delaware should develop its strengths, with the state- and industry-supported Delaware Technology Park in Newark leading the effort. The park works closely with the multi-state Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Alliance.
"It's not so much, 'Is it coming?' It's more like, 'How big is it going to be, and what can we do about it?' " said Barbara DeHaven, Chemistry Cluster Leader for the Delaware Economic Development Office. "I think that people truly feel that it is the future of growth."
DeHaven said that nanotech has the potential to straddle all of Delaware's high-tech growth priorities: biotechnology, information technology and advanced materials.
State Energy Office officials also see advantages, and awarded Ultrafine two research and development grants offering up to $200,000 each for renewable energy projects.
"Nanotech is turning up in so many disciplines now, even in the biotech area," said Robert W. Berkmire, who directs the university's Center for Energy Conversion. "I think there is interest in trying to come up with more of a structured organization," such as the center developed for composite materials, "but that hasn't happened yet."
DuPont sees growth in nanotechnology
One factor contributing to Delaware's perceived advantage in the field is Wilmington-based DuPont, which employs hundreds of scientists in Delaware and views its stake in nanotechnology as a key growth area.
Some DuPont scientists, such as Tecle, have left the company to set up nanotech ventures on their own.
The University of Delaware also is making a mark in nanotech research.
Last week, UD announced that two faculty members who work at the Center for Composite Materials were part of an international team chosen for a $5 million South Korean government-sponsored research program into micro- and nanoscale composite materials.
In April, the National Science Foundation honored assistant chemical engineer professor Thomas Epps III with a five-year, $460,000 grant to support research on nanomaterials that, among other benefits, can advance fuel cell technologies.
The school also earlier this year sought additional state support for nanotech research in its Materials Science and Engineering Department, where researchers this summer announced a breakthrough in making "self-assembling" nanoscale polymer tubes.
"Delaware is well-positioned to help companies involved in nanotechnology grow and it will reap additional benefits from developing the emerging nanotechnology economy throughout the state," DeHaven said.
Another Delaware company, Advanced Pharmaceutical Nanotech, turned to nanotech to make vitamin, medicine and skin-care products for markets in Asia. And NanoDrop Technologies Inc. makes equipment that can analyze samples at near-nanoscale amounts.
Among the other Delaware nanotech-involved companies, DeHaven said, are Third-Order Nanotech, ANP Technologies, Nano Chemical Systems, Sepax Technologies, Rohm and Haas, Air Liquide and EM Photonics.
Investors learning about nanotechnology
Some Delaware nanobusinesses were started by former employees of DuPont, which has embraced nanoscience in fields ranging from titanium dioxide pigments to carbon nanotube flat panel displays, nanofiber water filtration systems, nanomedicines and nanometal-coated plastics.
DuPont regularly touts its nanoventures as growth areas in its briefings for investors, and is exploring the use of nanomaterials for its "Environmental Solutions" unit to use in cleanups of traditional pollution problems.
Once separated into ultra-tiny particles and properly arranged, nanomaterials react differently from larger chunks of the same stuff. They might bind to other usually incompatible particles more quickly or, in the case of solar cells, might react to light and convert it into electricity faster, better and cheaper.
"You are actually changing the characteristics of matter. If you just change the grain structure of a material, you are gaining strength or other physical properties by orders of magnitude," said Tecle, who holds several patents.
Nanotechnology has the potential to make the process simpler, that means less costly," Tecle said. "And at the same time, there's a potential for making it more efficient."
Humans have unknowingly created nanoparticles for centuries. Diesel exhaust contains molecules small enough to rank as nanomatter. Artists have, without ever measuring, exploited mixtures with nanometal bits to reflect light in gorgeous ways.
Doing the whole thing on purpose is something else.
Carbon "nanotubes," a commodity nanomaterial used in such goods as tennis racket handles, can be made by blasting a graphite block with lasers in a closed, carefully managed environment, or by growing them from a hot vapor in a special furnace, or by shooting electricity though a carbon based electrode under the right conditions.
Expensive conditions. Raising money from investors involves the sizable hurdle that most people don't understand nanotechnology.
"Understanding is very limited," Tecle said. "You spend a tremendous amount of time educating people, and even after doing that, a lot of people just have difficulty grasping it and understanding the value."
But the promise of low-cost solar cells for an energy-hungry, pollution-weary world prompted the state of Delaware to gamble on Ultrafine with a grant to support renewable energy development. So did the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and an investor in Germany. The company now has developed both research-scale and high-volume production capabilities, and is working with the university's Center for Energy Conversion to develop its solar cells in a closed chamber filled with inert gas.
"What you want to avoid is, you go through the pain of building this material atom-by-atom into a smaller particle, you want to maintain that until such time as you want to use it," Tecle said.