Tiny parts, big punch

Nanotechnology moves from lab to marketplace

BYLINE: Timothy R. Gaffney tgaffney@DaytonDailyNews.com
DATE: February 27, 2005 M
PUBLICATION: Dayton Daily News (OH)
SECTION: Business Xchange

CEDARVILLE — Organizers of this week's statewide nanotechnology summit bill it as "the most promising and exciting technology of the next decade." What's got economic development types excited is that nanotechnology is no longer just a laboratory curiosity. A few high-tech entrepreneurs, including some in Ohio, have taken nanotechnology products to market. But it hasn't happened overnight. The heads of one Ohio company that has commercialized nanotechnology say it has required persistence and patience — for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

Applied Sciences Inc. of Cedarville has been developing what founder and President Max Lake calls "engineered materials" since 1984. The company has formed two subsidiaries to manufacture and distribute nanotech products — Pyrograf Products, incorporated in 1996, and Nanographite Materials, formed in December 2000 as a joint venture between ASI and GSI Creos Corp., a Japanese trading company. "Both companies are profitable today," said Thomas Hughes, general manager of Pyrograf Products and chief operating officer of the parent company.

Nanographite Materials makes Pyrograf I and Black Ice, two carbon-based materials with special thermal properties. The company is targeting electronics and aerospace markets.

Pyrograf Products sells Pyrograf III, a microscopic, hollow tube of carbon molecules. The company calls it a carbon nanofiber. It's grown in hot gases at furnace temperatures. A jar of it looks like soot or carbon black. But it has special properties that can improve other materials when it's added to them, such as plastic resins and rubbers — lightweight strength and electrical conductivity, to name a few.

Pyrograf Products built a pilot production site in an abandoned Cedarville plant in 2000 and began producing sample batches for industrial, government and college labs. It turned out commercial quantities about a year later and quickly maxed out its 40,000-pound yearly capacity.

The company ramped up capacity to 70,000 pounds and is developing a plan to turn out 2 million to 3 million pounds per year. Pyrograf Products recently signed an exclusive licensing agreement with a European company to distribute Pyrograf III across the Atlantic. In turn, Pyrograf Products will distribute a European nanofiber with different properties in the U.S. market. Lake, ASI's president, said he isn't free to name end products that now include Pyrograf III. "The customer wants to be the one that controls the release of information," he said.

But, "the real (market) is in automotive applications where the volume is in the millions of pounds," he said. "We think we're on that path." State development officials also see Pyrograf Products as a potential customer for Ohio's high-sulfur coal. The process for making Pyrograf products requires both carbon and sulphur. The Ohio Coal Development Office has been working with ASI to develop a process that uses high-sulfur coal as a feedstock.

Small-business research grants have been a key to ASI's ability to stay in business long enough to commercialize nanotechnology. "We've been a leader in (the development of nanoparticles) and the state has been a leader in supporting it," he said.

The payoff for the state would be in tax revenues and jobs. Hughes said Pryograf Products has doubled its employment, to about 35 people.

But Lake said ASI is trying to keep production as automated as possible, and he predicted the most job growth is likely to be among manufacturers that make use of nanomaterials.

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