The Intertubes are buzzing with news about the latest expansion of Modumetal, the Seattle-based metallurgic company that uses a low-energy, high tech process to laminate nanomaterials onto metals and other materials for high performance and corrosion resistance. Unfortunately for clean tech fans, the expansion is aimed at the first major market to adopt Modumetal’s technology, which would be the oil and gas sector. However, there are at least two renewable energy applications that could benefit, so let’s take a look and see what all the cheering is about.
The Big Deal About Corrosion Resistant Materials
If you think corrosion is a big deal when it comes to sustainability, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. An entire global organization called NACE International, the Worldwide Corrosion Authority is dedicated exclusively to the topic, based in Houston with about 35,000 members in 130 countries.
Corrosion-fighting materials nanomaterials have a direct role to play in environmental protection, for example in preventing spills or breaks, and they also come into play for lifecycle extension, some common examples being metal roofs and bridges as well as auto bodies.
With that in mind, NACE responded to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address with this observation about the connection between infrastructure and corrosion:
One of the leading causes for deterioration of American infrastructure is corrosion. Corrosion is a potentially catastrophic issue that affects almost every part of our daily lives. In addition to threatening the environment and public safety, unmitigated corrosion costs the U.S. economy over $500 billion each year or roughly 3.1% of our GDP.
Big Bucks For Corrosion Fighting Nanomaterials
That brings us to Modumetal. The big news came out on August 25, when the company announced a big new round of funding for its nanomaterials process.
Heavy hitters in the investing community include the cutting-edge Founders Fund, with the specific intent to “build out Modumetal’s manufacturing capability to support the growing demand by the oil and gas sector – the first market to adopt the technology.”
The chief scientist at Founders Fund, who is also a Modumetal board member, had some pithy observations on the topic:
Breakthroughs in metallurgy have heralded great advances in the history of our civilization. From the Stone Age to the Iron Age, Bronze Age, and then steel and aluminum, bringing us into the industrialized age. Modumetal is the next evolution in metal alloys, disrupting a long stagnant industry and enabling a host of new applications.
As for the oil and gas market, other investors include Chevron Technology Ventures, BP Ventures and ConocoPhillips. No surprise there — Modumetal notes that its products are already being used in the oil and gas industry for fasteners, pumps, valves and other equipment.
Rounding out the investor group are Sunshine Tech Limited, Steve Singh, Catamount Ventures, Second Avenue Partners, Goldenseeds, and members of the Alliance of Angels, with the venture debt financing company Hercules Technology Growth Capital, Inc. chiming in as a debt partner and equity investor.
About Those Nanomaterials…
This is a big breakthrough for Modumetal, which participated in the 2010 Fortune “Startup Idols,” earning the magazine’s acclaim one year later:
The five-year-old Seattle-based startup is making its name with a unique scientific approach that quite literally redesigns metal, dissolving various existing pieces in acid, adding electrical charges to the mixture, and creating what it calls “nanolaminates,” extremely durable and light metal composites that have the strength of structural steel and the density of aluminum. They’re also fairly inexpensive to produce, and they eliminate hefty steel production costs and improve fuel efficiency in cars and jetliners by reducing the weight of structural parts.
If you’re having trouble visualizing all that, Modumetal co-founder, President and CEO Christina Lomasney suggests that you think of a natural process, such as tree growth.
Modumetal also offers a brief video that outlines the process, and here’s what the factory floor looks like:
Aside from fighting corrosion, the new nanolaminated materials also have applications in the fields of thermal protection as well as protection against bullets and other projectiles.
Lomasney got her start as an undergraduate researcher in the D.T. Schwartz Electrochemistry Group at the University of Washington before moving on to advanced metals work at Boeing and co-founding the composite materials company Isotron Corporation, where she still serves as chair.
Her co-founder at Modumetal is Chief Scientist John Whitaker, known for his work in electrochemical printing at the D.T. Schwartz Electrochemistry Group.
Nanomaterials For Clean Technology
As a lightweight, low cost, long lived replacement for heavier parts, the new nanolaminates have some obvious applications in the electric vehicle sector, and they could help increase fuel efficiency in conventional vehicles.
We’re also thinking that renewable hydrogen production — aka “water splitting” — could benefit from the introduction of low cost, corrosion resistant materials.
Wave energy and offshore wind energy are two other corrosion-susceptible sectors that have yet to take off in the US, but which are on the path to commercial markets.
So, stay tuned for the next time Modumetal experiences a growth spurt.
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Photo credits: Top via NACE International; bottom via Modumetal.
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