Emerging field of nanotechnology may redefine frontiers of science
BY MARK SPENCER Daily Herald Business Writer
If the word "nanotechnology" is not in your vocabulary yet, it may be time to take note.
The scientific lingo for the restructuring of materials at their atomic and molecular level is beginning to get mainstream public attention as more people are grasping the possibilities for manipulating the roots of matter.
Some scientists call the emerging field of nanotechnology one of the leading new scientific frontiers for this century, with broad applications across countless industries. The term refers to the minute scale of the materials, with a nanometer equaling one-billionth of a meter.
It's a small company in suburban Chicago that may be on the leading edge of transforming nanotechnology from laboratory experiments into useful compounds mass produced for manufacturers to improve their products.
Nanophase Technologies Corp.'s compounds are already being used in applications ranging from making floor coatings thin and tough, to making sunscreen apply more smoothly.
Nanophase, an outgrowth of a 1980s research initiative at Argonne National Laboratory, has toiled as a research firm since its founding in 1989. Ten years ago, the company could only produce a few grams of its nanocrystalline powders a day at costs exceeding $1,000 per gram.
Since then, it has reduced costs to, in some instances, pennies a gram. These days, large drums of aluminum oxide and other ultra-fine nanoengineered powders are moved to the shipping dock each day at the small manufacturing plant hidden away in a Burr Ridge business park.
The only customer the company has ever made public is Schering-Plough Corp.'s Dr. Scholl's brand, which uses Nanophase zinc oxide because it is less likely to clog an aerosol can. The zinc oxide - with particles so small they are transparent - is used in sunscreen to eliminate that chalky residue sunbathers hate.
Nanophase's products also make their way into scratch-resistant coatings used, for instance, on floors. With fewer atoms in the nano-product, the coating is less dense, just 40 nanometers thick.
"When you are making something that small, it's smaller than a wavelength of light, so it becomes invisible," said Daniel S. Bilicki, vice president of sales and marketing for Nanophase.
The company went public in November 1997 and saw its stock sag after strong initial interest. After trading at less than $3 a share for more than a year, the share price began climbing in December.
President Clinton then announced in January his National Nanotechnology Initiative, including $500 million for nanotechnology research and education in his 2000 fiscal budget.
"Imagine the possibilities: Materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a small fraction of the weight, shrinking all the information housed at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube," Clinton said at the California Institute of Technology when announcing the plan.
Since then, Nanophase's stock has tripled in value. But executives at Nanophase hesitate giving Clinton all the credit.
President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph E. Cross was brought in about a year ago to take the company from a research mindset into production mode. He expects the company will turn its first profit by the end of next year.
Cross said he joined Nanophase because its long-term prospects include countless applications.
"There are a lot of one-trick ponies," Cross said. "If you make it big on a one-trick pony you soon saturate the market."
Cross says he cannot think of an industry that could not benefit from nanoengineering.
He has built a leadership team and a business plan aimed at developing marketable products easily tweaked for other uses.
The number of patented "reactors" the company uses to superheat metals, vaporizing them into their elemental particles and condensing them using reactive gases, has grown from six when Cross arrived in November 1998 to more than two dozen today.
"We're moving toward serious production capability," said Bilicki, the head of sales and marketing. "We're probably the only company that can deliver ton-type materials instead of kilos."
With no room left for more reactors in its 20,000-square-foot headquarters, Nanophase is negotiating a lease on a former chemical company building in Romeoville that is twice the size. The company plans to keep both buildings.