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New Materials Target ‘Nano-Enabled’ Electronics

Peter Singer
Semiconductor International

A method for manufacturing metals and metal alloys with nanoscale dimensions <50 nm and tight size distribution has been patented by QuantumSphere Inc. (Santa Ana, Calif.). Produced by gas-phase condensation (GPC), the materials have a very high surface area that could enable dramatic improvements in battery and fuel cell electrode performance and high-rate, on-demand hydrogen generation.

The company has already demonstrated an increase in zinc-air battery cathode power of 320% and an increase in fuel cell electrode power by 45%, with a 30% cost reduction. In the area of fuel cells, scientists were able to exceed Department of Energy’s hydrogen generation target (via electrolysis) with 85% efficiency and ten-fold increase in production rate.

“We focus on the end-use applications,” explained Kevin Maloney, President, CEO and co-founder of QuantumSphere, “whether we’re producing an alloy like a copper-indium-gallium alloy for the thin-film photovoltaics, or manganese for the cathode for the button cell batteries, the zinc-air primary batteries or cobalt material with palladium to get rid of the platinum in the membrane electrode assembly for fuel cells.”

Maloney admits the fuel cell market “is a little bit further out,” but the company has cut costs and increased power by eliminating a dependency on platinum, which is a very expensive catalyst material. “On the hydrogen generation, we developed a fluidized bed – literally just a solution of electrolyte where we dispersed or mixed our nickel-iron blend as an alloy into the electrolytic solution – and were able to generate copious amounts of hydrogen through electrolysis. We’ve partnered up with a large U.S. automaker to validate this technology.”

Quantumsphere got its start five years ago this month in Maloney’s brother’s garage with ~$100,000 funding from two California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, Calif.) scientists, he said. “Eight months later, we built a small reactor and proved the concept, and we had a process to develop materials at the nanoscale, mostly metals and alloys. We’re not doing carbon nanotubes, building elevators to the moon or trying to cure cancer with anti-matter. We’re really focused on the reactor itself. We went from fingernail fulls a day of material to grams per day and now we’re doing kilograms per day.” Quantumsphere recently raised $11.1M through private funding, led by a large mining and manufacturing company called OM Group (Cleveland).

Maloney said he thought nanotechnology is overfunded and overhyped in some areas, but that he liked the potential on the materials side. “To be able to produce a very pure, narrowly defined spherical metallic particle is key to the industry. What we’re finding is that many people are struggling with either cost, size, purity, uniformity or simply volume. We really focused first on the process to get the materials and secondly the devices again simply enabled by those materials – the nano-enabled electro devices if you will.”

The key to the smaller particles is that they have a much larger surface area. “If you imagine just a small amount of these particles – a small pinch in your hand – the surface area would cover the size of a soccer field. In contrast, if you took the same amout of micron-sized materials, about the size of sand or salt, the surface area of those spheres would be about the size of a sheet of paper,” Maloney explained.

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