Wednesday, March 1, 2006
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
By Colin Stewart
Breakthroughs in search of a market
Santa Ana’s QuantumSphere is seeking practical
applications for its pioneering nanotechnology.
Santa Ana nanotech company QuantumSphere Inc. is alive only because it’s flexible.
Launched three years ago by entrepreneur Kevin D. Maloney and chemist
Doug Carpenter, Ph.D., the company was built to exploit the commercial
possibilities of a versatile machine that Carpenter had invented. The
device can convert a metal wire or metal powder into the finest of
particles – each one about 30 atoms wide, only 10 billionths of a meter
across, or 10 nanometers.
holds up a vial of black powdered cobalt from his machine. In that
container, about the size of his pinky, are
10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 particles. That number is 10 to
the 28th power – roughly the same as all the bits of sand in the world.
Nano-sized metals tend to be completely different from ordinary
metals. For starters, one gram of nanometal powder has as much surface
area as a soccer field. That huge surface can react strongly with
oxygen, which is the quality Carpenter had in mind when he designed his
nanomanufacturing process. He was looking for a way to improve rocket
fuel by adding nano aluminum.
He succeeded, but has since set that work aside, because the market isn’t ready and because it’s so hazardous.
“People who work with aluminum usually end up with a big hole in the ground,” he says.
When QuantumSphere got under way in late 2002, it planned to make
and sell a much safer product – nano-sized zinc oxide for use in glass
and cosmetics to protect users from ultraviolet light. That’s a $200
million market but, it turned out, not a safe one commercially, because
competition was so intense. Other companies were making nano zinc oxide
“by the trainload,” Maloney learned.
had to shift gears, and it’s still figuring out exactly which direction
it will head. Potential clients keep knocking on the door as they hear
about what the company makes.
How about blending nano silver into military clothing, because
silver kills germs, and in nano form it can be mixed into the fabric?
Or relatively inexpensive nano cobalt as a replacement for costly platinum as a fuel-cell catalyst?
Or using nano nickel-cobalt alloy to improve hearing-aid batteries?
Or mixing nano copper into ink so you could simply print out a circuit?
QuantumSphere has great prospects, but where it ends up will depend
on what it learns about the new nanometals it makes and customers’
willingness to pay for them.
not married to one product,” says Kimberly McGrath, the company’s
director of fuel-cell research. “We’re going to find the key material.”
“It’s an exciting company,” says Derrell Brookstein, managing
director of Nanotechnology.com, an online publication that evaluates
firms in the rapidly expanding field of nano-scale products.
QuantumSphere has a good team in place, has attracted major companies
as research partners, and knows that “it’s all about business at the
end of the day.”
“But there are no guarantees. It’s a very competitive field,” Brookstein says.
Maloney and Carpenter are confident that several of their
commercial prospects will pan out. Their fuel-cell expert, McGrath, is
also comfortable with the risks and potential rewards of startup
company. She’s a Ph.D. who’s in her first job as a professional chemist
after putting herself through school on money she made gambling.
At this point, QuantumSphere’s most promising products are nano
cobalt in fuel cells and nano nickel-cobalt in batteries. In each of
those cases, QuantumSphere is working with major-brand international
companies, but still is short of a formal product announcement.
So far, nano nickel in magnetic coatings and nano copper in
conductive inks have produced the most revenue. Boosted by those sales,
Maloney projects revenues of $500,000 this year, with a few million
dollars in 2007, depending on the timing of commercialization.
a versatile manufacturing process allows [QuantumSphere] to be
flexible, but doesn’t help it to focus. The broad range of potential
uses for all its potential products can be a distraction, and potential
customers often suggest applications that [QuantumSphere] hadn’t yet
To meet the challenge of remaining focused, the company tries to test possibilities fast so it can discard the losers quickly.
For Maloney, those disappointments are a necessary stage on
[QuantumSphere’s] road to success, so he tells employees not be
discouraged by them. In fact, he instructs them:
“Fail quickly and often.”
Eventually, your laptop, cell phone will need only refueling
In a few years, it’s likely you’ll no longer need to plug in your cell phone or laptop for hours to recharge it.
Instead of being powered by a battery, the gadget would have a
built-in fuel cell. When that runs low, you’d rummage through your
pocketbook or briefcase, pull out a disposable cartridge filled with
methanol, pop it into the device’s fuel socket, and you’d be good to
Expect to see them on the market next year as electronics makers
work the kinks out of this new Direct Methanol Fuel Cell technology.
But cross your fingers, because they’ve been promised “next year”
for several years now.
The reason companies from Toshiba and Panasonic to Samsung are
developing fuel cells isn’t because recharging is such a bother. It’s
because the companies need more power to run their ever-more-powerful
A fuel cell can run a laptop for 20 hours between refills, but a
typical modern laptop’s lithium-ion battery is likely to fail in two to
four hours – long before a cross-country plane flight is over.
Even the International Civil Aviation Organization is on board. Its
rules committee agreed last year to allow air travelers to carry
methanol starting in 2007, if national regulators approve. Each
passenger would be limited to two methanol cartridges (about the size
of a wine cork) in carry-on luggage.
Here’s a look at the innovation process for one of QuantumSphere’s most promising products:
What: Nano cobalt for fuel cells.
When: Last month, laboratory tests showed that replacing 50
percent of the platinum in a direct methanol fuel cell’s electrode with
nano cobalt increased power 30 percent while cutting costs 30 percent.
Who: Kimberly McGrath, Ph.D.
How it could affect the company: QuantumSphere is negotiating to
supply nano cobalt and other nanometals to two large Japanese
electronics makers, which are planning to power new devices with
methanol fuel cells starting as early as 2007.
How it could affect consumers: Small methanol fuel cells have
the potential to power a laptop or cell phone for 20 hours or more.
Instead of needing to be recharged, the devices would be refueled with
small disposable cartridges containing methanol.
Where the first ideas came from: Company co-founder Kevin
Maloney saw fuel cells as a large potential market for [QuantumSphere],
so he hired McGrath last June to explore how nanometals perform as
fuel-cell components. Based on her previous studies and increasing
demand for new power sources for portable electronics, she decided in
July to focus on direct methanol fuel cells.
The go-ahead: In August, McGrath conducted limited experiments
on nanometals in fuel cells. The results were encouraging enough that
Maloney approved the purchase of $100,000 worth of lab equipment, which
arrived in January.
Where the next idea came from: Tests began with a catalyst
consisting of 40 percent nano cobalt because McGrath knew from her
scientific background that it should work and because Maloney knew that
a 40 percent reduction in platinum would be enough to attract interest
from fuel-cell manufacturers.
What’s the competition? Other companies make nano-scale materials, but
[QuantumSphere] says only its process makes nanometal particles as
small, as uniform and in quantities of kilograms rather than grams per
Other potential problems: Feasibility of methanol fuel cells has
not been proven in the marketplace. Nanometals could become low-cost
commodities, if QuantumSphere’s patent applications don’t protect it.
Protection against matching innovations: Among [QuantumSphere’s] eight patent applications for nano-sized compounds, three are for nanometals in fuel cells.
What’s next: Tests to determine whether nano cobalt can
efficiently replace more than 50 percent of the fuel cell’s platinum
and whether other nanometals can do any better.