N.H.’s next economic engine: nanotubes

For the past decade or so, nanotechnology – the study of manipulating matter at an atomic and molecular scale — has been promoted (hyped) as the next industrial revolution. “Nanotechnology for Dummies” (Wiley Publishing) in 2005 described a future that will transform many industries, including game-changing applications in such diverse industries as advanced sensors in micro-electronics, nano-bio materials that hunt down cancer cells, high-impact materials that will protect troops while light-weighting airplanes and automobiles, thermal and electrical products that will generate, store and transmit energy faster, more efficiently and more enduringly than today’s metals.The future for many of these transformational applications has over the past couple of years moved from theory to reality, thanks to Concord-based Nanocomp Technologies.(As I’ve done in the past when I’ve waxed on about this company, I need to disclose my role as lead institutional investor in Nanocomp Technologies — and more recently a part-time marketing and corporate development consultant.)As NHBR readers will recall (“Q&A with Nanocomp’s Lashmore and Antoinette,” May 8-21, 2009, NHBR), Nanocomp Technologies cracked the code on scaled-up production as the world’s first – and, at present, only – maker of high-performance sheets, tapes and wires made of pure long-fiber carbon nanotubes, or CNTs.Recall that the preponderance of CNT products made today by all other manufacturers are produced too small (powdery particles) to achieve the materials’ promise of lightweight, strong and conductive materials. Nanocomp’s advanced manufacturing breakthrough has enabled products never before produced at this scale and with this performance.The company has been well recognized for its innovation winning numerous local, regional and national awards for innovation.In late 2010, Nanocomp’s formats were designated by the Defense Department as “essential to the national defense.” and in 2011 the company was awarded a multimillion-dollar Defense Procurement Act Title III matching grant to build out a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Merrimack.Nanotube Valley?The company’s products are the longest, strongest and most conductive CNT-based products available. displacing or complementing metals (like copper and aluminum) and high-strength super-plastics like Kevlar, the company’s products are projected to see demand in excess of supply for years to come.To date, CNT’s commercial and industrial impact has been limited in large part because the preponderance of the existing CNT manufacturers in the United States and abroad produce a powder-like nanotube, which – due to its size limitations – have a far more limited range of applications. With increased tube length comes the mythic properties of strength (200 times or more that of steel), electrical and thermal conductivity that exceeds copper and diamond, and a density one half that of aluminum.Unlike all other short-fiber CNT producers, Nanocomp’s materials are classified as articles, not particles, making them arguably the safest CNT-based materials on the market.The company’s one-step manufacturing process, which uses inexpensive raw materials and reactors, contrasts to the more labor- and capital-intensive metals, plastics and carbon fiber businesses. In this respect, the company ought to be able – within a three-to-five-year timeline — to produce a pound of high-performance structural, thermal and/or electrical material at equivalent pricing to incumbent materials producers but at a fraction of the cost and with vastly more limited impact on the environment than established incumbents.So significant is Nanocomp’s technological and industrial innovation and attention, one can readily imagine a regional economic, advanced manufacturing growth spurt that has potential to drive the medium- and long-term technological, entrepreneurial and industrial (and job-creating) profile of southern New Hampshire.Nanocomp is about to create the nation’s first nano-manufacturing facility in Merrimack Valley, marking what could be the beginning of a new New Hampshire economic force — call it “Nanotube Valley.”So, while the company’s got a lot of work ahead to live up to its potential, the foundation for a Nanotube Valley in southern New Hampshire is in place.In the next quarter or two, the company will announce one or more strategic relationships, each of which stand to dramatically enhance and extend its capacity to deliver game-changing products at scale.In Dustin Hoffman’s 1967 film, “The Graduate,” a family friend provides in one word career advice to Hoffman’s just-graduated character: “Plastics.” This generation’s word is “nanotubes.”Michael Gurau, who has managed CEI Community Ventures, a Maine-based venture capital fund since 2001, is planning a new fund, Clear Venture Partners, and, as noted, is working with Nanocomp. He can be contacted at mg@clearvcs.com.