(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of seven articles spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” program.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
William Fitzhugh recalls that, as an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado Denver, carbon nanotubes were highly hyped among academics and researchers.
“They were overly zealous about them then, but now they are overly pessimistic,” says the Fellow in Cohort 3 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program.
Fitzhugh, a newly minted PhD from Harvard University, believes that the time is right for making significant strides in nanotube innovation, and he cites a spinout from his alma mater as proof.
“Nantero is the first really successful nanotube electronics company, and it is about to release its first product,” Fitzhugh says, referencing the company’s recent successes. That company has raised more than $120 million and partnered with Fujitsu to manufacture carbon nanotube-based memory (‘Nano-RAM’).
In Fitzhugh’s case, he’s the founder of American Nanotechnologies, Inc. (ANI) that is focused on developing a novel chemical purification platform that can reduce the cost of producing high-purity dielectric materials by what he says is orders of magnitude.
Why is that important?
Many dielectric materials needed for next-generation technologies can be synthesized at industrial-scale but require post-synthesis purification that cannot be performed cost-effectively. ANI is developing a technology for large-scale purification of dielectric materials.
In the case of semiconducting carbon nanotube applications in the electronics sector, Fitzhugh says the key is achieving the highest standards of purity – 99.9999 percent in the case of global giant IBM.
“If you can’t purify it, you can’t put it in electronics,” he explained.
If successful with the purification process, he will be advancing at ORNL, Fitzhugh says that one of the resulting products – semiconducting carbon nanotube inks – can be implemented with roll-to-roll printing to disrupt the thin-film transistor industry.
Noting that cost estimates suggest it would cost $300,000,000 to produce a pound of semi-conducting nanotubes, Fitzhugh quickly adds that “no one has ever seen a pound.”
For now, he has both short-term and long-term strategies. In the case of the former, Fitzhugh is focused on applications in, for example, the oil and gas industry, pulling oil out of the ground and separating the water and salts in a more cost-effective manner than is currently available. Fitzhugh says that will demonstrate his technology, for which he has a patent with more anticipated, can achieve a high enough quality to attract an investor.
“It will derisk the technology for higher value, future materials while also providing revenue in the short-term,” he says. Then, ANI can move to its longer-term goal of providing nanophase materials with high, uniform purity.
“The science is solid, but we need some additional engineering work,” Fitzhugh says, and that will be the focus of his two-year fellowship at ORNL. By May 2021, he wants to have a pilot scale system in place, possibly for upstream oil.