Sometimes innovations come from unexpected places.
In 2007, a team of scientists and engineers who previously worked on the stable dispersion of nanoparticle colloids for photographic film emulsions at Kodak, set out to form a new venture—translating expertise pioneered as part of the photography business into something with a much bigger range of applications.
“Kodak for many decades had developed an approach to precipitate particles so that they could be integrated into photographic film,” explained Landon Mertz, the CEO of Cerion Advanced Materials. “What we did is we took that base knowledge and expertise that they had in making photographic film emulsions and we significantly, significantly invested in it to bring it well beyond the current state-of-the-art.”
Today Cerion Advanced Materials—based in Kodak’s hometown of Rochester, NY—provides custom materials R&D, scale-up and manufacturing of nanomaterials for clients across many sectors, including defense, chemical, energy, electronics and pharmaceutical.
In an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine, Mertz shares more about Cerion, its goals, challenges and the growing role of nanomaterials.
R&D Magazine: What is Cerion Advanced Materials primary role in the market?
Mertz: Our primary focus in our business is centered on making nanoparticles, which are usually metals, metal oxides or ceramics.
We have three primary core competencies. The first is from a design perspective. The way that we work with nanomaterials through precipitation allows us very specific control over both nanomaterial size and non-size attributes of the particle. A lot of people are interested in atomic manipulation—this is making true homogeneous alloys of two or more materials—as well as core shell-type work, doping, and surface functionalization.
What we are really known for from a commercial standpoint is scale up and manufacturing. We have dedicated departments and teams that do nothing but development and engineering to scale nanomaterials into a true industrial rate manufacturing environment. Typically, our scale factors anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times lab scale, depending on what is being made.
From a manufacturing perspective, right now our rate of production capacity is about 150 metric tons. We are in the process right now of planning to increase to 500 metric tons and we truly expect if we look seven to 10 years out to be at 1,000 metric tons or at least hopefully 900 metric tons of production capacity.
R&D Magazine: Who are your customers?
Mertz: As far as our customers go, we work with customers where they serve as an application expert—they known their product or system and what they are trying to achieve using a nanomaterial—and we serve as the subject matter expert as it relates to design, scale and manufacturing of that material.
Greater than 90 percent of what we do day-to-day is related to next-generation stealth products or systems. In terms of companies we work with, it’s mostly mid-sized and large companies, quite a bit of multinationals. They span a wide range of different industries and products. We also support the defense community, focused mostly on offensive and defensive platforms. In terms of military applications, most of what we do can’t be disclosed, but there is one public program where we are designing a new material to serve as a next-generation bullet to improve lethality.
We do a lot with coatings as well and there are a number of architectural applications that we are involved in, everything from glass to cladding. More recently, we have also been doing some work in the pharmaceutical space, specifically creating nanomaterials that are being studied right now as injectables to remediate or cure a handful of different diseases. We typically do not support basic research, but we do support applied research all the way through to manufacturing.
R&D Magazine: Scaling up an innovation from the applied research stage to wide scale commercialization is often a big challenge. How does Cerion help move nanomaterial innovations through the pipeline?
Mertz: Typically our customers either have in-house expertise working with nanomaterials or they have no expertise—typically it is not at the advanced level that we operate doing this every day. Where customers look to us it is often for use cases, such as, ‘I’ve been trying to design this nanomaterial, but I can’t get the feature and benefits I am looking for.’ Or, ‘we’ve made a nanomaterial, but we are unsure if it’s cost-effective and will be able to be scaled up.’ In that case we will go in and help them fix the formula or redesign it. Where the general market, including start-ups in nanomaterials, all struggle is, how do you successfully scale, and more importantly, how do you make these materials cost effective? Those two things have been major challenges for a lot of our customers. I think the market, when they are serious about transiting a product through commercialization, they do end up at our door, but others go at it alone and it can be a very frustrating and expensive process, whereas typically we can shorten that time frame and ensure a greater chance of success. This is old hat to us, we do it every day.
R&D Magazine: Are there challenges that are unique to nanomaterials compared to other types of material science when it comes to scaling up?
Mertz: Nanomaterials at the sizes that industry wants to operate at, usually 100 nanometers (nm) or less—but in our case we are working all the way down to 2 nm—there are a lot of process parameters going on to very precisely control as you are making that nanomaterial. Small process excursions when making the nanomaterials can have a very big impact on the features and attributes of that nanomaterials. So you have to attack this in a lot of different ways. You have to attack it from a developmental perspective to understand your operating window, you need to really understand what process excursions you can or cannot tolerate and you also need to spend a lot of time diligently investigating your raw materials because sometimes containments in those materials can have unwanted effects in the final product. It is a very large, multi-faceted approach to dealing with scaling, and I think that could be different from other types of materials where there has been state-of-the-art processes in existence for decades.
R&D Magazine: As a company, why did you chose to work within the entire life cycle—applied research, design and manufacturing—versus just focusing in one area?
Mertz: A lot of customers come to us when they are at that applied research stage—they don’t have the capability or the access to be able to run materials at a small pilot scale or a large pilot scale, they don’t have the expertise in flexing the material system to understand where it breaks and how to control it so they get the product they want. So it became clear that if we didn’t cover from applied research straight through to manufacturing that our commercial chances of success were going to be significantly lower. I am happy to say that for a very long time we have been growing and profitable, so our decision was ultimately the right one. But it is different than what you expect where research is typically bifurcated from manufacturing.
R&D Magazine: How has the nanomaterials space changed and grown in recent years?
Mertz: I can remember going back ten years when I got to this company and at that time, most of the interest in nanomaterials was very focused on basic research, testing out some hypothesizes, but there was a lack of commercial supply and it didn’t go anywhere. As we look at the market today, what I see is our customers understand that nanomaterials truly are a viable tool in the tool chest to provide next-generation performance for a product or system that they are creating. I would argue that we have moved beyond that period of hype that nanomaterials had for many, many decades and into a period of time where true commercial adoption is happening. I only expect that to quicken as people become more educated on the pros and cons of using nanomaterials.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity