By Jack Mason
Small Times Correspondent
Feb. 18, 2002 — Reno, Nev., calls itself the “Biggest Little City in the World.”
The city is also the home of what might be the biggest little company in the nanoparticles market, Altair Nanotechnologies, the new name of Altair International, pending shareholder approval.
What’s the big deal about Altair? On Friday, the company reported advances in a solid oxide fuel cell
|The reactor room at Altair Nanotechnologies,|
where the company is thinking big — producing
nanocrystal particles of high quality, in high
volumes and at a low cost per pound.
Also, Altair’s core patent for making titanium dioxide pigment particles is likely to be approved in a few weeks. If it is, the company will control a flexible process for making literally tons of nanoscale materials in a range of types, sizes and shapes.
Indeed, the company is thinking big — producing nanocrystal particles of high quality, in high volumes and at a low cost per pound. The crystals could be used for fuel cells, batteries, thermal coatings and chemical catalysts. They might even help create a paint that cleans itself.
At the same time, Altair’s numbers aren’t exactly big-time: 2001 revenues were just $100,000 and its stock has fallen from around $3 to $1.35 in 12 months. Listed on the Nasdaq stock market for nearly five years, Altair employs only 25 people. What’s more, in 2001 it spent nearly $10 million, and about $5 million the previous year, on operations and R&D.
Still, “Altair has real potential in very significant market categories,” says Neil Gordon, a partner and nanotech analyst with Sygertech, a technology consulting firm in Montreal.
Altair’s market potential centers on a pigment process that could generate small mountains of nanoscale titanium dioxide, lithium titanate spinel and yttrium-stabilized zirconium (YSZ). Of course, “large” volume in the frontier field of nanomaterials is all relative. Altair says it can currently produce 200 tons a year and can expand to 1,500 tons. Producers of non-nanoscale titanium dioxide such as DuPont make as much as 1,000 tons a day.
The company says that the stabilized zirconia used in its solid oxide fuel cell pilot solves the problem of electrode and cathode layers tending to break apart under heating and cooling. Solid oxide fuel cells are one of several competing types, with PEM (proton exchange membrane) designs from companies like Ballard Power Systems Inc. more widely known. Solid oxide fuel cells run at significantly higher temperatures and take longer to reach operating temperature than PEM designs, so aren’t likely to power vehicles.
But solid oxide cells may be cheaper to mass-produce. They would be even cheaper if Altair’s nanomaterials can keep the cost of a fuel cell’s core to $100-$200 per kilowatt, as it thinks it can. By comparison, Altair President Bill Long says, solid oxide fuel cells that General Electric is working on cost about $1,500 per kilowatt.
Stabilized zirconia is also used as a coating to protect turbine blades in power plants and jet engines from intense heat. Altair has filed a patent for its nanosize YSZ material.
With its lithium titanate spinel (spinel refers to the phase of the crystal) nanomaterial, Altair is looking for a piece of the $6 billion market for rechargeable batteries. The company says that charging and discharging rates in lithium ion batteries built around its technology would be 10 to 100 times higher than existing batteries. It also claims that such nanopowered batteries could be recharged in as little as a minute.
In November, Altair signed a co-marketing and development agreement with FMC Lithium, the world’s leading producer of lithium compounds.
The pigment process that produces these materials was originally conceived for making titanium dioxide, the “white pigment” widely used in making paints. Pigment is a $9 billion industry. Ken Lyon, president of Altair Nanomaterials (the production unit of Altair), says the existing market for true nanoscale titanium dioxide is about 3,000 tons and includes cosmetics such as sunscreens, as well as thermal coatings, environmental catalysts for water treatment or auto emissions, as well as paint.
Indeed, Lyon and Rudi Moerck, Altair’s new vice president of business development, describe a range of applications for nanoscale Ti02, from absorbing electrons — as the particles do in sunscreens or UV protective coatings — to the opposite mechanism, harvesting electrons for producing electricity in a solar panel.
They can even envision a paint or surface made with nano Ti02 that cleans itself — electrochemically “burns off” a smudge or fingerprint, or keeps itself sterile by zapping bacteria with electrons.
Altair acquired the technology and the pilot production plant in Reno in 1999 from BHP Minerals — now BHP Billiton — for $9 million.
Altair founder Bill Long, who has a Ph.D. in minerals economics and has been involved in a variety of mining enterprises, says that BHP decided to sell when new management sold off nonessential assets in a back-to-basics reorganization.
BHP’s process, then unpatented but proprietary, was conceived for industrial-scale production. It starts with industrial sands of titanium and iron oxides that Altair can buy economically by the ton. These commodity “feedstocks” are dissolved in hydrochloric acid, and then purified to isolate and concentrate the titanium dioxide.
The TiO2 intermingles with dopants — or impurities — that help control how particles crystallize, and forms a dense, thin film. The film is then heated slowly in a sophisticated oven called a calcinator, held at temperature for a proscribed length of time and carefully cooled.
According to Lyon, production from a “dense film” offers lower costs and unique advantages — such as more uniform particle size — over other nanoparticle processes. Lyon says that the company’s process recovers hydrogen chloride for recycling back into the hydrochloric acid bath, and that the principal byproduct of the operation is iron oxide, which can be resold for use in making stains and fertilizers.
Lyon says that the company has several customers for its Ti02 products and is in active discussions with other large companies. The increase in interest and activity in the nanomaterials market from just a year ago is, says Lyon, “like night and day.”
Sygertech’s Gordon, also on the advisory board of CMP Cientifica’s “Nanotechnology Opportunity Report,” due out Feb. 22, notes that “their process doesn’t require a lot of expensive, esoteric equipment such as lasers and vacuum chambers.” He does believe that with only 25 people working on a wide range of products, the company may be stretched a little thin.
Gordon, who has an MBA as well as an undergraduate degree in metallurgical engineering, points out that many companies are developing materials and technologies for fuel cells and batteries. “The optimal solutions may not be lithium titanate spinel. They may not be nano.”
He also observes that many production technologies exist for producing titanium-based products, nanoscale or otherwise. All are beholden to economic fundamentals. “The ideal one is that which uses the least amount of energy or raw material costs, for the level of product purity you need.”
What nanotechnology companies like Altair need right now, Gordon contends, “is to find low-hanging fruit, products in a market niche where the cost or performance advantage they offer is enough to achieve sustainable profitability.”