Sept. 15, 2003 – Although nano-size grains are at the heart of Inframat Corp.’s coatings, it’s the company’s proprietary solution plasma spray (SPS) technology that has captured the interest of jet engine-makers and land-based turbine manufacturers.
Developed through grants and military contracts, Inframat has spent the last five years perfecting a patented (11 so far) coatings technology that breaks from the industry norm of using powdered feedstocks. Instead, the company is supplying potential users with a liquid solution carrying nano-size grains of material for use as thermal barrier coatings.
That is a major advancement for the industry, said Keith Legg, president of Rowan Technology Group. Using an aqueous feedstock allows for an almost infinite spectrum of mixtures to be used at the point of application.
“The problem with a powdered coating, if you want to coat nanomaterials, is you can’t feed nanomaterials into the plasma gun,” he said.
This could mean product improvements previously unattainable such as jet-engine turbine blades that withstand higher temperatures, said David Reisner, Inframat’s co-founder, president and CEO. One result might be hotter-burning, more efficient jet engines, for example. Nano-size grains coat more evenly and allow for stress fractures to form throughout the coating, making for smoother expansion and contraction through hot and cold cycles that can lead to costly cracking of standard coatings.
Also, the technology requires relatively low investment and no serious retrofitting of existing equipment to get started, Reisner said.
GE, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney, the three major jet-engine makers, are lining up to evaluate the technology for possible licensing; Inframat’s preferred means of doing business at the high-end of the market.
“Our expectation is we’re going to be entering licensing in the very near future,” said Reisner. “We don’t fancy ourselves as being the FAA-approved coaters for engine products.”
Other markets for the technology include coating everything from oxygen sensors in cars to fuel cells and the pistons of diesel engines, said John Burdick, an Inframat co-founder and vice president of Business Development. In these lower-end, mass markets, where regulations are less problematic, Inframat is considering setting up shop as a coatings company instead of licensing out the technology, he said.
The company’s spray-dry process for making the nano-grains that actually do the coating (the water burns off in the plasma gun’s 10,000-degree heat) has yielded other opportunities as well. Inframat has contracts to supply a ductile ceramic material to the Navy for use in coating submarine periscopes and medical equipment makers are evaluating its nano-size hydroxyapatite (HA) for use in coating artificial joint implants.
Still, these and other materials-based opportunities are side businesses compared with its SPS play.
“There’s no rocket science involved in making the solution,” said Reisner. “That’s why the SPS is a licensing play. It’s hard to imagine a business just selling the feedstock solution.”
The company’s next step, according to Neil Gordon, a partner at nano-consultancy Sygertech and a fan of the company’s technology, is to focus.
“I like what they are doing and they’ve done a great job up to now, but their challenge is in the area of commercialization and business rather than technology, which they seem to be really good at,” said Gordon. “So, how do they make it to the next level?”
Reisner’s answer: In 2002, Inframat took in $1.6 million through product sales and government grants and is now tailoring its business plan to attract angel investors and will be floating a VC funding round.
74 Batterson Park Road
Farmington, CT 06032
Founded in 1996, Inframat was recognized in 2002 by Deloitte & Touche, who gave the firm a Connecticut Technology Fast50 Award. Prior to this, Inframat had already received a 2001 R&D 100 Award, as well as a DUS&T award and 2002 CQIA Gold Innovation Prize.
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Small tech-related products and services
Inframat has developed a nanoparticle-based solution plasma spray (SPS) coating technology that can enhance the quality and performance of coated components.
Inframat hopes to primarily employ a licensing model for its SPS technology in high-end sectors, while marketing its nanocomposite coatings directly to lower-end mass markets.
- Dr. James C. Hsiao: co-founder and chairman of the board
- Dr. David E. Reisner: co-founder, president and chief executive officer
- Dr. Danny Xiao: co-founder and vice president of research & development
- John M. Burdick: co-founder and vice president of corporate development
- Paul E.C. Bryant: chief technology officer
To date Inframat has gained approximately $8 MM in revenue through government R&D grants, product sales and collaborations with other firms.
$1.6 million (2002)
Selected strategic partners and customers
- US Nanocorp
- Shanghai Dahao Enterprise Investment Company
- MacroMaterials Inc.
- Altair Nanomaterials Inc.
- Hyper-Therm High-Temperature Composites, Inc.
- Isotron Corporation
- Nanopowder Enterprises Inc. (NEI)
Barriers to market
While Inframat has established its technological capabilities, it now faces the challenge of positioning itself in the industry and identifying niche markets.
- Research by Gretchen McNeely