Firms get over $20 million for micro and nano products

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Oct. 4, 2004 – Companies developing micro and nanotechnology-related products will receive more than $20 million from the federally funded Advanced Technology Program, beginning this month. Another $5 million may lead to tools used in the small tech industry.

The funding, which was again contested in Congress this year, makes it easier for companies to take on otherwise fiscally risky projects ranging from portable fuel cells to pollution controls to cancer therapies, according to the recipients.

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“Fuel cells are an intriguing, high-value opportunity, but it is not today’s business,” said Ray McLaughlin, chief financial officer of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in Houston.

CNI is one of six micro and nanotech companies to receive awards, which totaled 32 this year. CNI, which specializes in single-wall carbon nanotubes, has identified the energy industry as a key market through applications such as nanotube electrodes in fuel cells. But successful integration of nanoscale components into next-generation power sources would take time, labor and money that wouldn’t be available until the 4-year-old company had built up income from other business strategies.

“There is a lot of expensive work that would have to be done,” McLaughlin said. The $3.6 million that ATP allocated to the fuel cell initiative offsets some costs. “Without this, we wouldn’t be able to dedicate our resources to it.”

The program allows small companies such as CNI or Glennan Microsystems Inc. in Cleveland to partner with other small companies and corporations to design, test and ultimately commercialize new technologies. Managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the program targets technologies that could give the nation a competitive edge.

CNI, for instance, will work with Motorola Inc. to develop micro fuel cells for portable devices. NEC, Hitachi and several other Japanese companies also are attempting to get a foothold in that market.

The project, which includes Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells Inc., combines CNI’s expertise in nanotubes with Motorola’s work in small proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Motorola wants to sell micro fuel cells as a compact, lightweight power source for its mobile phones and other consumer electronics.

ATP also reduces barriers that prevent a consortium of companies from working together on complex projects, said Rick Earles, deputy director of Glennan Microsystems. Glennan Microsystems won a $3.1-million award to develop combustion control systems to reduce nitrogen oxides in gas turbine engines. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to begin enforcing tougher standards for the pollutant in 2010.

“We can either collaborate and pull together disparate technologies to provide the single solution, or a single company has to do it,” Earles said. But few if any solo businesses could justify the cost of orchestrating a multi-tiered process that would require sensors, electronics, packaging, software and integration into numerous types of engines.

 ”None of us could have done it ourselves,” Earles said. “Now we’ve got the essence of a supply chain.”

Glennan Microsystems, founded in 1998 as public-private partnership to commercialize microsystems that work in harsh environments, will coordinate efforts from groups as varied as Case Western Reserve University to Goodrich Corp. They propose developing and demonstrating a system that combines MEMS sensors, software, electronics and packaging that can be used in engines to control combustion.

The sensor system will reduce byproducts that cause pollution by maximizing the combustion process. They expect to integrate the system into water- and aircraft engines and electric power generators. The technology then may be adapted for cars, trucks and other vehicles, they said. ATP has weathered a series of political challenges.

For years, the Bush administration and some Republicans have opposed the program, calling it corporate welfare. This year, the administration and the U.S. House of Representatives recommended that the program be terminated in fiscal year 2005.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee reinstated the funding and added another $24 million in mid-September, for a total of $203 million for 2005. NIST announced its latest round of ATP awards at the end of September, saying it would provide $80.1 million in awards with industry matches equaling $56.9 million.

Other small tech companies receiving awards include: 

  • Cree Inc. of Durham, N.C. About $3.4 million to demonstrate light-emitting diode lamp packages. Nanocrystal Lighting Corp. of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., will participate in the project.
  • Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich. $6.5 million to develop an atomic force microscope platform for nanomechanical measurements. Veeco Instruments Inc. of Woodbury, N.Y., is a partner.
  • Nanospectra Biosciences of Houston. $2 million to develop an integrated approach for detecting and destroying cancer cells using gold nanoshells. Several Texas universities will assist in the project.
  • Quantum Dot Corp. of Hayward, Calif. $2 million to develop quantum dots without the use of the heavy metal cadmium for imaging in medical diagnostics and treatment.

In addition, three other award winners plan to devise fabrication techniques, instruments and software for the semiconductor industry that could benefit small tech manufacturers.

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