Nanocoating opportunities grow as layers get thinner

By Hugh G. Willett, Small Times contributing editor

June 11, 2007 — The ability to lay down ultra-thin layers of a variety of nanoscale materials is primarily being used to increase the wear resistance of materials used in industrial, medical, and automotive applications, according to Dr. Tim VanderWood, executive director of MVA Scientific Consultants, Duluth Ga. But the opportunities in nanocoating will grow with the increasing capabilities to create thinner layers of a wider variety of materials within tighter tolerances.

MVA uses tools such as transmission electron microscopes (TEM)s to measure nanoscale coatings on a variety of materials used to manufacture glass, car paints and even variable pigments in dollar bills, VanderWood said. “During the R&D phase you can call on our lab to characterize the film cross section,” he noted. “We are also used in manufacturing for quality control.”

MVA has been working with customers helping to characterize a variety of color pigment-related nanocoating technologies that are already in production. The company has helped the U. S. Treasury Department develop variable pigments that are used in paper money and has also worked with paint companies to develop automobile paints with nano-layered pigments and coatings that can change colors when observed from different angles.

“We’re also working with architectural glass companies to develop nanoscale coatings on glass in multiple layers,” he said. These ultra-thin coatings can add UV protection, color and other properties to the glass, he explained.

Among the biggest challenges in the future of nanocoating is the capability to make sure the layers bond properly with the substrate, VanderWood added.

Another example of where nanocoating technology is headed can be found in C3 International LLC of Alpharetta, Ga., which has developed a technology platform to lay down at low temperatures on any inorganic substrate as many as 58 different elements or combination of elements in layers as thin as a few nanometers within tolerances of as little as 2 to 4%.

The C3 technology is currently used primarily to create thin layers of highly wear-resistant materials such as cubic zirconium that extend the life and increase the speed capabilities of industrial tooling. C3′s nanocoating techniques can deposit cubic zirconium crystals finer and denser than other methods such as CVD allow: 3 nanometers compared with 50 nanometers.

And the future offers more exciting possibilities. The ability to maintain tight tolerances at low cost is key to breaking into the new applications where C3 will compete against ion-implantation, chemical vapor deposition and other established technologies, said Mark Deininger, founder and CEO of C3.

C3 is a $100 million company today. In four years the company expects a valuation in the range of $2 billion, largely the result of licensing the technology for use in new applications in electronics, space research and energy, Deininger said.

Three key target areas are meta-materials, multi-ferrics, and layered dielectric and conductive materials. C3 expects that within several years, its technology will be used in applications including CMOS metal interconnect, copper interconnect, flash memory, magnetic memories, batteries, and capacitors.

The C3 technology is also much faster and less expensive in a manufacturing environment than techniques such as growing layers on the substrate, Deininger said.

Deininger confirmed that a C3 is addressing a key challenge of bonding the deposited layers to the substrate. A problem with nanocoatings is that they sometimes flake off because of the difference in coefficient of thermal expansion between the layers and the substrate. The technology C3 is using can actually infuse 40 nm to 60 nm into the substrate, he said.

“It’s almost like being able to create a new element,” he added.

The C3 business model is based on technology licensing and partnering. The company is working with Honeywell on petrochemical applications such as a molecular sieve for catalytic processes and with General Electric Energy Systems on solid oxide fuel cells where it is necessary to lay down nanoscale thin layers of electrolyte. The fuel cells have applications in energy research and space exploration.

C3 has proven the concept of its technologies through research at multiple government facilities, and in the coming year will open a 3,000 sq. ft. branch office near Oak Ridge National Lab dedicated to nanotechnology.

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