Managing nano for apps across GE


Chemist Margaret Blohm and her team at General Electric cheered in February 2003 when GE Plastics sold its first commercial batch of Lexan SLX, which was a major improvement over the plastic material that had been developed 50 years earlier for use on auto body surfaces. But despite warnings from colleagues that moving from plastics to nanotechnology research could be a career killer, by the time of the Lexan sale she had campaigned successfully for a job at GE Global Research as advanced technology leader on the company’s new nanotechnology program.

Today, Blohm heads a multidisciplinary team of about 100 scientists and engineers-three times the number of people she started with in 2001. The teams have announced a growing list of breakthroughs in the field of nanotechnology, including chemical and biological sensing, carbon nanotube diodes, biomimicry (butterfly wings and lotus leaves), diagnostic imaging, and ceramics. Blohm, 47, explained to Small Times’ Jo McIntyre how much she enjoys working at an international company that produces an astonishing number of products and employs nearly 320,000 people.

Q: What was the key influence in your life that led you to this position?

My mom was a chemist in 1945. Seeing her when she was in her tiny chemistry lab in a small university in Kansas is a huge part of why I’m here. I like challenges. Figuring out how to make nanotechnology work for GE was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Q: How did you get started at GE?

I started in chemistry at GE Plastics, mostly. We developed resins for weatherability and flammability that got commercialized. Then I took the nanotechnology job.

Q: You spearheaded a project that led to commercializing a new material. Is that experience the reason they picked you for the nano job?

Yes, that’s part of it, I’m sure. Being part of a large multidisciplinary team was good experience. Also, I really wanted the nano job. It was more of a risk at the time: It was a whole new concept. The big question for nano was: “So, what are you going to do with it?”

Nanotechnology is a ‘how,’ not a ‘what.’ That is not an obvious career growth opportunity, but I thought it was too exciting to miss. Here was a chance to lead a nanotechnology project at a large corporation like GE. It doesn’t get any better than that. And I have the chance to do research across all of GE’s different businesses.

Q: What does working at this large corporation mean for you as a researcher?

We have the infrastructure and expertise to evaluate what nano can bring. We can “down select” (drop the project) if it seems to be getting away from a useful direction. You can get lost in a problem, it’s so cool; that keeps me up at night. But I get lots of critical feedback working with engineers.

Q: Is that what you like best about this work?

Yes. There’s also the challenge of finding products that will work at GE and the potential of finding a disruptive technology. And I enjoy working with different groups of people; disruptive nanotechnology is multidisciplinary. I used to think multidisciplinary activity was a chemist and a chemical engineer working together. Now, you have all kinds of researchers working on teams together. I tell myself I’m on a learning cliff, not a curve. And it’s every day. It’s humbling at times.

Q: What is the most important nano-based development you’ve been involved in, so far, on the nano side?

There’s one that has been really rewarding and exciting: Using nanotechnology for diagnostic imaging. There is a physicist, a chemist, and a biologist on my team. I felt we needed that mix. Earlier, we didn’t have any biology. I felt it was important to add that.

They came up with this idea of looking at magnetic particles to enhance our MRI imaging business. We did a lot of benchmarking and looked at the literature. We found an area where our strengths fit in, to be able to target different diseases.

It’s really easy to get up in the morning to come in to a project like that. That team now has 25 researchers. Medical diagnostics people are helping us evaluate it. It’s a technically challenging project with a long time line that requires FDA approvals and other requirements. There is still a long way ahead of us, but it is very rewarding.

Q: What are some other interesting ideas your teams are working on? Or do you solve problems that are brought to you?

We look at nanotechnology as an enabling technology. You need to be able to develop the tool kit, develop the materials, leverage them and, finally, bring them into products.

If we really understand how to solve these problems, we will have many applications in front of us for many different products. In 2007, we are focusing on different application areas. We started off with a more materials focus, but now we have evolved more to an application one.

Q: Would those materials include ceramics?

Yes. We’re looking at ceramics, metals, coatings, and nanotubes-materials to enable new products. We’re doing a wide range of research in structural materials and porous materials for sensors and the like. There’s a lot of catalysis [modification of the rate of a chemical reaction, usually an acceleration, by adding a substance not consumed during the reaction], with properties where you want to take advantage of the large surface area of nanoparticles. But particles can be very dense, because they are so small.

So, the question becomes: “How do you get the advantages of the positive features without getting trapped in the negative?” Then, you can use it for nanotechnology applications and not suffer loss of materials and flow. That gets you into a lot of uses, such as catalysis and sensing. You can put nanoparticles into a very hot part of a process and still be able to sense and detect low levels of gases like carbon dioxide. You can get gas flow-through, but can also use it with gas separation membranes where you want to get high sensitivity and selectivity.

Q: Do you have any commercially successful nano developments thus far?

My group was given the target for the longer-term, higher-risk areas. We don’t work on the shorter-term solutions, such as improving existing products, so we don’t have anything directly commercial coming out of my program.

At Global Research we already have a whole selection of products to work with. I talk to the different divisions within GE all the time: energy, health care, and aviation. I have to work closely with all of them to make sure we’re on the right path. You get a sense of the broad spectrum across many disciplines and you can use developments across the product line.

The other spectrum is me. My job is to evaluate projects as quickly as I can and move things down the pipeline. There’s a couple of things we have that I can’t talk about right now, but we are now starting to get products into the business. The smaller ones are ones you can implement faster. The really exciting ones, where we’re looking at things differently, take longer to get there. That’s what my charter was: to go after the big ones and figure out what they are.

Q: What barriers do you see to commercialization within a large company?

Barriers are technical and financial. I have a bias working at GE. We have a 100-year history of driving research to the market. I think a company like GE is perfectly positioned to really win with nanotechnology. To really win takes time. That’s a big worry of mine-managing expectations. The payoff will be huge.

Again, I think finding the fit (a lot of the world is doing this, asking where’s the real fit with this cool idea?) is key. To have the diversity of products across GE to look at is a chance of a lifetime.

Q: What challenges do you face in managing nanotechnology research programs and scientists?

The challenge of dealing with a lot of enthusiasm and making sure we stay on track with business impact and not just really cool technology. It can be hard on folks who have a good idea that’s not ready for a specific business use. An even bigger challenge is doing matrix managing. I’ve never been a fan, but I love it now. Matrix managing is the process of influencing organizations or departments or other structures where you don’t have individuals directly reporting to you, to help them recognize the mutual benefit of what they are working on.

I matrix manage the people on the various research teams. I reach in to their team and work with them. For example, a chemist is on one team and can join my team as well. It’s usually a management nightmare, but it has worked here. It’s communication both ways. They aren’t isolated from business challenges and opportunities. Matrixing helps do that.

That keeps me well tapped in and we get to know what’s working and what’s not. But also they get to see what’s working and this helps the information flow in all ways.

Q: What would you like to see in the future for nanotechnology?

I want nanotechnology to be so pervasive it’s not a new thing.

The Blohm File

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Schenectady, N.Y.-born Margaret M. Blohm received her PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1985. She holds more than 10 U.S. patents, with a specialty in the chemistry of polymers. She joined GE Global Research in Niskayuna, N.Y., in 1987. In 1997, she was named Lab Manager of the Weatherables and Special Effects Laboratory, where she worked on projects in support of GE Plastics.

Today she is responsible for leading GE’s nano research programs, one of six advanced technology programs at GE Global Research. She is married and has two children ages 13 and 10.