Nanomaterials production weaves job growth in former textile town

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DANVILLE, Va., April 13, 2004 — Small tech is causing a ripple in this sleepy Virginia hamlet, which has grown accustomed to absorbing negative economic news.

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So when Luna Innovations (News, Web), a Blacksburg, Va., company, announced in March it would begin manufacturing special nanomaterials here, locals understandably were elated.

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Luna is investing nearly $6.5 million to retrofit a 400,000-square-foot tobacco warehouse for high-volume production of nanomaterials based on its patented Trimetaspheres, which are hollow carbon molecules that enclose various metal and rare earth elements.

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Luna expects to initially hire 54 full-time workers to man at least two shifts once the plant ramps up production this fall. The company will manufacture carbonaceous nanomaterials and nanocomposite thin films for a variety of industries.

Topping the list are improved contrast agents for use in magnetic resonance imaging tests. Other commercial applications include materials for vehicle parts, stain-resistant textiles, ship hull coatings, lubricants and fuel cell components.

“We’re now able to produce very large quantities of extremely pure nanomaterials — enough to do full-scale clinical trials as well as develop other applications,” said Kent Murphy, Luna’s founder.

Although job growth will be incremental, local businesses are optimistic Luna could spur similar ventures. “The nano work that Luna is doing provides an avenue for functionality for our textile manufacturing in Danville. We think there are probably (other) areas of mutual interest,” said Linwood Wright, vice president of quality for Dan River Textiles Inc., the largest textile maker in Danville with about 3,000 employees.

Despite the best efforts of business and government leaders, Danville has been unable to rouse itself from an economic slumber tied to recent devastating losses in textiles and tobacco. Unemployment in the city of 53,000 people hit 8.4 percent in March, highest among Virginia’s cities.

In choosing Danville, Luna eschewed manufacturing sites in Maryland and North Carolina. Danville’s work force and history as a manufacturing center played key roles in the decision. “Some of the applications of our technology are complex, but the equipment and machinery used to manufacture the materials is actually quite simple,” Murphy said.

Carbonaceous nanomaterials are a third form of carbon behind diamond and graphite. Composed of up to 500 carbon atoms, they can be arranged in the shapes of spheres or tubes. Functionality is added by placing atoms of different elements inside the carbon cage, including various metals.

Luna patented its Trimetasphere molecule with help from a $2 million development grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The special molecule encages 80 carbon atoms around a core of one nitrogen atom, which is stabilized by three metal ions. They were discovered by Harry Dorn of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, which licensed the technology to Luna.

Murphy said Luna’s Trimetasphere cages can survive in the presence of oxygen up to 400 degrees Celsius. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis researched the Trimetaspheres and found that “our molecule is up to 25 times better than the material used now for MRIs.”

The key difference is in the chemical structure of Luna’s molecule. The dominant MRI contrast agent, gadolinium, is a highly toxic rare earth element that gets injected into patients. That presents a potential hazard as the gadolinium seeps into the bloodstream before being excreted through the kidneys.

Luna’s carbon cage entraps most of the gadolinium and prevents it from flowing into the bloodstream. That property also means the cages could be functionalized for advanced cell-targeting therapy in diagnosing cancerous tumors and other ailments. MRI contrast agents represent a $2 billion-a-year industry that is expected to grow 20 percent annually during the next several years, Murphy says.

Niskayuna, N.Y.-based General Electric Co. could be among Luna’s early development partners. The $134 billion diversified services company already has federal grants to research improved MRI technologies. Murphy says Luna and GE have agreed to form a joint development partnership, though no contract has been formally signed.

Luna plans to shift its existing Blacksburg production gradually to its Danville plant, situated in the city’s historic Tobacco Warehouse District. Companies locating there are eligible for tax breaks and other incentives. Helped by funding from Virginia and Danville governments, Luna is developing job-retraining programs to deal with an expected rash of applicants. Some people applied within days of the company’s announcement.

“We’re going to look for people who are adaptable and have attention to detail, and train them on our manufacturing process,” says Charlie Gause, Luna’s manufacturing director.

Luna’s expansion may signal the beginning of a national trend. Nathan Swami, a University of Virginia professor who spearheads the Initiative for Nanotechnology in Virginia, points to predictions that nanotechnology will produce 800,000 to 900,000 new U.S. jobs by 2015. Companies like Luna position Virginia to gain as many as 30,000 nanomanufacturing jobs.

“The future will be in nanocomposites, which get added to items as small as a safety pin to as large as a spaceship,” Swami said.

Luna Innovations has spun out five subsidiaries. Aside from thin films and nano-materials, Luna also markets tiny sensors for oil wells, fiber optics, aviation and numerous other industries.

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