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Sunday, Apr 21, 2024

Nanoparticles Are the ‘Special Forces’ of Problem Solving

Nanoparticles don’t behave like the common person, place or thing that is visible to the naked eye.

The extremely small chunks of material can measure about one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. At that size, objects seem to rewrite the rules of behavior.

Cut a green rod — rather, a green nanorod — in half and the material does not maintain its color. Each side will go red, said Steven Oldenburg, CEO and primary investor of Kearny Mesa-based nanoComposix Inc.

Nanomaterials can scatter or absorb light “to the point where it almost doesn’t make sense,” said Oldenburg. Light coming off of a particle the size of a golf ball might cast a shadow the size of a basketball, he said.

The materials have uses in biotechnology, surgery, defense, aerospace, electronics, energy and cosmetics.

NanoComposix is an 11-year-old company that originally did research but is growing a products business. It offers nanoparticles in gold, silver, platinum, iron oxide, copper oxide and other materials. The particles come in various shapes, or they can be shells of one material coating cores of another (kind of like a microscopic piece of Valentine’s Day candy).

Silver, Standards and Socks

The business recently announced that it supplied the National Institute of Standards and Technology with something innovative: a silver nanoparticle reference material for researchers.

Nanoparticles have a tendency to clump together. However, the nanoComposix material won’t degrade in the same way that regular silver nanoparticles do. NanoComposix solved the problem by stabilizing the reactive silver particles in a freeze-dried, polymer coated, nanoparticle cake, making it suitable for long-term storage.

NanoComposix says it believes the test material accepted by the federal agency is the first of its kind.

Researchers can use the reference material for testing, including tests for toxicity.

Oldenburg, by the way, argues that some concerns about toxicity of nanoparticles in general may be overblown. He cites one recent scientific paper stating that “to date, no known human diseases or serious environmental impacts have been reported that are specific to engineered nanomaterials.”

Consumers might encounter silver nanoparticles in several places: in or on socks, shoe liners, fabric, handrails and keyboards. The material serves as a bactericide, among other uses.

Misleading Missiles

Oldenburg’s company has 35 employees, including eight who hold doctorates.

The CEO said he has taken no external investors, and that nanoComposix has been profitable every year. Federal grants played a very big part in getting the business going. Oldenburg said nanoComposix took in 20 Small Business Innovation Research phase 1 grants, and 10 phase 2 grants.

NanoComposix’s 2015 revenue was in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. Revenue is growing at 10 percent per year. Product sales have grown 30 percent over the last three years, the CEO said.

The company is in 10,000 square feet of space in Kearny Mesa, and is adding 3,000 more square feet.

One of the products going together at nanoComposix is a unique decoy for military aircraft.

Flares were once a good way to throw off surface-to-air missiles. Then adversaries got smart and learned to tell a flare from an authentic engine exhaust by examining temperature.

Iron nanoparticles on little pieces of paper might better mimic engine exhausts. The particles have very large surface areas.

Another military application may be specialized smoke with particles that would block one wavelength of light but pass others. That would be used in conjunction with a specialized device letting friendly forces see through the smoke.

Oldenburg is bullish about nanomaterials.

“Yes, they’re small,” the CEO said. “But the reason why they’re interesting is not because they’re small. It’s because they’re different at that size scale. There are some fundamental properties that change and that are interesting.”

The challenge in working with the material, he added, is “how to retain interesting parts of nano and not break it when you move it into a product.”


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