MSE Professors Spin New Ventures

MSE Professors Spin New Ventures

Much of the research conducted in Materials Science and Engineering labs makes its way from bench to business venture, thanks to the current of entrepreneurship that runs through the department. These start-up endeavors offer students unusual work-study and internship experiences, potential job opportunities after graduation and the chance to see how university-based research can evolve into practical, potentially profitable, commercial applications.

Solid oxide fuel cells from Adaptive Materials, Inc.

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Professor John Halloran co-founded Adaptive Materials, Inc. (AMI) with then-PhD candidate Aaron Crumm in late 1999. For his thesis, Crumm had been developing a co-extrusion technique for the microfabrication of optimally-designed, piezoelectric hydrophones. He soon realized that the same process could be used to make tubes for solid oxide fuel cells. The two received a small grant to produce prototype tubes; a second grant helped them answer a key question: could they produce a fuel cell that would generate electricity? The answer was yes. "We made completely portable solid oxide fuel cells using camping gas (propane), and that has grown into a company that now has 50 employees," says Prof. Halloran, who serves as AMI's chief technology officer.

The U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces are using prototype AMI fuel cells, as is the U.S. Air Force in some of its unoccupied aerial and ground vehicles. The company's fuel cells last 11 times longer than conventional UAV batteries. And they're mechanically robust and can withstand repeated on/off cycling, something conventional batteries can't. The propane they require is inexpensive and universally available.

With a recent 21st Century Jobs Fund award, AMI will focus its efforts on refining the prototypes and commercializing them. "Getting feedback from the field is a learning experience that no amount of lab testing could have reproduced," says Prof. Halloran. He expects that one of the first commercial applications will aid emergency personnel: portable, propane-fueled chargers for wireless communication devices. Several MSE graduates are working to make that a reality. "The core of the team here are all U-M MSE alumni," says Prof. Halloran.

Biocompatible electrodes from Biotectix, LLC

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of the conducting polymer poly(ethylenedioxthiophene) (PEDOT) / poly(styrene sulfonate) (PSS) electrochemically coated onto a platinum-iridium cochlear ball electrode.  The close-up view shows the high surface area nanofibrillar texture that leads to a significant reduction in the impedance and increase in charge capacity.   These materials are being investigated both in-vitro and in-vivo for their ability to improve the performance of biomedical devices intended for long-term implantations in living tissue.  Image taken by Jeffrey L. Hendricks at the North Campus Electron Microscope Laboratory (EMAL).
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of the conducting polymer poly(ethylenedioxthiophene) (PEDOT) / poly(styrene sulfonate) (PSS) electrochemically coated onto a platinum-iridium cochlear ball electrode. The close-up view shows the high surface area nanofibrillar texture that leads to a significant reduction in the impedance and increase in charge capacity. These materials are being investigated both in-vitro and in-vivo for their ability to improve the performance of biomedical devices intended for long-term implantations in living tissue. Image taken by Jeffrey L. Hendricks at the North Campus Electron Microscope Laboratory (EMAL).

Professor David Martin and two group members, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Sarah Richardson-Burns and graduate student Jeffrey Hendricks, formed Biotectix in 2007. The company grew out of research in Prof. Martin's laboratory on the microfabrication of neuroelectrodes for medical devices. "At Michigan there's been a long history developing electrodes designed for communication between wires and tissues--essentially brain-machine interfaces," he says.

For the past decade, Prof. Martin has been testing different materials, trying to improve the interaction between soft, organic human tissue and inorganic metal wires. Conventional electrodes, found in a number of medical devices including cortical probes and deep brain stimulators as well as pacemakers and cochlear implants, are not energy efficient. They can cause tissue damage and scarring. Other inefficiencies reduce battery life, and battery replacement means an additional procedures for patients.

Martin and his group began working with conductive polymers, which are relatively stable chemically and don't lose their electrical conductivity. He says the group has learned from its more recent research using PEDOT, a doped semiconductor, that these materials "are chemically very similar to living tissue already." A coating of Biotectix' conductive polymer--from five to ten microns thick--can lower electrode impedance by two to three orders of magnitude without changing the geometry of device components, adds Prof. Martin, who also serves as chief scientific officer.

A recent early stage venture capital investment is allowing the firm to conduct two studies on brain and ear implants. Prof. Martin is also hoping to find an industry partner to develop biocompatible electrodes for pacemakers. And he recently received a $6 million grant from the U.S. Army to support work he and his team have begun on the skin-prosthetic interface with artificial limbs.

Nanocubes by Mayaterials Inc.

Professor Richard Laine's scientific interests "really boil down to doing things that are practical," he says. A synthetic chemist by training, Prof. Laine has been working for the past two decades on producing chemicals from rocks and the beach, he says, only partially in jest. "The only thing we've had to make silicon materials from is sand," he says. "But it's a brute process, done at 1200 degrees Celsius in a furnace with electrical arcs. It's not a trivial process, not even today." Laine subsequently developed a process using lye and recycled antifreeze to extract the silica chemically. He then began to wonder if there wasn't another good, clean source of silica beside sand. He learned that there is: rice hull ash.

During the processing of rice for consumption, the hulls are removed. Since they're inedible, food processors often burn them. Laine uses the methods he has developed to extract from the ash relatively pure, high-surface-area silica. And he's left with another useful byproduct: "beautiful molecules" known as octasilsesquioxanes, or perfectly symmetrical one-nanometer-square cubes.

"At the vertices of the cube you can attach functional organic groups that make the cubes chemically reactive. It turns out there is almost no other organic or inorganic molecule that has a cubic, 3-D shape," he says. And those that are currently known are too expensive to mass produce.

There's a great deal of interest in such three-dimensional shapes. "Imagine if you want to build something and you can do it nanometer by nanometer," he says. "If you do a good job, you can control the global properties. If you have control at the nanometer level, you have reproducibility, and then you can predict behaviors. If you can do that, you can tailor the properties and build to the best specifications possible."

Four years ago Laine formed Mayaterials Inc. to produce and market octasilsesquioxanes. To date most of the company's customers are in Asia. Interest is stirring in the United States and Europe too among firms in the electronics, photonics and packaging industries. Several Small Business Innovation Research grants have provided support, and now Laine is seeking investment to expand. "We expect big things," he says.