ARCHIVED - How really, really small is getting really, really big
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May 15, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario
Nanotechnology is the ability to control and manipulate matter on an unimaginable scale. And when a world leader in advanced metallurgical nanotechnologies joined forces with an automotive parts manufacturer to manipulate what mattered to them, the result was tougher yet lighter components for vehicles.
The nano-expertise was originally developed in Canada in the early eighties. Most metals are typically made of crystalline grain structures, like the tiny ice crystals packed together to form snowballs. By managing the formation of these grains on the nano-scale – one thousand times smaller than conventional materials – a new class of high strength materials was developed. This technology was first commercially used at Ontario Hydro, where new materials were required to endure harsh operating environments and withstand exposure to erosion, corrosion and radiation. A unique process called Electrosleeve® was developed. It applied nanocrystalline nickel on the inside of steam generator tubing to repair them in nuclear power plants. It didn't take long for Ontario Hydro to realize the technology had broad reaching applications outside of the energy industry, so it spun out the technology and the team to form Integran Technologies in 1999.
Integran recognized greater uses of nanotechnology. In 2004, it joined forces with Algonquin Automotive, a Hunstville, Ontario based premium accessory supplier to the automotive original equipment market. They started a joint venture called Morph Technologies and gave it exclusive rights to use the nanotechnology in the automotive industry.
The automotive industry is not a traditional breeding ground for new technologies. Morph struggled for its first year. It was trying to apply Integran's nanotechnology on several projects. The largest challenge was achieving cost competitiveness with such a new technology. When NRC-IRAP decided to invest, Morph was looking at a new paradigm in manufacturing which could cost effectively produce lightweight automotive parts using the nanocrystalline metals. To do so, Morph would have to invest significantly in development, and NRC-IRAP helped it to head down that development road, focusing on a single pet project. "We were going out on a limb with a new technology platform and NRC-IRAP provided the discipline to take it to completion," said Morph Program Manager Andrew Wang. "For one small company to focus on one project over the course of a year, that was a very big deal."
Together they developed a tubular grill guard. Mounted on the front of trucks, it is typically made of stainless steel and chrome plated. The application of the nanotechnology in a novel design resulted in a decrease in weight by more than 50 per cent. Even after its weight was cut in half, the grill guard still met stringent strength, vibration and deflection requirements. It has a strength-to-weight ratio that would make Hercules blush.
It is leading edge performance for sure. Morph got the reliability and scalability it was after and in the end, a cost-effective solution.
NRC-IRAP's assistance to Morph went beyond development of the grill guard. "It's done more than helped us to get that product to come into being. IRAP's attention actually allowed Morph to build more expertise and more development capabilities, so we've been able to apply what we've learned to many other products," said Wang. Morph has launched into related projects including wear resistant coatings for brakes and nano-coated carbon-fibre composites for durable racing parts. Those lightweight and durable parts will soon be a feature on the Formula One (F1) racing circuit.
Another great outcome of the NRC-IRAP project is that based on this technology developed, a Fortune 100 company is in the final stages of formalizing an equity investment in Morph. That additional multi-million dollar asset will assist Morph as it expands, adding high value R&D experts to concentrate on prototype development as well as a technical sales team. In addition, Morph will have a blue-chip partner as it continues to take the technology to automotive customers.
And the technology can be taken from the track to outerspace, to bio-medicine and sports. Nanotechnology has found a way to make golf clubs stronger and lighter. Imagine a human hair is 80,000 nanometres wide; a golf shaft can now have a grain structure that is designed and manufactured with material in the 20 nanometre range.
Though nano comes from the Greek word meaning dwarf, there is nothing diminutive about Morph Technologies. Nanotechnology is opening the door for new designs and structures, and the evidence is telling the marketplace this company can only morph into something stronger and more successful on a grand scale.
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