Moving Materials to Market
Large and small companies can benefit from targeted collaborations
When taxpayers invest in the national laboratories, they have a right to expect results in the form of technologies that help private businesses increase their productivity, introduce new products, and create jobs for American workers. ORNL's Partnerships organization delivers on that obligation by accelerating the movement of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. In the R&D world, sometimes the most direct route to commercializing a technology is working with a startup company. Other times, an established business partner is a better bet. Either way, when ORNL works with business, Tom Rogers' Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development group is closely involved from start to finish.
Rogers says that the laboratory's approach to getting technologies to market is more about market pull than technology push. "Often large research institutions devote a lot of their time to telling people what they've got," Rogers says. "We take the opposite approach by inviting companies to come and talk to us about their research needs and priorities to see if they match our capabilities." Each year Rogers' group hosts about 75 of these targeted company visits. "If it looks like we have a good match in terms of research interests and available resources," Rogers says, "we'll have follow-up discussions on what we can do to help the company and how we can work together."
Two of the laboratory's recent partnerships have been with Ampulse, a solar energy startup company, and industry giant Dow Chemical.
Teaming up on solar cells
Ampulse is part of a three-way research and development project with ORNL and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop a groundbreaking method of manufacturing solar cells. The basis of this effort is a technology called "rolling-assisted biaxial textured substrates," or RABiTS™, which was first discovered and refined at ORNL. The RABiTS part of the new manufacturing process involves creating a specially textured metal base, or substrate, that causes materials deposited on top of it to have a high degree of grain alignment in all directions. "It makes a really effective base on which to grow silicon for low-cost silicon solar cells," says Ampulse President and CEO Steve Hane.
The technology behind depositing and growing the silicon on top of the substrate and the solar architecture techniques needed to create finished solar cells is provided by NREL. Hane explains that Ampulse is working with the two laboratories to combine these technologies and then plans to accelerate them toward a commercial product, with the help of the Ampulse development staff.
"While crystalline silicon itself is a great material for building solar cells, it's expensive to manufacture in wafer form," Hanes says. "The advantage of this new technology is that it allows researchers to deposit silicon onto the textured RABiTS substrate and basically have a finished product. This eliminates a number of intermediate steps and reduces the cost of the entire process. "Normally, when you make a silicon wafer," Hane says, "you have to melt polysilicon, grow crystals from it and saw it into wafers. This involves a lot of waste, processing time and energy intensity. Our new method is more like spraying a gas onto a metal surface to create a finished silicon wafer." The process is expected to reduce the cost of manufacturing silicon wafers for use in solar cells by 60 to 70 percent.
The company that provided the seed money for Ampulse is Battelle Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Battelle Memorial Institute. "Battelle knew about the specialized silicon deposition techniques the NREL researchers were using, and they also knew NREL was looking for a specialized surface that cut time and labor out of the manufacturing process," Hane says. "Because of Battelle's involvement in managing ORNL, they also knew about RABiTS. So they signed agreements with both laboratories and Ampulse to start the collaborative effort.
"Historically," Hane says, "solar energy has been a fairly expensive technology and has required government subsidies to make it affordable. Our goal is to create a technology that can stand on its own two feet without any subsidies and be on a par with or beneath the cost of electricity generated any other way."
Despite the overall success of the collaboration, Hane notes that things haven't always gone exactly as planned—but working with the laboratories helped minimize the effect of temporary setbacks. "I think the value of working with national laboratories is that we have been able to change course, experiment, and look at problems from a number of different directions in order to pick the best, most cost-efficient path forward," he says. "When you're starting out and you don't have a lot of capital to work with, you need to be able to draw on a variety of resources as you need them. Working with ORNL and NREL allowed us to do that."
Closing in on carbon fiber
Before Doug Parks, Global Business Director of Government Markets and Lightweight Materials, came to work for Dow Chemical, he headed up business development for the state of Michigan, where he dealt with ORNL on a number of automotiverelated projects. Parks notes that in Michigan, some of the biggest research and development opportunities are in the areas of wind power and transportation. Recently, a statefunded project to boost research into applications of low-cost carbon fiber in these areas brought Dow and the laboratory together.
Dow's specific interest is in developing a process to use polyolefin, a relatively low-cost plastic, as the raw material, or precursor, for carbon fiber production. At the right price, strong, lightweight carbon fiber could be used to produce a range of products, including the blades for giant wind turbines and lightweight body and chassis components in the transportation industry. Currently the precursor of choice for producing carbon fiber is polyacrylonitrile, or PAN. Polyolefin is much cheaper than PAN and has the potential to make carbon fiber production faster and more efficient. "In order to develop broader industrial acceptance of carbon fiber," Parks says, "the aim of the program is to develop a precursor with a low, stable cost. Over 50% of the cost of producing carbon fiber is the precursor material."
Park notes that the supply of carbon fiber is dominated by the fortunes of the aerospace industry. "When aircraft manufacturers are building lots of planes, supplies are down and prices are up," he says. "When they're not, supplies are up and prices are down." Proponents of expanding the use of carbon fiber in the manufacturing sector contend that identifying a low-cost carbon fiber precursor would result in broader adoption of carbon fiber across several industries, which would, in turn, help maintain a stable, lower price for the material.
In the area of wind power, carbon fiber is used primarily in the blades of wind turbines, which can span close to 100 meters. Because carbon fiber is stiffer than fiberglass, carbon fiber blades can operate closer to the housing of the turbine's drivetrain, eliminating wear and shortening the shaft that drives the blades. Carbon fiber blades can also be up to 50 percent lighter than fiberglass, providing similar durability benefits for turbine components.
Low-cost carbon fiber is also being considered for use in several other areas, including automobile manufacturing. Using lightweight carbon fiber components would increase fuel efficiency and reduce vehicle cost. In the oil and gas industry, where cables are used to tether drilling platforms to the seabed, carbon fiber would have significant advantages over steel or carbon-fiberglass composite cables.
"We are about a third of the way through the project with ORNL," Parks says. "Research teams are working both at Dow headquarters in Midland, Michigan, and in Oak Ridge, with some researchers dividing their time between sites. Most of the work on creating the carbon fiber precursor is being done at Dow, while the work on carbonizing the material and producing carbon fiber is being done in Oak Ridge."
Recently, Dow became a member of the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium and hopes to be an active player in the carbon fiber pilot facility the laboratory is building. "Dow's satisfaction with Oak Ridge has been very high," says Parks. This project has helped us realize the significant positive impact a national laboratory can make in a research project, and we hope to do a lot more work with ORNL."
"When we have the opportunity to translate our research and development accomplishments into transformative technologies for American business," Rogers says, "it is truly important and a cause for celebration. People look to the national laboratories to provide solutions in areas like materials science, alternative energy, high-performance computing and many others. That's exactly the kind of return on investment that national labs provide. Our interactions with private companies run the gamut of technology available at ORNL, and these relationships are crucial to the economic well-being of both the region and the nation."—Jim Pearce