Pixelligent dreams big with minuscule particles

Your next smartphone screen or TV display might be brighter, the synthetic oil in your car might perform better and computer chips might be more durable — all thanks to minuscule particles that are starting to be manufactured in Baltimore.

Startup company Pixelligent Technologies is ramping up production of a pair of nanocrystal additives made with zirconia and hafnia, which promise to boost the performance of products in a wide range of industries, from electronics to plastics.

"We're the first in the world to make these materials at this scale," said Craig Bandes, the company's CEO.

Pixelligent's nanomaterials can be used to strengthen plastics. They also can be dissolved in solvents to make coatings that help electronic displays emit more light, and they can be dispersed in lubricants to provide extra protection against wear and tear in engines.

Pixelligent officials said their customer base has grown tenfold in the past year, as more companies begin to test and buy their additives. The firm, which last year moved to the Holabird Industrial Park in Southeast Baltimore, has 25 employees in offices and labs. Company officials say they expect Pixelligent to grow to a couple of hundred workers in the next few years as worldwide demand for the firm's products increases.

The company is part of a more than decade-long effort in the United States to boost the nascent nanotechnology industry; the federal government, through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, has invested $18 billion to support research and development since 2001.

Pixelligent is among about 1,200 companies, research universities, government laboratories and other organizations in the U.S. involved in nanotechnology, according to the nonprofit Project in Emerging Nanotechnologies. The states with the highest concentration of groups working in nanotechnology are California, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, according to Project data.

The global nanomaterials market is growing, but projections of its size vary, from around $6 billion to nearly $20 billion annually by 2015, according to two industry market research surveys.

For years, experts have pointed to nanotechnology's promise, including the use of nanomaterials in biotechnology applications in the medical field. But only relatively recently have small companies such as Pixelligent been able to bring cutting-edge products to market. It helps that the equipment Pixelligent needs to make its products, such as X-ray machines and gas chromatographs, has gotten smaller and cheaper.

Many researchers who work with nanomaterials can produce them only in small quantities in a laboratory. But Pixelligent is among a handful of Maryland companies that have created manufacturing processes that can turn out high-quality nanomaterials in greater quantities.

"As you start to scale them up, the quality of the materials goes down," said Greg Cooper, Pixelligent's founder and chief technology officer. "That's been one of the big challenges in designing nanotech materials. We're very confident based on our work to date that it'll work at this scale."

Sally Tinkle, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which has organized federal funding, said few companies have been able to make it through the so-called Valley of Death — the move from lab research to commercial success.

"There's a lot of coming and going in this field," Tinkle said. "We're still in the throes of transfer from the lab to the startup. It's a very complicated picture."

Pixelligent already has made it further than most. The company's scientists and technicians are able to make zirconia, a substance often used as a diamond substitute, in the lab. Hard, highly reflective, and scratch- and corrosion-resistant, zirconia is ideal for applying to display screens and for use in engine lubricants.

Hafnia, an inorganic compound with a high melting point, is applied to electronic screens to make them brighter and scratch-resistant and is also useful as an electrical insulator.

Pixelligent has figured out how to evenly disperse both nanomaterials in clear, transparent solvents, making them attractive to manufacturers.

For instance, Pixelligent scientists are able to disperse zirconia into a synthetic base oil manufactured by oil companies. The transparent oil can hold significant amounts of zirconia without turning cloudy or developing sediment.

Bandes said that two major global oil companies are testing Pixelligent's zirconia solution. Oil companies have been working for years to add zirconia to their synthetic oils but have been stymied because most methods leave the oils cloudy — a turnoff to consumers, who want a sediment-free oil for their car engines, Bandes said.

"These additives help with fuel economy by reducing engine wear," Bandes said.

Another Maryland company, Jessup-based Vorbeck Materials, has developed a manufacturing process to produce graphene, a carbon-based nanomaterial, in large quantities. Graphene, a fine, fluffy, black powder, is considered the strongest nanomaterial in the world — 200 times tougher than steel — and can be used to fortify carbon fiber, produce printed electronic circuitry and improve battery life.

"We've been hearing about nanotechnology for years" in research, said Michael Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit association that represents Maryland manufacturers. Galiazzo said nanotechnology is closely linked to manufacturing, as many nanomaterials are now being used to make products.

"I think what we're seeing now is the visible outcomes of those activities," Galiazzo said. "It's coming on the scene, so to speak."

Pixelligent was founded in 2000 by Cooper, then a doctoral student in physics at the University of Maryland, College Park. The company was based in an incubator in College Park until last year, when it raised $4.8 million from investors and moved to Baltimore. The firm received a $200,000 loan from the Baltimore Development Corp. and a $100,000 loan from Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development.

Since its founding, Pixelligent has received a total of $9 million from investors and another $9 million from government research and development grants.

"This technology is real," Bandes said. "Large companies just haven't made the investment in nano because they weren't sure when to do it. They're all now looking for a nanotech solution."