The holy trinity of nanomaterial competencies
Ceramic nanoparticles are finding their way into industries worldwide – from augmented reality to injectables for delivering cancer drugs. Their use case is diverse, developing, and expanding.
It stands to reason, then, that manufacturers of ceramic nanoparticles are finding themselves in high demand. That’s certainly the experience of US-based Cerion, one of the largest manufacturers of its kind in North America. Cerion has been in the business for around 13 years, successfully delivering on the three core competencies of the field: the first being related to the design and precision design of nanoparticles; the second being the ability to scale up; and the third being manufacturing.
Achieving this holy trinity is where many companies trip up. “Typically, if you look at our competitive set you’ll find one, maybe two of those competencies, but three is very, very hard to achieve,” says Landon Mertz, Cerion’s CEO. “We do not develop products per se. Our customers tend to be mid-cap and large-cap companies, developing products where they’re looking to leverage a certain behavior out of a nanomaterial and incorporate it into their product.”
According to Mertz, this is something the company does in spades. Cerion frequently scales up anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times what it creates in its labs into its manufacturing facility. It’s a business model that marks Cerion out among competitors, with many stumbling during the scaling-up period. Where Cerion differs is in its traditional function as the subject-matter expert for designed scale-up and manufacture of the nanoparticles, while its customers tend to serve as the subject-matter expert for their industry, product, and specific needs.
Cerion’s products are all customized to each customer and their application, and Mertz remains tight-lipped on the specific developments the company is working on, with much of its work being confidential (although he does share that it’s currently developing a “very facile” method for making tungsten carbide and tungsten metal, and efforts around boron carbide and alpha alumina at nanoscale). But broadly, Cerion is in the business of problem-solving. A customer comes with a hypothesis of sorts, often looking to make a material they can’t make themselves. Cerion rapidly creates it, lab tests it for its intended performance, and then iterates as needed to maximize performance.
While the materials Cerion works on may be confidential, its customer base is not entirely secret. The company does a lot of work in ceramics for the Department of Defense, which is trying to express very fine attributes and performance of nanomaterials for a wide variety of systems. Plus, Mertz can talk in generalities. In the ceramics market, customers are looking for the basics – mechanical strength, reduced weight, improved barrier properties, heat wear, and scratch resistance. “The main difference with nanomaterials is that, either at nano some of those properties are significantly enhanced, or it may have similar performance to your micron-size ceramic material, but you require less to get the same job done.”
Cerion may not specialize in nanoceramics, but it is certainly one area of focus given the company’s broad remit. Certainly it’s fair to say that Cerion responds to industry needs – whether that’s for specific nanomaterials for ceramics or greening materials for customers. Mertz says that although Cerion itself isn’t especially in the business of “greening”, in some instances it is working to leverage nanomaterials in order to provide greening benefits.
This is one element of the ceramics industry that may come into sharper focus in the future – something of which Mertz and his colleagues are well aware. He believes that nano ceramics is at the beginning of another ten-year adoption cycle with the ceramics industry. “This is a wide open market that has yet to fully realize the potential of nanomaterials in the wide variety of products and systems where they can be incorporated,” he says. “Ceramic operations are just now beginning to do both the basic and the applied research to really fundamentally understand where nano ceramics can provide a benefit and have them try and understand what that benefit costs.”
It’s a pattern evidenced before among Cerion’s metal and metal oxide nanoparticle customers. Looking at the value chain or the supply chain, it’s clear that there’s compaction and centering that is a significant part of a lot of different operations. “Nanomaterials can be designed to operate in those systems, but they do require some special processing,” says Mertz. “And obviously, those types of organizations that are doing compaction and sintering don’t necessarily have a full understanding of what’s required.”
This knowledge gap presents challenges, but Mertz remains optimistic. “What I would say is that the behavior of ceramics in the industry writ large is very close to what we saw with our other customers going back five or ten years. It’s a fairly common, universal theme, specific to ceramics. You’ll see it with pretty much any company that is creating new classes of advanced materials.”
Painting a full picture of the opportunities, challenges, and leveraging capabilities in ceramics and nano ceramics is Ceramics Expo and Conference, both of which Cerion is participating in. Mertz himself is participating in the session on actualizing commercialization, diving deeper into the ability to really commercialize, and commercialize well, nanomaterials and scale up to the industry volumes required to successfully transition into the marketplace.
It’s something into which Cerion has invested tens of millions of dollars, making Mertz well placed to share the company’s general approach and philosophy for success. He blames most failures on lackings within those essential three core competencies on the supply side. On the demand side, legwork is required to really comprehend the advantages of nano ceramics and then understand how that dovetails into a company’s products and systems.
“To really get the benefit of nano, there’s a high degree of customization required,” says Mertz. Cerion preaches this as often as it can: that customers need to be focused on understanding the nuances of nanomaterials to get the benefit out of them. It’s essential that customers are aware of the process of fine-tuning.
While much of Cerion’s work is under wraps, it’s no secret that Cerion solutions are innovative, cutting-edge, and next-generation. For Mertz, it’s the new capabilities emerging from an equipment or a processing standpoint that he finds fascinating – and the evident uplift in demand from the ceramics industry for what he calls “near nano” and nano materials. “It suggests to us that taking millions of dollars of investment into the ceramics market was absolutely the right move,” he says.
For industry players, it will be exciting to watch where this investment and industry evolution takes nanoceramics. To join the conversation and hear more from Mertz and his fellow industry thought-leaders and pioneers, register now for Ceramics Expo and Conference, taking place May 5–6, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.