October 2019 From the original article at Wired Magazine
Big Advances from Tiny Nanomaterials
Decades ago, when scientists at the iconic Eastman Kodak organization were honing their industry-changing method for making better film emulsions and sharper photos, they probably never envisioned just how far the microscopic materials they crafted would eventually go.
Now some of those same researchers, working for a new company, are using their former discoveries to make a key component that can be used in everything from TV-screen coatings to military ammunition.
That company is Cerion Nanomaterials, which has refined the original Kodak method to become one of North America’s largest designers and industrial-scale manufacturers of nanomaterials. Nanomaterials are made up of nanoparticles smaller than one millionth of a millimeter, and their tiny size affords them a range of useful, precisely controllable properties—from structure to surface chemistry to dispersion within a solvent. Today, they’re a key ingredient in many essential products. “We touch literally dozens of different industries, everything from energy to pharmaceuticals to optics,” says CEO Landon Mertz. “You name it.”
From its Rochester, NY headquarters, Cerion develops custom materials for all kinds of clients, including the U.S. Department of Defense. Cerion’s rapid growth—it launched just 12 years ago—reflects the evolution of both the nanomaterials industry and the Rochester region, which have both transformed along a similar timeline.
Cerion started in 2007, with a founding team of seven, several of whom worked at Kodak for more than a decade. “At that time, you couldn’t throw a stone around town without hitting a scientist or an engineer,” says Douglas Singer, a former Kodak employee and now Cerion’s Executive Vice President of Manufacturing, Development, and Commercialization.
The film-and-camera giant Kodak, however, had already begun deeply downsizing in the digital age. The change hurt, but Singer says: “It freed up a lot of intellectual horsepower from Kodak, which was a century in the making.”
The presence of other nearby technical companies and institutions, such as Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, University of Rochester, and Rochester Institute of Technology, made the region a natural candidate for a new wave of innovation. State investment, such as $500 million awarded to the Finger Lakes region from New York’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative in 2015, accelerated this progress.
Rochester’s long history of tech advancement continues at Cerion, which uses an innovative process to build the tiny nanoparticles from scratch. “One typical way of getting nanoparticles is you start with large-sized particles and grind them down or physically break them down into smaller particles with energy input,” Singer explains. “We take raw materials and chemically combine them to build nanoparticles. They don’t start large and get small. We’re actually taking raw materials and using them to build nanomaterials, atom by atom.”
While some other companies use a similar synthesis process, Cerion has made its market by building out a complete suite of services — research, scale-up, and manufacturing — under one roof. CEO Mertz says this allows the company to refine and scale manufacturing of a client’s material quickly and affordably, expanding production capacity within six months by up to 1,000 to 5,000 times lab-scale. As the demand for nanomaterials grows, Cerion plans to triple its manufacturing capacity from 150 to 450 metric tons.
It’s no accident that Cerion’s growing plant sits near Kodak, and alongside dozens of other companies in the Eastman Business Park, a 1,200-acre manufacturing and industrial complex built on what was once the largest photographic product manufacturing facility in the world. Singer says the proliferation of new, smaller ventures makes Rochester’s intellectual and entrepreneurial environment at least as lively now as it was with a few big employers, if not more so. Since many of the region’s new businesses don’t compete directly with one another, former colleagues in different companies can call upon each other to share ideas and resources.
As Singer says, “That spreading of knowledge across a lot of smaller companies instead of a few core larger ones gives the manufacturing and technology community a chance to put pollen in the wind.”