In 2009, Andreas Roelofs cofounded aixACCT Systems Inc., a company specializing in piezoelectric material testing. For a fledgling business, the technology and expertise required to bring a product to market may seem out of the realm of possibility. Equiptment worth millions of dollars isn’t something many have access to.
“After starting this company, I didn’t think I could knock on (Argonne National Laboratory’s) door,” says Roelofs in an interview with R&D Magazine.
How times have changed.
Access and nanotechnology
Today, Argonne National Laboratory announced the creation of two new collaborative centers—Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS)—meant to provide businesses and industry access to Argonne’s top-of-the-line facilities and scientific expertise.
“Think about how big this box is that we’ve just opened” with nanotechnology and energy storage, says Roelofs, now the director of NDW. “We’re creating new knowledge.”
In Roelof’s eyes, nanotechnology picked up momentum around 15 years ago. Materials behave differently on the nanoscale, generally described as less than 100 nm. Elements from the periodic table, according to Roelof, exhibit new properties. “You create new properties (which) can give you new functionalities,” he says. “That is really the promise of nano.”
Drugs capable of targeting cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed; foams capable of absorbing spilled oil from the water column, these are just a couple of the ways nanotechnology can benefit the future.
Currently, NDW is exploring superlubricity, the ability to rub two surfaces together without creating friction. The center successfully created diamond and graphene nanoscrolls, which appear like ball bearings on the macroscopic level and reduce friction. The discovery could solve a major problem for machinery, as approximately 30% of a vehicle engine’s power is forfeited to friction loss.
“But companies have ideas too, and they get stuck once in a while,” says Roelofs. “We want to work with big and small companies and help them with their problems.”
“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multidisciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” said Jeff Chamberlain, the director of ACCESS.
Argonne has 1,400 award-winning and internationally recognized scientists and engineers.
According to Chamberlain, the lithium-ion market is worth around $16 billion, but less than 5% of the technology is manufactured in the U.S. As the industry grows, some economists believe the market could bring in $30 to $80 billion/yr, he said. “If we have the right kind of breakthrough that involves material(s) science and involves some small-scale engineering, like we do at Argonne National Laboratory, then we can enable the market to blossom, but simultaneously open the opportunity for American businesses to capture some of that market,” said Chamberlain.
Roelofs joined Argonne a little over four years ago as the Deputy Division Director of Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. Eventually, he added “industry liaison” to his business card, as he was the point of contact for outside industry.
“We saw the importance of having this dialogue with industry,” however, “we got to the point where this nanocenter was not enough for some of the questions we got,” Roelofs says.
Today, Argonne announced the new services at the South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin, Texas.
By 11 a.m., Roelof said he had over 100 emails in his inbox, a substantial amount more than his standard traffic. “I think I got myself into a very busy job,” he says.
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