“It’s clay that can be broken down and processed to the nanoscale,” said Tim Patterson, general manager of Cascade Engineering subsidiary Noble Polymers. “Imagine you’ve got a deck of cards that’s 13 microns thick. We tear that apart so each one of those cards is a nanometer thick.
“And because it’s shaped like a card … it provides greater strength to the plastic, and that’s how you get the property boost out of it.”
The clay is processed at a thickness of one billionth of a meter, creating material that is lighter and stronger. It is flexible and robust, and cycles 25 percent faster in molding machines — so its use also improves productivity.
Cascade began investigating the technology in September 2004 as an opportunity to solve a problem with an automobile seat pack. In the original design, there was a polypropylene part that was clearly visible through the vinyl covering. The concern was that the plastic part would ruin the upholstery. The nanoclay provided a smoother piece that actually proved both lighter and cheaper.
Since then, the company has found three other uses for the technology — two of those in the external marketplace.
“Part of our specialty was to serve not only Cascade Engineering but also to go directly to the automotive industry,” Patterson said.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has taken special interest in the burgeoning technology. John Bedz is the executive director of the Michigan Small Tech Association, a development corporation initiative to foster growth in the combined sectors of nanotechnology and its cousin microtechnology, collectively known as “small tech.”
“These technologies are going to fundamentally change how products are made,” Bedz said.
In the next few years, he predicts the technologies will enable manufacturers to determine at a molecular level what the composition of a product will be. This will allow more features to be incorporated, while using fewer raw materials. It’s better for the environment, cheaper, and boasts several design efficiencies — strength, flexibility, etc.
“Michigan and the U.S., in general, have a difficult time competing on cost,” Bedz said of manufacturers. “But if you can compete on features, that makes our companies more competitive. … If you’re making these innovative products, cost isn’t really the driving factor, and those products are still being made in the U.S.”
While the bulk of research and design efforts have centered on the automobile industry, there is opportunity in all industries, particularly medicine and textiles, Bedz said.
“There is a popular misconception about small tech, and that’s that this is a technology that is tangible and you can hold on to,” he said. “It isn’t. It’s a scale.”
Nanotechnology, where most of the research is occurring, involves the actual creation of a material on a molecular scale. A penny, by the way, is 1.55 million nanometers thick; a bacterium is between 1,000 to 10,000 nanometers.
Microtechnology, on the other hand, involves building something small from larger pieces — essentially machining a component down to a microscopic scale, rather than working at the molecular level to create something that size.