A small, nearly invisible Oshkosh company is poised to make huge leaps in energy storage capacity thanks to the small, nearly invisible particles it creates.
Oshkosh Nanotechnology LLC plans to use ceramic nanomaterials it makes in labs at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to help expand energy storage capacities in high-tech batteries called supercapacitors. Charles Gibson, a chemistry professor at UWO since 1992, hopes to spin the company off from the university soon to spur business development and high-tech job creation in northeast Wisconsin.
“Energy technology is seemingly driving the next boom. It could reshape the economy in ways we don’t realize. The ideal would be to bring manufacturing of components for supercapacitors here,” Gibson said.
Gibson has worked with the particles, which are 16,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, since the 1980s. And the university has invested in the machinery and equipment needed to make, test and determine the uses for particles.
Begun in August 2008, Oshkosh Nanotechnology began to develop particles that increase the energy storage capacity of supercapacitors by four or five times. Supercapacitors are like large batteries that store and dispense electricity in products that range from cell phones to hybrid cars.
Gibson’s company may still be in its early stages of business development, but the creation and utilization of the miniscule particles has started to take hold in a variety of businesses. Gibson said the work the company has done in partnership with the university has generated interest from supercapacitor manufacturers, but companies want to see what the materials can do first.
Oshkosh Nanotechnology has received support from UWO, which has a cooperative research agreement with Gibson’s company, and the federal government, which provided the company with $149,824 via the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program, according to a federal database of awards. The grant award document states that the company’s work could make a significant impact in the $300 million supercapacitor market and the $3 billion hybrid car battery market.
Oshkosh Corp. also is exploring nanotechnology for use in its heavy-duty vehicles.
On Jan. 20, a partnership that includes Oshkosh Corp. and UW-Madison received a $5 million, five-year Technology Innovation Program grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to study the use of nanocomposites to make large-scale castings of light metals like aluminum and magnesium as strong as cast steel.
The UW System also has invested in opportunities for four-year campuses to develop fields of study like those that spurred Oshkosh Nanotechnology, said former UW System Regent Eileen Connolly-Keesler.
“There were always discussions about making sure we address the high level of talent at other universities (besides just Madison) so they have the resources to continue developing new technologies,” she said.
Gibson said the system’s investment has been invaluable.
“If we want to see high-tech startups around the state, we have to have that infrastructure available to them,” he said. “There seems to be more support for it. And there are benefits to research at smaller schools. It provides additional dollars for overhead and for staff and students. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Gibson began to build ceramic-based nanomaterials in August 2008, but his history with the tiny particles stretches back to the 1980s when he worked at Bell Laboratories at a time when he and his peers began to discover nanotechnology’s potential. He recalled applying for patents for the first nanoparticles and having patent examiners unable to understand the concept or use of a nanoparticle.
“The focus used to be on making new particles, but in the last five or six years, there’s been more of a focus on practical applications,” Gibson said.
“We find it’s best to look at the particles created because while they might not solve the problem we set out to address, the nanomaterials might have properties that help in other applications. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But even when it doesn’t, they can still be useful.”
Jeff Bollier writes for the Oshkosh Northwestern.