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Sky's the limit, literally, for nanotube maker

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-25 07:24:05-05

NORWOOD, Ohio — Things are looking up for Norwood-based General Nano LLC, a manufacturer of carbon nanotubes.

Literally, looking up.

In December, Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. announced that NASA had chosen them to build and test a satellite that will be launched into low-earth orbit in early 2018. General Nano is building a carbon nanotube “black box” for a camera in that satellite, its first product for space-based use, said CEO Joseph Sprengard.

“The problem with gathering information in space is that you get stray light from the stars and the sun,” he said. “The nanotubes absorb light wavelengths really well.”

What’s a Carbon Nanotube?

It’s a carbon atom in the shape of a cylinder – and nature doesn’t make them that way. General Nano “grows” them by planting “seeds” of tiny metallic particles on a surface, then exposing them to gases, temperatures and pressures that curl up that carbon. The process takes three to 20 minutes, depending on the length of the tube required.

At the atomic level, nanotubes are more conductive than copper and stronger than steel, Sprengard said. They’re very useful in industries such as aerospace, where light, strong and conductive material is needed.

CEO Joseph Sprengard worked in finance and development for a strategy consulting firm before coming on board at General Nano LLC. Photo provided

What’s So Great About General Nano’s Nanotubes?

The company makes the tubes into continuous rolls that are easy to handle and apply in known manufacturing processes, Sprengard said. Customers can cut those rolls into sheets and put them into carbon fiber composites to make them stronger and conductive. 

General Nano is the only supplier of continuous carbon nanotube sheet products in the United States, Sprengard said. He knows this through contacts with customers and suppliers, he said. 

The sheets make up about 80 percent of the business, he said. The other 20 percent is “vertically aligned” nanotubes, not made into sheets but used as anti-reflective material such as will be used in the satellite. 

Who Started the Business?

It was founded by University of Cincinnati Nanoworld Lab directors Vesselin Shanov and Mark Schulz, who made a breakthrough in nanotube technology in 2007. The U.S. Air Force learned about it and asked them if they had plans to commercialize the technology. Sprengard was asked to help bring the product to market. He previously worked in finance and development for a strategy consulting firm and in commercial banking.

“They needed someone who could dedicate himself full time to launching the business,” he said. The three men own the company, along with a silent partner.

How Big is the Business?

Revenue was a record $1.3 million in 2015. The company doesn’t reveal customers’ names, Sprengard said, but it has contracts with seven of the top 10 aerospace contractors in the United States. There are four employees, including Sprengard, but about 70 others are involved though contract partnerships, subcontracts and research contracts.

The company has raised $7 million from investors and development contracts from customers who need, for example, proof of concept for a product. That includes a $1 million investment from Ohio Third Frontier, a state program designed to create tech jobs, which the company used to buy its first round of manufacturing equipment.

“Generally, businesses like ours are not overly exciting to (investors) until they need growth capital,” Sprengard said. “That’s why it’s so very important that government makes investments, because the commercial market will not do that.”

What’s Next?

General Nano is growing and needs more room, so a new facility is on the horizon. The owners are looking for a building in the Tri-State and expect to move by the end of 2016. Currently, offices are in the Hamilton County Development Center, with manufacturing done at off-site locations.

Meanwhile, management is looking at new markets, such as shielding for the wire and cable industry, as well as de-icing and anti-icing systems. And the company soon will change its focus from research to production with an emphasis on quality control and control of expenses.

Key to General Nano’s success is not trying to grow too fast, Sprengard said, which has been the downfall of many nanotube companies.

“I’m proud of our team,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of highly skilled folks who are very focused on deliverables. That allows a young company to win.”