Written by Robert Leitch.
Metal is a standard material used in aerospace vehicles like airplanes and rockets, but its weight can be a problem in an industry striving to make everything lighter, faster and more powerful. General Nano in Cincinnati, Ohio, has developed Veelo™, a new class of engineered materials that replaces metal sheets, mesh and fabric in aerospace construction using nanotubes, tiny structures that can be assembled to mimic metal. They have metal-like conductivity, but are much stronger and about one-sixth the weight.
“We’re working with many of the largest and most respected aerospace and science institutions in the world to make products that improve their SWAP – size, weight and power,” said General Nano president and CEO, Joe Sprengard.
Twenty years ago, planes were made up of 90 percent metal and 5 percent carbon fiber. Because carbon fiber is both light-weight and high-strength, it began to replace metal parts, with planes eventually reaching a 50/50 ratio of metal to carbon fiber. The approach made planes faster and lighter, but it was not without drawbacks. Carbon fiber is not as conductive as metal, so things like electromagnetic shielding and lightning protection required some metal to be added back on. General Nano’s material replaces or reduces that metal and offers other performance value that metal cannot achieve.
“There is a tremendous weight-savings benefit,” said Sprengard, “But another problem with metal is that is can lead to cracking, corrosion and difficult repairs to the aircraft. Having the carbon-to-carbon match eliminates these issues.”
Before starting General Nano in 2008, Sprengard worked in banking and politics. It wasn’t until speaking to scientists at the University of Cincinnati in 2007 that he entered the world of nanotubes. They had developed a longer nanotube than ever before, and Sprengard began working on a way to develop a product using their research. He met with aerospace engineers to evaluate their needs, and built General Nano’s products around what they were looking for.
“So many tech startups develop a product and then hope someone will buy it,” said Sprengard. “What really contributed to General Nano’s success was talking to customers about our capability first, and ultimately delivering something they needed that didn’t exist.”
General Nano received a $20,000 Imagining Grant from CincyTech, a southwest Ohio partner of Ohio Third Frontier, which helped the company develop a business plan and research the marketplace for their technology. An additional $2 million grant from Ohio Third Frontier allowed General Nano to finance manufacturing equipment that is housed in the HCDC, another Third Frontier partner in southwest Ohio.
Over the past seven years, General Nano has grown from one employee and an idea, to three company offices that work with the world’s leading aerospace agencies. NASA announced that the company’s nanotube coating material will be going to the international space station in 2018. It will be used on satellites to make them smaller, lighter and enhance their imaging capability.
“We’re creating advanced materials that are truly going to give our customers a better outcome,” said Sprengard. “That’s how we keep trusted relationships with the organizations we work with, and what will allow us to develop more uses for Veelo™ material in the future.”
Sprengard says the resources available to new entrepreneurs in Ohio are what has allowed General Nano to grow. The company has partnered with the Nanoworld Lab at the University of Cincinnati, which is also where they have found many of their employees. Sprengard says Cincinnati has been a natural fit for the business.
“Ohio has a tremendous heritage in advanced materials and in aerospace manufacturing, so we are going to give every effort possible to make sure that the state’s investment adds value to this industry for the future,” said Sprengard.