NanoBlox: Opening New Markets with Nanoscale Diamonds
They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but it seems diamonds-nanodiamonds, at least-may be a scientist’s best friend as well. Revolutionary particles called nanodiamonds have a wide range of practical uses, from improving fuel economy to coating cookware to delivering drugs.
“Nanodiamond particles have been compared to M&Ms, where the chocolate center is the nanodiamond, and the candy shell is a graphene layer,” says Charles Picardi, chief technology officer of Philadelphia-based NanoBlox, which specializes in making the versatile particles.
According to Picardi, nanodiamonds are valuable for three primary reasons. One, they are carbon-based and non-toxic, so they can be used in drug delivery, drug diagnostics and medical imaging. Two, the outer graphene shell is an excellent lubricant, adding slipperiness to many materials. And three, diamonds are one of the best-known heat-transfer materials in the world, making nanodiamonds ideal for improving thermal conductivity.
Well Worth the Price
Diamonds may not seem like the most sensible particle components because of their price tag, but Picardi insists they are well worth it. “The nanodiamond has very good economic utility,” he says. “The value of using it far exceeds the additional cost in many applications.”
For example, the addition of nanodiamond particles could significantly increase the thermal conductivity of a radiator in an automobile-allowing manufacturers to reduce the size of the radiator and improve gas mileage.
“And when nanodiamonds are used in engine lubrication,” Picardi says, “they’ve been shown to increase fuel economy up to 20 percent.” In addition, nanodiamonds are being used in ballistics and armor defense applications, as a replacement for chrome (a toxic material) and as a coating in cookware.
When Opportunity Knocks
NanoBlox was founded in 2003 as a result of a meeting between Picardi, co-owner Dan Pepe and a group of Russian scientists. “Dan had a prior relationship with the scientists, and they came over from Russia to meet with him. Dan and I have been friends for about 13 years, and he invited me to the meeting because I am a technical guy,” Picardi says.
As part of their exchange, the group discussed developments in materials, including a new phase of carbon that had many potential commercial applications: the nanodiamond. “The Russians didn’t have the market to sell the nanodiamonds in their country,” says Picardi. “The U.S. market, however, presented a tremendous opportunity.”
After intense negotiations, two U.S. nanodiamond patents were assigned to NanoBlox, and the company was subsequently funded by angel investors.
“We are now 100 percent funded by angel investors. In 2005, we established a wholly owned subsidiary of NanoBlox called NB Research of PA, which was located in the South Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone,” Picardi says.
At the same time, the company had an opportunity to partner with Drexel University and put more than a quarter of a million dollars into the school for research and development. Both NanoBlox and Drexel are affiliated with Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP).
The Power of Networking
NanoBlox first became associated with BFTP through a professor at Drexel, Yury Gogotsi. Gogotsi introduced NanoBlox to Ben Franklin’s Nanotechnology Institute (NTI), which put NanoBlox in the company of organizations such as Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.
“By joining the NTI as a founding member, I have been in contact with the biopharmaceutical industry, and it has given NanoBlox the opportunity to legitimize itself in the technical areas we want to pursue-I can’t tell you how critically important Ben Franklin has been in facilitating our growth and development. I cannot put a price on it,” Picardi says.
NTI has contributed monetarily as well in the form of a $50,000 investment that NanoBlox used to demonstrate the ability to functionalize nanodiamonds for specific applications.
“As a result of that critically important research, we discovered that if we could actually bind drugs and proteins to our nanodiamond particles, we could improve the performance of chemotherapy drugs and drugs that have potential for treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” Picardi says. “So we applied for and were awarded an additional $50,000 grant from the NTI to develop commercial application in using our material as a drug delivery platform, a drug imaging material and, potentially, a cholesterol reducing drug.”
NanoBlox currently has 12 employees, and they plan to create seven to 10 jobs at the doctorate level for the manufacture and refining of nanodiamond materials and, hopefully, to grow from there.
“This is a great story about networking and about leveraging both the brain and financial power of Ben Franklin Technology Partners to help NanoBlox come together as a viable company,” Picardi says.
Keynotes April, 2007
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