January 29, 2006

The diameter of the nanoparticles is on the order of 100 nm (about a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). Israeli nanotechnology pioneers ApNano Materials have developed a nanoparticle that is one of the most shock-resistant substances known in the world, able to withstand pressures of up to 250 tons per square centimeter. This makes it an ideal material for use in a wide variety of applications, from bulletproof vests and helmets to engine oil.

Earlier this month, the ultimate vote of confidence in the company’s technology was passed when ApNano was granted $14 million by the European Union Commission as part of a project to develop new composite coatings and lubricants based on their nanoparticles. The four and half year, pan-European project, whose total budget is $23 million, includes such companies as Rolls-Royce, Renault, and EADS (the European equivalent of NASA), among others.

The project, named FOREMOST (Fullerene-based Opportunities for Robust Engineering: Making Optimized Surfaces for Tribology) will research new ways of introducing ApNano’s nanoparticles into surface coatings and lubricants. The new products will reduce friction and wear, save energy costs, extend operational life of mechanical parts, reduce maintenance and lower the environmental impact of a wide range of mechanical elements for the aerospace, automotive, power generation and manufacturing industrial sectors.

According to Niles Fleischer, Vice President of Business Development and Product Development of ApNano Materials, their revolutionary nanoparticles are soccer ball-like spheres of inorganic metal compounds, called inorganic fullerene-like nanostructures (IF for short).

Each particle consists of a number of progressively smaller concentric forms, sometimes twenty or more nested one within the other. The nested structure of these particles has been compared to that of an onion or a Russian doll. The diameter of the nanoparticles is on the order of 100 nm (about a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). These nanoparticles, due to their size, shape, chemistry, and structure, have special properties that are not possible with conventional size materials of the same composition. They are twice as strong as the best shock-absorbing materials currently used in armor and 4-5 times stronger than steel.

Experiments showing the suitability of IFs for use in high-impact applications were carried out at the University of Nottingham, England. Shots were fired at samples of the material at velocities of 1.5 km/second, generating pressures of 250 tons per cm2. That’s approximately equivalent to dropping four diesel locomotives onto an area the size of your fingernail.

Fleischer is optimistic about adapting these nanoparticles for use in armor, but says much more work needs to done.

“Regarding ballistic nano-armor applications, it may be that the particle size, purity, and composition of our present inorganic fullerenes now used in lube applications will need to be optimized,” Fleischer told ISRAEL21c. “The characteristics required for composite armor materials are quite different from [those required in] reducing friction and wear. For instance, we may want to use a lighter compound such as titanium disulfide instead of tungsten disulfide in order to gain a weight advantage.”

The company’s products are based on research that was done at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Dr. Menachem Genut was a fellow in the research group that discovered the nanoparticles and was the first to successfully synthesize them. He founded the company in 2002 along with Aharon Feurstein, who serves as chairman and CFO.

The company’s corporate headquarters are in New York with its Israeli operation in Nes Ziyona. ApNano was granted an exclusive license by Yeda Research and Development Ltd, the commercial arm of Weizmann, to manufacture and sell products based on the particles.

According to Genut, “IF was discovered by serendipity. At the Weizmann Institute, we were looking for a technology to convert solar energy into electricity. The result was completely unexpected. We discovered this nanoparticles which have very interesting properties – [they] act as excellent lubricants, have great shock absorbing powers, and are also efficient semiconductors.”

Another promising application for the nanoparticles is “as a solid lubricant for improving the performance of moving parts, particularly under extreme load conditions,” said Fleischer.

ApNano’s IF-based lubricant called NanoLub is currently in the process of commercialization.

“We are selling small quantities of NanoLub already. Our semi-commercial production facility for NanoLub powder will be operational by June 1, 2006. The plant will produce 150 kg per day of NanoLub powder, and we are taking orders from customers against the projected production,” Fleischer said.

NanoLub has already been used successfully in several applications. A Formula One race team mixed it into engine oil and reported a 30% decrease in wear. It has also been used in an aerospace application, where it cut friction in half. By further reducing friction, NanoLub reduces energy consumption and can therefore reduce air pollution.

The nanometer scale of NanoLub allows it to find its way into smaller nooks and crannies than conventional lubricants. While conventional lubricant molecules usually take the shape of large, flat platelets which slide between two components, NanoLub occurs as much smaller spheres which slide around each other, like miniature ball bearings. NanoLub can also be combined with other substances?for instance, as an additive to enhance oils and greases, or to impregnate parts, producing self-lubricating components.

In addition, NanoLub has been certified as completely non-toxic by international and US laboratories conforming to international standards, thereby permitting its use in a variety of consumer and industrial applications with no special restrictions on its handling. This gives IF a huge advantage over traditional carbon-based fullerenes, which are highly toxic.

As ApNano’s developments become more widely known, the accolades it receives are also growing. Professor Reshef Tenne, Chief Scientific Advisor of ApNano, was recently awarded the Materials Research Society medal for his outstanding achievements in the field. Tenne was head of the Weizmann Institute research team that first discovered the nanoparticles.

In 2004, the company was selected for the prestigious Red Herring Top 100 Innovators Award, and Genut was dubbed one of the most promising Israeli entrepreneurs last year by TheMarker, Israel’s leading business daily. And with the latest recognition by the EU, ApNano’s future looks secure, as do the people who will benefit from its secure armor and environmentally sound lubricants.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director