Tiny tech, big opportunity
Using science developed at Case, a technology company aims to make Cleveland a hub of polymer manufacturing.
By Zachary Lewis
(Photo by Roadell Hickman)
Just as a giant redwood starts as a tiny seed, the future of an emerging industry in Northeast Ohio lies in a tiny plastic pellet.
Tens of millions of the beads sit in giant boxes at Peak Nano’s two factories outside of Cleveland. They’re the stuff from which dreams born at the Case School of Engineering will be made, the essence of high-grade lenses, powerful batteries, and other practical nanotechnology for tomorrow.
“We’re batting a thousand right now,” said Michael Ponting, PhD ’10, a polymer scientist, entrepreneur, and the Chief Science Officer of Peak Nano. “Others have pushed the existing technology to the limits of what it can hold, but this is a whole different approach. No one has walked this way yet.”
On tours of Peak Nano’s state-of-the art foundry in Macedonia, it’s tempting to recall Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. White-coated techs in bright, sterile labs pour pellets into hoppers and melt them down before passing the substance through elaborate metal strainers and pulling out clear iridescent sheets. Lights blink and monitors display all manner of tables and charts as workers wind the taffy-like material onto spools of assorted sizes.
These, though, are no sweets for children. These are ultra-thin layers of clear polymers carefully crafted by temperature, thickness, and composition to have specific properties related to energy storage and light refraction.
Some sheets will be compressed by the thousands into translucent pucks and shaped into lenses for high-end scopes and binoculars with uncommonly wide fields of vision. Others, after leaving Peak Nano, will be tightly wrapped and cut to make highly-efficient capacitors for use in in everything from computers and electric cars to aircraft carriers.
They represent the potential of polymers to create advanced new products and skilled jobs in the region.
If all goes as planned, Peak Nano will be producing some 50,000 lenses a year and up to 100,000 pounds of capacitor film by the end of 2022. At the moment, the company employs about 60 men and women, including several Case graduates. Jim Welsh, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Peak Nano, recently said he envisions growing to 250 or 300 employees over the next few years through an investment deal with Connecticut-based Squadron Capital.
And that’s just the beginning. Peak Nano is already producing lenses commercially, but if the company lands an electric car manufacturer, whose battery capacitors could depend on nanolayered film, it will have to grow by leaps and bounds, and film output will have to escalate dramatically. Pledges by state and federal governments to commit to electric vehicles only make that future more likely, given that Peak Nano’s products are ready for the real world and its manufacturing capability is scalable.
“We’re going after those specialty applications, the ones that really need a boost right now, and we’ve moved to the front at the product-ready level,” Ponting said.
Something similar is also going on at the Case School of Engineering. Indeed, Case is the soil from which Ponting and Peak Nano sprang.
The Polymer Processing Lab in the basement of the Kent Hale Smith Building is smaller, older, and distinctly less glamorous than Peak Nano’s bright new facilities south of town. But the work professors and students are performing there is no less complex or potentially useful. There are a couple of giant boxes of plastic pellets and several multi-layer extrusion systems churning out coils of clear, impossibly thin sheeting.
This lab was started in 1995 by Ponting’s mentor, Professor Eric Baer, founder of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering at Case and a legend in the field. Both lab and legend are part of a fresh mission.
In June 2020, the department received a five-year grant from the U.S. Army to explore lighter, stronger, mass-producible plastics for armor and equipment used by the military. The Army’s commitment, initially $5.4 million, could grow to $11 million if the science pans out.
Young researchers here are not crafting lenses or capacitors. Instead, they’re taking those sheets of polymer and layering them in different combinations to form the next generation of body armor; stronger, lighter protective gear that could replace Kevlar.
“We see tremendous opportunities for improving the performance of protective systems and weapons,” Joseph Lenhart, chief of the polymers branch at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, said in a statement. “Longer term, we are excited about the applications we have not even imagined.”
The ‘genesis’ of an industry
All of this, as it happens, began with a quest to extend the shelf life of food. Before Baer came to Case in 1962, he worked for DuPont as a polymer scientist and helped to develop airtight plastics for food storage.
His work expanded significantly on Case Quad. In partnership with his future wife, the late Anne Hiltner, PhD, the first female engineering faculty member at Case, Baer and students set up the polymer lab still in use today and began exploring the potential of layered polymers.
“He always promotes that forward-looking aspect in individuals here,” said Andrew Olah, PhD ’85, a former director of research and development at Lubrizol Corp. who is now consulting for Baer at Case. “He’s always moving onto something new, teaching lessons to others.”
Many successes ensued over several decades, but the largest was a $40 million grant in 2006 from the National Science Foundation that allowed Baer to found the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems (CLIPS).
By that point, Ponting was a graduate student beginning to imagine commercial applications of the science. After earning his doctorate in Macromolecular Science and Engineering, Ponting teamed up with Baer and another recent graduate, Deepak Langhe, PhD ’12, and formed PolymerPlus to commercialize the technology. They set up a lab in the former CRADLE innovation center of Sherwin-Williams Corp. in the Cleveland suburb of Valley View.
Work on lenses came first, in 2011, with support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). After that, with PolymerPlus now in a warehouse in Valley View, came interest and progress in capacitors, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Between those two areas of focus, PolymerPlus practically defined the cutting edge of layered plastics research.
“That’s what’s so exciting about [polymer] technology,” Baer explained. “It feeds into many areas that are very different.”
Everything changed again in 2016, when a Texas company called Peak Nanosystems, attracted by Cleveland’s factory space, broadly skilled workforce, and the polymer research underway at Case, leased a space adjacent to PolymerPlus in Valley View. A partnership blossomed. In 2020, Peak Nanosystems acquired PolymerPlus and consolidated both operations under the name Peak Nano. The company wanted the products that PolymerPlus had conceived.
“To have something that far forward, that’s very good,” Olah said from experience. “In industry, they want something that is deliverable. That’s what has to happen in the translation process.”
Baer is happy with what became of the startup he co-founded.
“I feel it’s a good project, a great spin-out,” he said. “They have a different market. We can only be the genesis.”
A second, larger plant in nearby Macedonia held its grand opening in July 2021. Peak Nano converted a 40,000-square-foot former steel warehouse into a foundry it calls one of the most advanced optical design and manufacturing facilities in the world. The plant includes a 10,000-square foot positive pressure clean room to make the lenses.
Ponting said he had never considered starting or running a company, but that’s essentially what he finds himself doing now. Peak Nanosystems picked up both of the product lines he and his colleagues had been studying for production and brought him on as chief science officer. His years of theoretical work became a physical reality and set the stage for the next phase of his career.
Army seeks better protection
Meanwhile, back on Case Quad, the Polymer Processing Lab continues to perform. Professor Gary Wnek, Chair of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, is leading the research team that is working with the U.S. Army to explore the protective potential of multi-layered polymers.
One afternoon in December, Chung-Fu Cheng, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher from Taiwan via the University of Akron, guided a warm sheet of polymer material off a roller attached to one of the lab’s six extruders. As light as shrink wrap, the translucent belt was 128 layers thick — and maybe the start of a lightweight bullet-proof vest.
“It’s a first step,” Cheng said.
Even through the pandemic, Wnek said, he and his students managed to proceed with experiments and make progress toward materials that are robust, lightweight, and easy to produce. They’re looking at ballistics protection in particular, but they know their research also could have a major impact on the auto and aerospace industries.
“Getting the best out of all of those properties, that’s the tricky part,” Wnek said. “That’s what keeps us on our toes. But that’s also where we’ve been seeing encouraging signs that we’re on track for further improvements.
“On this campus, this is probably the most impactful operation in manufacturing,” he added.
None of this is happening in separate silos. Academic researchers and industry professionals are working side by side. Ponting remains in contact with his old colleagues and, in fact, will be in a position to manufacture products the Case lab develops for the Army.
“We’ve kept that lifeline to Case,” Ponting said. “We’re able to work together really well. It’s a really nice back and forth…I am regularly processing research formulations [on] layered films for the team at CWRU for characterization and analysis to support this effort.”
The feeling at Case is mutual. Even as they discuss their own research and the promises it holds, the pride in the voices of Baer and Wnek is unmistakable as they reflect on the success of PolymerPlus.
“There’s a lot of parallel activity,” Wnek said. “There’s a lot of cross-talk and fertilization. A lot of what they learned here is what we’re leveraging. The work is constantly building on itself.”
What they’re all learning together is that Northeast Ohio has a promising future in nanotechnology. Once a hub for steel, Cleveland now stands poised to emerge as a giant in polymer manufacturing.
Zachary Lewis is a Cleveland freelance writer and a former award-winning reporter for The Plain Dealer. To comment on this story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professors Gary Wnek and Eric Baer, pillars of macromolecular science at the Case School of Engineering, help create new products from polymers.
Mike Ponting, PhD ’10, is part of a patent awarded for applying nanolayered lens technology to virtual reality goggles.
Gary Wnek in the Polymer Processing Lab in the Kent Hale Smith Building.
Chung-Fu Cheng guides a multi-layered polymer sheet off an extruder in the Polymer Processing Lab in the Kent Hale Smith Building.
From tiny polymer pellets spring new materials.