This Startup Has Figured Out How to Grow Metal Like a Tree
A Seattle startup has found a way to grow high performance metals in a cheap and energy efficient way, marking an important breakthrough for industries like construction, automotive, and oil and gas.
You can already find some of the metals from seven-year-old company Modumetal on oil rigs off of the Australian and African coasts, as well as the U.S., off of Texas. Those metals can withstand the ocean’s corrosive power for up to eight times longer than conventional materials, according to the company.
On Tuesday, Modumetal took a big step towards its goal of gaining a bigger market for its innovative recipe. The company said that it had raised $33.5 million in funding that will go to increasing production and sales along with developing new uses for its metals.
The funding was led by the Founders Fund, the firm co-created by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel that has previously invested in space cargo company SpaceX, room rental service Airbnb and data giant Palantir. Other investors include the venture arms of three oil big companies, Chevron Technology Ventures, BP Ventures and ConocoPhillips.
Modumetal’s CEO and co-founder Christina Lomasney, a physicist who’s spent years working on electrochemistry and advanced materials, told Fortune that the company’s metal growing process is “the ideal way of making materials.” It is similar to the way that “Mother Nature has evolved [growing things] over eons,” she said.
Some of the more conventional ways to extract and use various types of metals often include large amounts of heat. Many metals are mined and then extracted from the ores through smelting at a high temperature. Companies can also reuse metal scraps, but they must be melted and cast into usable shapes.
In contrast, Modumetal’s process only uses electricity, and therefore uses far less energy. The company’s metal process is similar to the more conventional method of electroplating, which is when electricity is used to create a metal coating on a surface.
However, Modumetal uses nanotechnology — manipulation of matter at the molecular level — to micromanage at a very small scale to better control the conditions and substances through which electroplating occurs. Basically, the company grows metal on a surface in a way that makes it easier to shape and tinker with the material’s characteristics. Lomasney says it’s similar to how nature controls the environment related to a tree’s growth— sunlight, soil, location, temperature—and then creates a tree that is a product those conditions.
A conventional metal part is made by standard processes on the left, and a metal part grown by startup Modumetal on the right.Photo courtesy of Will Foster, willfosterphoto.com
The process creates a metal that is grown layer-by-layer. The different ways to grow the layers creates variety in the metal’s properties and shape. Lomasney says to think about the resulting material like plywood, but the plies, or pieces, are created at the nanotech level.
The industry calls these layered metals “metal laminates,” and they’ve been around in the industry for a while. Lomasney’s breakthrough is using a chemical and electrical production process combined with nanotechnology to create the metal plywoods at a low cost, with low energy and with the ability to make the metal pieces in large volumes and with large pieces (think oil rig big).
The company is making a laminated zinc alloy for its customers that want a metal that won’t corrode as fast as standard zinc. But laminated steel could be the big market for Modumental. The company considers its strong and long-lasting steel product as the next-generation of the steel industry.
Modumetal’s original technology was created by Lomasney and her co-founder, chemical engineer John Whitaker. The partners previously worked on using electricity and chemistry to clean up toxic environments. After noticing their work, the Defense Department approached them to work on making advanced materials that could produce armor for soldiers that would be both very strong (stop bullets) but also last a long time (stop bullets over many years).
Lomasney and Whitaker spun out the core armor-making tech to start Modumetal. The company now has a research and development lab in Seattle, a factory in Maltby, Wash., and a field services office in Houston, Tex. The funds will help the company grow production at its factory in Maltby.
Despite the company’s ambition and promise, the startup world can be extraordinarily difficult. Expanding factory production can be particularly hard for a small company. Large scale manufacturing requires production to be precisely repeated over and over again, with little variation, which can be challenging with new technologies.
In addition the company is selling into long established and sometimes slow moving industries. While the company seems to have won over oil companies early on, big metal makers, car companies, aviation firms and construction companies can be notoriously risk averse and tend to shy away from partnering with young venture-capital backed startups.
Some of the biggest materials and metals companies around the world, which have some of the deepest pockets, and also are likely working on competitive technologies. The company will need to aggressively protect its patents —the core of its business—through both acquisition and legal action.
Modumetal sees the corrosion-protected metals as its first big market. But there are many other possibilities that the company and its customers are interested in. For example, Modumetal has a joint venture with one of the largest U.S. sheet metal makers, Steel Dynamics, to come up with applications for an upgraded version of sheet metal in the future.
Metal production isn’t often talked about. It’s not a particularly sexy topic. But if Modumetal can get its metals into everything from skyscrapers to airplanes, the company could make a big mark. It’s like how 3D printing is introducing an entirely new and easier way to print plastics and other materials into shapes that either couldn’t previously be made or would otherwise take a lot of effort to create.
In the 1800’s, aluminum was so expensive to make that it was confined to trinkets like Napoleon’s buttons and flatwear, Lomasney says. But in the late 1800’s, inventor Charles Martin Hall created a way to inexpensively make aluminum. He created a massive new industry and co-founded aluminum giant Alcoa. If Modumetal could gain a fraction of the traction that Alcoa has had it would be a major success.