Former Cree Inc. managers Jason Taylor, second from left, and Steve Wilcenski, second from right, are working on a material that could help make certain products 100 times stronger than steel. They’ve raised about $1.5 million and signed their first customers in November. Initial employees are Mark Edmond, left, and Bobby Salter, right.
By Robert Koshinskie
A clear glass vial sealed with a black plastic cap sits atop a plain office desk. Inside the vessel are the white flakes of a very rare material, high-purity boron nitride nanotubes, also known as BNNT.
Only two U.S. firms are known to make this material, an ounce of which can sell for more than 60 times the price of gold because of its astonishing characteristics: It is 100 times stronger than steel and nontoxic. One is a Newport News, Va.-based spinoff from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. The other is Burlington-based BNNano Inc.
Founders Steve Wilcenski, 47, and Jason Taylor, 44, met in 2000 while working at Durham-based Cree Inc. The materials-science experts regularly discussed ideas to solve tough problems with game-changing solutions. Along the way, they noticed that research papers often cited a lack of high-purity BNNT sources.
The nature of BNNT is hidden from the naked eye. Imagine infinitesimally small chicken wire rolled into millions and millions of individual cylinders, each one 10,000 times narrower than a single human hair.
Initially synthesized in a lab in 1995, the material for nanotubes frustrated potential users because there was too little high-purity product available.
Seeing an opportunity, the two men founded the business in March 2016, moved to Burlington in January 2017, set up manufacturing the following month and signed their first customers in November. About two dozen angel investors, friends and family members have provided about $1.5 million in backing for the four-employee business.
BNNano creates its material from nitrogen, the main gas in the air we breathe; boron, a material used in health supplements; and very high heat, generated in ovens. This formula produces a substance that is much stronger than steel, lacks toxicity and blocks radiation. It strengthens other materials the same way that metal rebar reinforces concrete roads and bridges.
BNNano’s material provides cost and strength advantages over nanotubes made from carbon that are used in golf clubs, aircraft and other goods. Annual revenue from those products is expected to more than double to $8 billion over the next five years.
BNNano also says its product, which is not toxic to living cells, could be used to strengthen artificial hips and knees and target and destroy cancerous tumors during radiation treatment. Its initial customers include companies involved in ceramics, textiles, 3D printing and other industries.
Given its potential, why aren’t larger companies focused on high-purity boron? The answer is that many have shifted away from basic scientific research. “The big guys now let the little guys do the R&D and then gain access to the technologies through acquisitions or license agreements,” Wilcenski says.
“BNNano’s next challenge may be less technical and more classic business as it competes with other firms trying to duplicate the manufacturing process,” says James Ryan, founding dean of a nanoscience program co-sponsored by North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro.
BNNano’s founders have applied for a patent to protect their process. “We’ve proven that we can make high-purity BNNT, and as we increase our production capacity, we’re also making our product even better,” Wilcenski says.