Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

From Metals to Molecules: Small-Business Innovation Boosts Technology

August 6, 2019

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Crush can from Flash Bainite
"Crush can" from Flash Bainite. When subject to high-impact forces, Flash's version of steel absorbs energy like an accordion. Photo courtesy of Flash Bainite Founder Gary Cola.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy houses both the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which have worked together in the recent past to turn technological innovations into commercialized products.

In 2013, AMO wanted to improve the strength and formability of steel, so metallurgist Dr. David Forrest created an SBIR subtopic for that purpose. Small businesses then submitted their best ideas in applications for Phase I funding, along with their proofs of concept. One of the more impressive proofs of concept belonged to SFP Works, now known as Flash Bainite.

Flash Bainite’s patented steel-processing technology yields stronger, more ductile, less expensive, and readily weldable steel that has proven useful in a variety of applications. Flash Bainite’s “crush can,” for example, absorbs energy like an accordion when subject to high-impact forces (see graphic below).

SFP Works renamed and rebranded as Flash Bainite to honor the steel microstructure that gives steel treated with this new processing technology its incredible strength (1500+ megapascals, or two-to-three times that of ordinary high-strength steel) and formability (cold-stampable and weldable). Flash Bainite won a Phase I—and then, in 2014, a Phase II—award to continue work on its steel-processing technology.

Potential industrial customers wanted to see proof of how the processing led to dramatically improved strength and formability, so Flash Bainite sought and won a Phase IIB award for Research and Development (R&D) aimed at commercialization. At the same time, AMO funded the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to further explore the relationship between microstructure and properties for this new steel-processing technology. Once industry was able to see demonstrable results, Flash Bainite attracted more than $700,000 in venture-capital investment. According to Flash Bainite’s founder, Gary Cola, this development was made possible by the support of EERE’s SBIR program.

AMO has been a longtime champion of small-business innovation. In R&D, AMO has found that small-business innovators trying to commercialize promising technologies fail to capture industrial interest because they lack one or more of the following:

  • The resources to prove the concept and develop prototypes
  • The market experience to develop the technology towards commercialization
  • A professional network in the relevant scientific subfield to vouch for the technology.

AMO provides all three with its SBIR program, its expert staff, and its network of National Laboratories and universities.

Recognizing that new technologies can gain industrial support when understood at the microscopic level, AMO created a series of SBIR subtopics to analyze manufacturing materials at smaller and smaller scales, culminating with atomically precise manufacturing (APM).  APM’s biggest energy-savings potential may be its ability to create materials with zero defects. Defects in manufacturing cause most structural materials to perform at only 10% of their theoretical strength. Other energy-saving aspects of APM were explored under new SBIR subtopics of APM for membrane and catalysis technologies with extremely high activity and selectivity.

To advance the market potential of new APM technologies, AMO again supported the National Laboratories' work in this field and included an APM topic in a broader competitive-funding opportunity to bring universities into this research area. In January 2018, five of AMO’s atomically precise manufacturing projects were selected from the Emerging Research Explorations funding opportunity. These five awards, as well as AMO’s 15 SBIR APM projects, support R&D for emerging technologies such as:

  • Molecular programming to make custom molecules self-assemble, such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's use of "DNA Origami" and Temple University's "molecular LEGO®," with properties (such as catalytic activity) thousands of times better than current industrial chemicals
  • Scanning Probe Microscopes as a manufacturing tool to ultimately enable 3D molecular printing (UCLA)
  • Nanofabrication to make defect-free nanoelectronics for quantum computing (UT-Dallas and Zyvex).

APM and other small-business innovations have now become cutting-edge technologies within the AMO portfolio that improve the efficiency of manufacturing and its products. The potential benefits of these boosts to innovation are highly unpredictable. Who knows where the next set of EERE SBIR Topics will lead?

AMO supports early-stage research to advance innovation in U.S. manufacturing and promote American economic growth and energy security.