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Editorial: New college school year full of promise for students, NM

BY ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD

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What do University of New Mexico undergrads and UNM-sponsored research in nanotechnology have in common?

This week, they’re the feel-good antidote to the collective anxiety we feel from the woes that seem to perpetually plague New Mexico: homelessness, murders, water shortages, low worker participation, low academic achievement …

You get the picture.

But for the 1,800 students who moved into UNM’s residence halls between Thursday and Sunday in preparation for the fall semester, Albuquerque represents the excitement of a fresh start after two challenging years of pandemic fits that have disrupted learning tracks and social lives.

(That same promise of new beginnings goes for students headed to classes at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Western New Mexico University in Silver City, Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, Highlands University in Las Vegas, Northern New Mexico College in Española, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro and our many branch campuses and two-year college programs.)

“It’s really exciting to see this many faces back on campus,” Megan Chibanga, UNM’s director of student housing and residence life, told the Journal. “It’s much more active and vibrant now that we got everyone back.”

UNM lifted its mask mandate on March 19. Students, faculty and staff are no longer required to wear a mask inside laboratories, studios, libraries, residence halls, dining facilities or the student union building. But they’re still required at health facilities, research spaces and on UNM shuttles, according to the university’s website.

All that could change, of course, if there’s a surge in positive cases, but current conditions provide what so many students crave: a chance for a “real” college experience of rubbing elbows with fellow students — not staring at a computer screen in isolation to listen to a lecture.

The start of school coincides with another bit of good news. UNM researchers have had not one, but two, nanotechnology breakthroughs with commercial applications that could revolutionize dentistry and make it easier for oil and gas producers to eliminate emissions at the wellhead.

One team, headed by nano materials engineer Leisha Armijo-Martin, has developed a remote-controlled, magnetic toothpaste and toothbrush that injects anti-bacterial solutions into the nooks and crannies of gums and teeth. The product is still under development, but a newly created startup, MNT SmartSolutions LLC, is working to put it on store shelves in the next few years.

MNT is one of 15 local companies formed by the New Mexico Startup Factory, which launched 10 years ago to commercialize new technologies from the state’s research universities and national laboratories. The Startup Factory recently signed a license agreement to market the MNT technology with UNM’s Rainforest Innovations, which manages the university’s tech-transfer and economic development programs.

The other innovation is exciting, both because of game-changing product at the center of a partnership and because the partnership offers well remediation with little to no upfront costs.

UNM engineers have created a nanotechnology-based sealant that could offer the oil and gas industry a permanent solution for abandoned, climate-polluting wells. UNM researchers developed the sealant over 10 years, and they’re now marketing it through a new Albuquerque-based startup, TS-Nano, in partnership with two next-generation, blockchain-based development firms, Devvio Inc. and DevvStream Inc.

The two sister companies invested $2.5 million last month in TS-Nano. The companies are now headquartered in Europe, but Albuquerque-based engineers built their original platform technology in New Mexico.

These developments, as well as the new in-person school year, are emblematic of the promise New Mexico’s institutions of higher learning hold for our students and our communities.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

UNM dental technology could shake up industry

BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Leisha Armijo-Martin, in her lab at work. Armijo-Martin is a nano materials engineer who leads an MNT SmartSolutions team developing a remote-controlled, magnetic anti-bacterial toothpaste and toothbrush. (Courtesy of MNT SmartSolutions LLC) gporter@abqjournal.com Fri Aug 19 17:04:26 -0600 2022 1660950266 FILENAME: 1946014.jpg

A remote-controlled, magnetic toothpaste and toothbrush that injects anti-bacterial solutions into the nooks and crannies of gums and teeth could soon hit the market, thanks to novel nanotechnology developed at the University of New Mexico.

The product is still under development, but a newly created startup company, MNT SmartSolutions LLC, is working to put it on store shelves in the next few years. Once available to consumers, it could potentially “revolutionize” the oral care industry, which has remained unchanged for as long as people can remember, according to company executives and the research team that created it.

That team, headed by nano materials engineer Leisha Armijo-Martin, includes current and former UNM biologists, toxicologists, pharmaceutical and environmental scientists and research engineers from UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and the University of Bristol Dental School in England.

The team wants to create a combination toothpaste and toothbrush package that offers an interactive, nanotech-powered, home dental-care solution for shoppers that sits alongside Crest, Colgate and the like, Armijo-Martin said.

“This could replace today’s toothpaste on store shelves, where we’ve seen the same toothpaste and toothbrushes for 50 to 100 years,” Armijo-Martin told the Journal. “It would be a smart, interactive toothpaste and toothbrush that shoppers could choose as they walk down the aisles.”

Nanotechnology

The product is based on non-toxic, environmentally friendly nano particles that, when combined with iron oxide, have both highly-magnetic and anti-bacterial properties, Armijo-Martin said. That nano material is the “secret sauce” that goes into the toothpaste, which is then brushed as normal across the teeth and gums.

The toothbrush, however, is designed to create a remote-controlled electromagnetic field that can be turned on and off. Once turned on, it pulls the nano particles imbedded in the toothpaste down into the gums, cavities, and hard-to-reach crevices between teeth.

Once applied, the anti-microbial elements immediately attack bacteria and plaque formation in the mouth, with additional, sustained-release effects that target infected areas.

The remote-control toothbrush remains off until after the toothpaste is applied to teeth to avoid the magnetic balls in the nano material from bunching up together before brushing.

“You switch off the remote while the toothpaste is in the tube, and while it’s brushed onto teeth,” Armijo-Martin said. “Then you turn it on for the electromagnetic field to pull the nano particles down below the gum lines and along the teeth to reach previously unreachable areas.”

The nano particles specifically target bad bacteria.

“People like to use mouthwash like Listerine, but that kills everything, including good bacteria,” Armijo-Martin said. “This will preferentially attack only the bad bacteria.”

That targeted impact comes from polymer coating imbedded on the surface of the nano particles. The coating is similar to the chemistry found in bad bacteria, which naturally produces a plastic film to protect its colonies.

“By engineering magnetic particles with similar chemistry, the nano particles are attracted to the bacterial biofilm that builds up,” Armijo-Martin said. “And they stay there as they release anti-microbial compounds to create a lasting effect.”

Armijo-Martin discovered the anti-bacterial potential of the magnetic nano particles while working to develop them as a courier for targeted medicine to deliver drugs directly to infections.

“We found the nano particles had their own anti-bacterial qualities,” she said.

That led to a research pivot to instead study direct use of the particles against bacteria, both to prevent and treat infection.

The technology could also be applied as a topical and internal anti-bacterial treatment for wounds, abrasions and infections. But MNT SmartSolutions is focusing first on the dental industry, which offers a huge market with potential for broad impact to prevent and treat periodontal disease, gingivitis and cavities.

Periodontitis is a chronic inflammatory condition stemming from the persistence of bacterial biofilm infections, or dental plaque, that’s considered the 11th most prevalent disease in the world. Apart from tooth loss, it’s been linked to many other health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Direct consumer sales

The company will offer its technology directly to orthodontists, but its biggest impact could be on the direct consumer market.

“People don’t like to have their gums scraped,” Armijo-Martin said. “It’s painful and costly. With this, they can do it on their own at home to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.”

So far, lab testing on cells with bacterial cultures, plus toxicity testing on human mammalian cells, have shown the technology is effective and safe.

In May, the company received a first-phase, $256,000 National Science Foundation grant to begin mouse trials, said MNT SmartSolutions Chief Financial Officer John Chavez.

“We’ve done all the bench work through in-vitro testing,” Chavez told the Journal. “The NSF funding allows us to move on to control tests with mice. That work started in June.”

When the mice trials conclude, MNT will seek a second-phase NSF grant to conduct more testing with other animals, before moving on to human clinical trials to achieve U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, Chavez said.

The full process could take four or five years before the technology can move to market.

MNT is one of 15 local companies formed by the New Mexico Startup Factory, which launched 10 years ago to commercialize new technologies from the state’s research universities and national laboratories. Chavez is president of the Startup Factory, which recently signed a license agreement to market the MNT technology with UNM’s Rainforest Innovations, which manages all of the university’s tech-transfer and economic development programs.

Chavez sees huge potential for MNT.

“We have a cadre of highly experienced researchers in the oral-care world from New Mexico, Texas and England working on this,” Chavez said. “The dental care industry offers a huge market for new products, because it hasn’t had a lot of modern innovation in many years.”

Start-Ups to Watch

By Collin Krabbe – Reporter for New Mexico Inno

FRS-B Cell Phone Booster
Actual Size of the FRS-B cell phone booster by ORC Tech

This special section marks the launch of the annual Startups to Watch list, a collection of startups New Mexico Inno will keep an eye on in the next 12 months.

The list of 10 honorees includes businesses in various sectors — sustainable energy, health care and mobile communications, to name a few. Our Startups to Watch are trying to use data to identify the “social determinants of health” and deploy space-mining technology.

ORC Tech LLC

Spotty cell reception is a problem worth fixing, and with technology developed at the world’s leading space organization, one New Mexico startup says it has the solution.

ORC Tech LLC is trying to eliminate so-called “dead zones” in rural or undeveloped areas. The company says its technology is licensed from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The technology includes the use of a lightweight portable antenna that provides cell reception.

Early testing showed ORC’s antenna can increase signal strength by at least 20%, adding one to two bars of reception, according to the company. ORC Tech says its investors include Tsay Corp. on the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, where ORC is headquartered.

ORC Tech is also listed as a portfolio company at Arrowhead Innovation Fund, a seed and early-stage venture capital fund at New Mexico State University. The startup’s founders include John ChavezAndrea M. GarciaJoshua Benavidez and New Mexico Start-Up Factory, according to ORC Tech.

So far, ORC Tech has raised $100,000, according to the company, which contends its product will boost cell service for outdoor enthusiasts, first responders, ranchers and similar users. ORC Tech was founded in 2021 and had four employees as of December. With additional funding, ORC intends to hire at least three more employees and develop a manufacturing process, according to the company.

Prototype testing for validation is happening alongside Sandia National Laboratories, according to ORC. While the company is still in its early stages, ORC has already gained some momentum, placing third in the El Paso Dia de los Muertos Pitch Competition.

And with tech apparently licensed from NASA, we’d say ORC is a startup that will remain on our radar.

Can you hear me now? New Mexico firm adapts space tech to build powerful cell phone boosters

BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER

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Actual size of the collapsible FRS-B cell phone booster.

A lightweight, portable cell-signal booster recently got a boost of its own from testing by Sandia National Laboratories, which confirmed the device can hike phone reception by up to 20%.

Sandia helped New Mexico startup ORC Tech LLC try out different prototypes for its device this summer through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which allows the national laboratory to provide technical assistance to small businesses at no cost to them. And now, with the Sandia test results in hand, ORC Tech – or Optical Radio Communications Technology – is ready to manufacture its first batch of up to 300 signal-boosting devices, said John Chavez of the New Mexico Startup Factory, which helped launch the company last fall.

“We’re going to market next year,” Chavez said. “It will be a soft launch. We’ll start out with a small batch of 200-300 units that we’ll sell and send out for testing.”

ORC Tech licensed its technology from NASA Johnson Space Center, which designed it as a collapsible, lightweight, portable tool to improve communications for astronauts in space.

ORC Tech Chief Technology Officer Joshua Benavidez discovered it while participating in a NASA entrepreneurial program to commercialize new technology. He envisioned turning it into a compact, foldable sheet that consumers on Earth could stuff in a backpack or store in a vehicle and then stretch out when needed to augment reception in remote locations. The signal boost comes from conductive material woven into fabric, basically providing a flexible antennae that doesn’t require batteries, electrical outlets or any other power.

Over the summer, Sandia engineers tested different types of conductive thread, fabric and geometric designs to determine the best combination to augment cell signals. Those efforts showed that a circular design with two rings of conductive thread on the inner and outer radius boosted reception by nearly 15 decibels, offering the equivalent of nearly two extra signal bars on a cell phone, said the project’s lead engineer, Stephen Neidigk.

“We found that if we added a third ring, we could get even better performance,” Neidigk said.

Sandia expects to continue working with ORC Tech next year to further improve the design.

Summer interns assisted this year, said Sandia electrical engineer John McVay.

“We were able to design, fabricate and confirm product performance, while also mentoring summer interns, who got practical experience,” McVay said. “It’s a win-win.”

ORC Tech will use a contract manufacturer for its first batch of cell boosters, Chavez said. Once the company fully establishes its manufacturing process, it will make its own product at an industrial park at Ohkay Owingeh, north of Espanola, thanks to an investment in ORC Tech by the Pueblo-owned development company Tsay Corp.

“We’re already seeing a lot of interest and demand for this product, based on market surveys,” Chavez said.

NM startup using NASA tech to boost cellphones

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A newly formed New Mexico startup is using NASA technology originally designed for lunar missions to offer consumers a lightweight portable option to boost cellular coverage anywhere on Earth.

The booster comes from conductive material woven into fabric. That allows it to be folded up, stuffed in a backpack, or stored in a vehicle and then stretched out to augment reception when a user hits a dead zone.

And it doesn’t require any power, said Joshua Benavidez, chief technology officer for ORC Tech LLC, or Optical Radio Communications Technology, which Benavidez launched last fall with help from the New Mexico Startup Factory.

“You don’t need batteries or any electrical outlet to plug it in,” Benavidez told the Journal. “… If you’re hiking, on a family road trip, or you just work in remote areas, this gives you a way to communicate in any given situation.”

ORC Tech licensed the technology from NASA Johnson Space Center, which designed it as a collapsible, lightweight, portable device for space missions to supplement weak spots encountered by an astronaut crew. NASA has fully proven the technology, but ORC Tech must still design a specific prototype for cellphones and other mobile devices.

Sandia National Laboratories will help with that through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which allows the state’s two national laboratories to assign lab resources, scientists and engineers to provide technical assistance to small businesses at no cost to them.

And once a workable prototype is ready, likely by late summer, the company will set up operations at an industrial park at Ohkay Owingeh, north of Española, thanks to a new agreement with the Pueblo-owned development company Tsay Corp., which agreed to invest in ORC Tech, said Tsay Corp. President Ron Lovato.

“It would be the first technology-based manufacturing facility to go into the industrial park,” Lovato said. “We’ve been trying for 10 years to attract industry into the Española Valley, and we’ve been successful with retail and service sector businesses. Now, we’re taking a little different route here to get in early as a venture investor in the company, basically putting our money where our mouth is, so to say.”

The Startup Factory, originally launched by the New Mexico Angels and now run independently, works to pull potentially marketable technology out of the state’s national labs, research universities, and institution’s like NASA. It works with local innovators and entrepreneurs to help build technology-transfer-based companies, providing the business acumen and early-stage capital to move them forward.

“Sometimes it takes a community to build a company,” said Andrea Garcia, the Startup Factory’s company creation specialist. “ORC Tech is a great example of how we engage with local programs and resources to keep economic development and investment opportunities in New Mexico while building infrastructure and executing a product development strategy.”

Benavidez, a New Mexico Tech student with a background in engineering and physics, identified the technology while participating in a NASA entrepreneurial program to build skills in commercializing science-based innovation. He then sought assistance from the Startup Factory, which helped him license the technology from NASA and launch ORC Tech with an initial investment for an undisclosed amount.

The Startup Factory connected Benavidez with Sandia, which assigned electrical engineer John McVay to work with him through Sandia’s newly developed “Stitched” lab, which stands for Sensors and Textiles Innovatively Tailored for Complex, High-Efficiency Detection. That lab uses precise, computer-controlled embroidery to fix things like wire, tubes or optical fibers to fabric-like materials to create customized, imbedded sensors.

Industry, for example, uses that process for heated car seats, imbedding a resistive wire sensor into the seating material, McVay said.

“At the Stitched lab we look at how we can use technical embroidery for different applications,” McVay told the Journal.

In this case, the lab will use conductive thread, or a conductive metal ink, to develop a cost-effective way to manufacture ORC Tech’s radio-frequency-boosting fabrics.

Students in Sandia’s summer internship program will work with McVay to first create a prototype conductive fabric using computer-aided design, and then move to the Stitched lab for technical embroidering.

“We’ll test and measure performance of the designs, and then go back to iteratively improve on it,” McVay said. “… We hope to wrap it all up before the interns leave at the end of the summer.”

Part of the process is developing the right shape for the cell-coverage booster, which much be designed to optimally capture and direct weak radio frequency signals to the cellphone.

“The conductive fabric will bend the weak signal in a ‘dead zone’ and focus it on the point where the cellphone is,” Benavidez said.

Cellphones are only the start. The technology can later be adapted for use with laptops, satellite and WiFi internet receivers.

New Mexico’s startup ecosystem is helping to speed ORC Tech’s march to market, Garcia said.

And both Ohkay Owingeh and Sandia are benefitting.

“Through this project, we’ll gain more knowledge and experience in technical embroidery at our Stitched lab,” McVay said. “And it will provide hands-on learning for our interns – all while helping a local business. It’s benefitting all of us.”

OSAZDA WINS $1.25M TO TEST ‘METZILLA’ PASTE

BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque startup Osazda Energy LLC is undertaking a two-year battery of tests to see how well its newly developed “MetZilla” paste can protect solar systems against cracking and degradation.

The U.S. Department of Energy approved a $1.25 million grant to test the composite material, which University of New Mexico and Air Force Research Laboratory scientists jointly created to prolong the life of solar modules.

The paste, dubbed MetZilla to indicate Godzilla-infused metal, is made by meshing carbon nanotubes with silver, the standard alloy used to conduct electricity in solar cells and panels. Osazda says the paste can keep metal conducting lines intact even as modules crack over time from extreme weather and other hazards.

The New Mexico Angels, a group of about 70 individuals who pool their resources to invest in startups, launched Osazda in 2017 to take MetZilla to market. But the company must first prove how well the material actually works, measuring its ability to keep solar cells and modules functioning under stress compared with systems without the paste, said Osazda Chief Technology Officer Sang Han, a UNM regents professor in both the Chemical and Biological Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments.

“We’ll do extensive stress testing beyond what would normally be required to certify effectiveness,” Han said. “We want to prove it will extend the life of solar cells.”

Four national partners will assist in the testing process, including Sandia National Laboratories, the CFV Solar Test Lab in Albuquerque, the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and California company D2Solar.

UNCC will make the silicon solar cells and D2Solar will assemble the modules. CFV will conduct the stress testing, and Sandia will apply a digital imaging technology that captures views of the entire panel when it’s operating and of cracks in the cells.

“Sandia will image the modules before and after the stress tests to measure cracks with and without the composite paste,” Han said. “It’s a two-year project to prove our paste manages all cracks under different types of stress.”

The testing process can help Osazda improve the paste formation and application process while demonstrating its benefits as the company prepares for market launch, said New Mexico Angels President and Osazda CEO John Chavez.

“MetZilla has very minimal impact on the manufacturing costs for solar systems, but it has real benefits on the back end,” Chavez said. “It can prolong the life of solar systems, allowing for increased production, reduced maintenance, and less insurance costs for manufacturers to provide warranties on solar panels.”

THE UNM TECHNOLOGY LICENSED BY GPER G-1 DEVELOPMENT GROUP HAS RECENTLY BEEN PUBLISHED IN RENOWNED MEDICAL JOURNAL

We are proud to announce that the novel technology licensed by GPER G-1 Development Group, a New Mexico Start-Up Factory II Portfolio Company, has recently been published by Science Translational Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 
GPER-G-1 is a drug development company with the primary goal of advancing novel drug candidates discovered at the University of New Mexico (UNM). Currently identified indications for the drug candidates include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, kidney diseases, fibrosis and bacterial infection. 

The manuscript titled “Preclinical efficacy of the first-in-class GPER-selective agonist Tespria in mouse models of obesity and diabetes,” was written by Distinguished Professor of Internal Medicine and Chief of the Division of Molecular Medicine, Eric Prossnitz. This publication highlights the recent discovery of the novel G protein-coupled Estrogen Receptor (GPER) as a novel therapeutic target for obesity and diabetes. 

PRECLINICAL EFFICACY OF THE GPER-SELECTIVE AGONIST G-1 IN MOUSE MODELS OF OBESITY AND DIABETES

Mimicking estrogen to target metabolism

agonist of one of estrogen’s receptors, the G protein–coupled estrogen receptor (GPER), may have a similar, but more targeted potential as a therapeutic in metabolic disease. In ovariectomized mice, a model of postmenopausal obesity, G-1 agonist treatment increased energy expenditure and had beneficial effects on weight, adiposity, metabolism, and inflammation. However, unlike traditional estrogen replacement therapy, GPER agonism did not affect bone density or result in uterine feminizing effects. G-1 also elicited weight loss in ovariectomized mice on a high-fat diet and prevented weight gain in obese male mice.

Science Translational Medicine  29 Jan 2020:
Vol. 12, Issue 528, eaau5956
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aau5956 

READ THE FULL PUBLICATION

Copyright © 2020 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

NM ANGELS VP IS NAMED A WOMAN OF INFLUENCE HONOREE 2020 BY ALBUQUERQUE BUSINESS FIRST

MEET BUSINESS FIRST’S 2020 WOMEN OF INFLUENCE

By Megan Martin  – Research Assistant , Albuquerque Business First Jan 6, 2020, 12:06pm MST Updated Jan 6, 2020, 12:45pm MST

This marks the 16th year that Albuquerque Business First will honor women who have made a positive and influential impact in the New Mexico business community.

Our judges have selected 24 honorees for the 16th annual Women of Influence awards. While each recipient has a different background, from health care to law and everything in between, they all have one thing in common: their dedication and contributions to the community around them. 

Take a look at the accompanying slideshow to meet all of the 2020 Women of Influence honorees.

The awards will take place on Feb. 24 at Sandia Resort and Casino. The awards and luncheon will be preceded by Bizwomen Mentoring Monday, an event in which attendees will have the opportunity to participate in one-on-one coaching sessions with various mentors, as well as take part in roundtable discussions.

The selection process for this year’s Women of Influence awards began with an open call for nominations. Those who were nominated were then asked to submit an application with information for our judges. Our judges, leaders in the business community including multiple alumna of the award, evaluated the applicants on professional achievement, leadership and community involvement. The top scorers were named honorees. Judges recused themselves from voting on any applicants with whom they had close ties.

This year’s judges were Clementina Garza, franchise owner of a number of local McDonald’s restaurants; Cristin Heyns-Bousliman, president and chief people officer at Human Resources Experience LLC; Kellie S. Mixon, vice president and CFO of New Mexico Mutual; Dr. Darcie Robran-Marquez, executive medical director and vice president of population health at Presbyterian Healthcare Services; Anthony Tenorio, CEO of Applied Technology Associates; and Kathy Ulibarri of K Ulibarri Consulting LLC.

Four out of every 10 businesses in the U.S. are women-owned, according to a study by American Express. Women-owned businesses in the U.S. saw a growth rate of 58% from 2007 to 2018, compared to the overall national growth of 12% for all businesses. 

The top women-owned businesses in New Mexico reported a total of over $464 million in 2018 revenue.

The 2020 Women of Influence awards is sponsored by Wells Fargo and Albuquerque Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, and nationally sponsored by Girl Scouts. Event partners are Heritage Audio Visual, Bryan’s Photography LLC and The Recognition Place. National partners include the American Business Women’s Association and the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Link to Full Article: https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2020/01/06/meet-business-firsts-2020-women-of-influence.html?iana=hpmvp_abq_news_headline

ADDING GODZILLA-LIKE STRENGTH TO PV MODULES

University of New Mexico and Air Force Research Laboratory scientists have teamed up to prolong the life of solar modules by harnessing the Atom Ant-like strength of carbon nanotubes.

David Wilt, left, and Sang Han at a UNM laboratory workstation where they mix carbon nanotubes into silver to create MetZilla past before depositing it onto solar cells with a screen printer. Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal dhanson@abqjournal.com Wed Oct 30 15:43:42 -0600 2019 1572471819 FILENAME: 1589987.jpg

The scientists, Sang M. Han of UNM and David Wilt of AFRL in New Mexico, created a composite material that meshes carbon nanotubes with silver, the standard metal used to conduct electricity in solar cells and modules. They call it MetZilla, or Godzilla-infused metal, which they say could extend the life of solar panels to a minimum of 35 years, and potentially up to 50. 

MetZilla, they say, can keep the metal conducting lines on solar cells intact even as the modules crack over time from extreme weather and other hazards. That could substantially lower the cost of solar cells and panels while boosting electric output from photovoltaic systems.

Cracking and cell degradation are chronic problems in solar systems, especially since the industry has moved to much thinner solar cells and modules to lower production and installation costs. As the panels get thinner, they become more vulnerable, making them more prone to degradation from the elements.

MetZilla’s potential to solve that problem attracted the New Mexico Angels, a group of about 70 individuals who pool their resources to invest in startups. The Angels launched Osazda Energy LLC in 2017 to take MetZilla to market through their Startup Factory, an incubator the Angels set up in 2012 to commercialize promising technologies developed at UNM and other state research universities.

“This is something that’s really needed in the PV market,” said Angels President and now Osazda CEO John Chavez. “The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has consistently listed this as the No.1 or No. 2 problem in the solar industry in recent years. If we can solve the problem of cracking and degradation, the market is ready, willing and able to adopt our product.”

The company received $1.5 million in grants this year to further develop and prove their technology from the Durable Module Materials Consortium, or DuraMAT, which groups the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories, research universities and solar manufacturers together in an alliance to build new materials and designs for PV modules.

The company previously received a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Air Force, $50,000 in matching funds from the state Economic Development Department, and an undisclosed investment from the Angels.

It’s now doing robust laboratory testing to show how MetZilla-infused solar cells hold up against extreme temperature changes and pressure compared with cells with standard metal conducting lines, said Han, a UNM regents professor in both the Chemical and Biological Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments.

The goal is to keep electricity moving through the metal lines despite cracks on the solar cells, which tend to pull those lines apart over time. That disrupts electric flow and eventually interrupts it altogether as module degradation leads to open gaps in the lines.

 “We introduce cracks into the solar cells and then we push them up and down with a plunger and submit them to thermal (hot and cold) cycling to see how the cracks progress over time with and without the MetZilla paste,” Han said. “We’re at the stage of minimodule qualification, not rooftop-size modules. We want to prove the technology out first at a smaller module scale.”

The tests have shown MetZilla can easily bridge conducting-line gaps caused by cracks in cells of up to 30 microns, and well above 70 microns in some cases, Han said.

Solar cells with standard metal lines generally separate with solar cell cracks of under 5 microns.

The key to MetZilla is the carbon nanotubes fused into the metal paste. The nanotubes are mechanically strong and have good electrical and thermal conductivity, said Wilt, a senior physicist and technical adviser for the Spacecraft Component Technology Branch of the AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate.

As the metal lines get stretched from cracking on the solar cells, MetZilla helps bridge those gaps, Wilt said. In addition, the carbon nanotubes help heal the gaps in the lines.

“MetZilla maintains electric flow because the carbon nanotubes seek each other out,” Wilt said. “They reconnect with each other in a self-healing process.”

Wilt first thought of injecting carbon nanotubes into metal conducting lines while working to resolve solar-cell cracking and module degradation in Air Force spacecraft. He sought Han’s help in 2012 to develop the technology, backed by a $180,000 internal AFRL grant that supported about three years of joint research that included some of Han’s students.

They patented the technology together through the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech transfer office.

 “It’s a joint project,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “It’s led to the first company created based on joint research between UNM and the AFRL.”

Apart from industry, the technology could benefit U.S. defense agencies, said AFRL Technology Engagement Office Director Matthew Fetrow.

“The Air Force could be a customer for that technology,” Fetrow said. “There are both commercial and defense markets for it.”

The company has created two MetZilla products, the MetZilla paste for use in terrestrial solar systems, and a MetZilla plating technology for use in solar powered spacecraft.

The paste is used as an ink to lay down metal lines on solar cells with a standard screen printer. The plating technology is for more robust solar panels for spacecraft. It uses an electroplating process to deposit MetZilla-based conducting lines by dipping negatively charged solar cells into a liquid solution that contains positively charged MetZilla ions, which then attach to pre-designed line patterns on the cell.

The company aims to have its first products ready for market in about 18 months. It employs seven people at two offices at UNM’s Science and Technology Park, and at the Sandia Science and Technology Park. Hans conducts lab work at UNM.

BY KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER