Mining for metals is so last millennium. Christina Lomasney, physicist and CEO of Modumetal, wants to leave our dirt-covered past behind and step into a future where metals are grown, not uncovered.
She’s helped pioneer a process called “nanolamination,” an advanced version of the electroplating experiments you did in high school. Using a solution of metal ions and electricity, layer after layer of metal is deposited on a template, growing outward like rings on a tree. The new metal “plywoods” combine different metals, making them lighter, faster, and stronger — and catching the attention of the aerospace, energy, and automotive industries.
Lomasney talked to Inverse about her process and the potential ramifications of her big breakthrough.
How’d you come up with this idea?
Modumetal was founded in 2007 when my co-founder John Whitaker and I were working on the challenge of delivering an alloy system that could compete with conventional armor steels on cost but deliver a balance of performance that was thought to be unachievable in conventional steels. In this process, we discovered the process for Modumetal, which enabled large-scale manufacturing of a unique class of nanolayered alloys at a cost that is competitive with conventional metal manufacturing. When we realized the potential impact of this breakthrough technology, we took it as our responsibility to take this technology as far as we can.
Tell us about the nanolamination process. How is it different from electroplating?
Our patented process involves the modulation of various electric field parameters to change the alloy as it’s being deposited. The process is similar to the way tree rings form due to the modulation of seasons. By varying electric field parameters over time, we are able to create a layered coating — with layers on the nanometer scale — and to control the nature of the interfaces between these layers. These nano-scale layers and the high density of controlled interfaces in the alloy allow us to introduce performance characteristics in the alloy that simply do not exist in homogeneous alloys.
What can the Modumetal process do that traditional extraction methods can’t?
Unlike traditional metal and steel manufacturing processes which rely on heat, we use electricity to ‘grow’ metal in a process that operates near room temperature. This method allows us to form high-performance, nanolayered metal alloys in near-net shape configurations. Our nanolayering technology makes the metal lighter, stronger and more resistant to corrosion than traditional steel and alloys. It’s also a cost-competitive alternative to traditional metals.
Are there any specific applications you’re creating metals for?
We are initially deploying our alloys to protect energy, specifically oil and gas sector assets, from corrosion and wear degradation that is typically encountered in these aggressive operating environments. This translates to improved production, reduced maintenance costs, and increased safety.
What industries would benefit most from Modumetal’s products?
The National Association of Corrosion Engineers, a worldwide corrosion authority, estimated that the United States spends more than three percent of its GDP to combat the problem of corrosion, so the better question would be what industries would not benefit.