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商业 - 科技

像种木耳一样“种”金属:建筑、汽车、能源领域或迎重大突破

Katie Fehrenbacher 2015年09月08日

西雅图一家创业公司发明了一种能够以廉价节能的方式,“培育”高性能金属材料的技术。这标志着建筑、汽车以及石油和天然气等行业将迎来一次重大的突破。

    

    西雅图一家创业公司发明了一种能够以廉价节能的方式,“培育”高性能金属材料的技术。这标志着建筑、汽车以及石油和天然气等行业将迎来一次重大的突破。

    这家成立7年的公司名叫Modumetal。现在澳大利亚、非洲和美国德克萨斯州沿海的一些钻井平台已经开始使用该公司生产的金属材料。据其介绍,这些金属材料的抗海水腐蚀能力可达到传统材料的8倍。

    最近,Modumetal公司在为其创新技术拓宽市场的道路上又迈进了一大步。该公司称已获得3350万美元融资,这笔资金将用于扩大产能和销量,以及继续为其金属材料开辟新用途。

    本轮融资由创业者基金领投,基金创始人之一是硅谷知名投资者彼得•泰尔,他曾投资过太空运输公司SpaceX、房屋租赁服务公司Airbnb以及数据巨头Palantir。其他投资者还包括三大石油公司旗下的风投机构,即雪佛龙技术风险投资公司、BP创投和康菲石油。

    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公司使用电和纳米技术“培育”金属。

    Modumetal公司CEO兼联合创始人克里斯蒂娜•洛玛瑟妮是一位物理学家,多年从事电化学和高级材料的研究工作。她向《财富》表示,其公司所使用的“金属培育”技术,是“制造材料的理想途径”,类似“大自然亘古以来,万物生长进化的方式”。

    一些传统的金属材料提取和利用方式,往往离不开大量的热能。很多金属是从矿床中开采出来再通过高温熔炼提取得到的。企业也可以对废金属进行重新利用,但它们必须先被熔炼再铸成可用的形状。

    相比之下,Modumetal公司的生产流程只使用电能,因此大大节省了能源。其金属材料制作流程类似于非常传统的电镀工艺,——用电生成一层金属镀层覆盖在物品表面。

    但差别在于,Modumetal公司使用的是纳米技术,在分子层次进行操控,从而可以在非常精确的范围内更好地控制电镀过程中的各种条件和生成物质。从根本上说,该公司是在物品表层“培育”金属,这种方式可以使金属能便于成型以及改造材料特性。CEO洛玛瑟妮称,它就像是自然控制阳光、土壤、位置、温度等生长环境,然后长出了一棵符合这些条件的树木。

    Modumetal’s CEO and co-founder Christina Lomasney, a physicist who’s spent years working on electrochemistry and advanced materials, told Fortunethat 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.

    左侧为用标准工艺生产的传统金属件,右侧为Modumetal公司生产的金属件。

    通过这个过程,金属一层一层地“长”出来。不同的分层培育方式可以制造出性能和形状不同的多种金属材料。洛玛瑟妮介绍道,你可以把成品材料想象成胶合板,但每片“板层”是用纳米科技造出来的。

    这种层状金属业界通常称为“金属层状复合材料”。这种材料的诞生其实已经有一段时间了。洛玛瑟妮的突破在于使用了电化学生产工艺与纳米技术,从而能够以较低的成本和能耗,大批量生产金属层状复合材料,包括应用到一些如石油钻井设备等大块物品的生产上。

    目前,该公司正在为客户生产一种层状复合锌合金,其耐腐蚀性要好于传统的锌材料。但层状复合钢材可能将成为Modumental公司的一个大市场。该公司认为,其坚固耐用的钢材将成为钢铁行业的划时代产品。

    Modumetal公司的原始技术是由洛玛瑟妮和另一位创始人——化学工程师约翰•惠特克共同研发的。这对合作伙伴原本研究的是如何使用电化学技术清理有毒环境。后来美国国防部注意到了他们的研究,并主动找上门,请他们进行高级材料的研究,目标是为士兵研制一种既坚固(能防弹)又耐久(能保持多年的防弹效果)的盔甲材料。

    在借鉴了研发盔甲材料的核心技术的基础上,洛玛瑟妮和惠特克创办了Modumental公司。该公司目前在西雅图开设了一间研发实验室,在华盛顿州的莫尔特比开设了一家工厂,并在休斯顿开设了一间现场维护和支持服务办事处。此次获得的融资将有助于该公司扩大莫尔特比工厂的产能。

    虽然这家公司雄心勃勃,并且前景可观,但创业的道路也可能是十分艰难的。对于小公司来说,扩大工厂产能尤为不易。大规模生产需要不断精确地重复生产流程,且尽量避免变来变去,这对于新技术来说也是一种挑战。

    除此之外,该公司的客户很多都来自历史悠久但变革缓慢的行业。虽然它已经拿下了一些石油公司作为初期客户,但很多大型金属制造商、汽车公司、飞机制造厂和建筑企业极为重视风险规避,因此可能不愿与由风投支持的年轻创业公司合作。

    与此同时,一些全球最大的材料制造商和金属企业凭借深厚的财力,也很有可能研发相应的竞争性技术。Modumetal公司必须通过收购和法律行动,积极地保护自己的“命根子”——也就是专利技术。

    Modumetal公司将防腐金属作为自己的第一个大市场,但该公司及其客户还对许多其他可能性很感兴趣。比如Modumetal已与美国最大的金属板材制造商Steel Dynamics公司成立了一家合资企业,以研发新型金属板材。

    金属的生产并不是一个被经常谈论的话题,也不是一个热门的话题。但如果Modumental公司可以把它的产品打入从摩天大楼到飞机的各行各业,那么它很有可能将取得巨大的成功。这就好比3D打印技术带来了一种给塑料等材料塑型的全新技术一样,它将使很多之前要么无法达到、要么要花大力气才能达到的工艺成为了可能。

    在19世纪,铝还是一种非常昂贵的材料,只被用来制造拿破仑的钮扣或餐刀餐叉等小玩意儿。但到了19世纪晚期,发明家查尔斯•马丁•霍尔发明了廉价生产铝的技术,从而创立了一个庞大的产业,另外他还创立了铝业巨头——美国铝业公司。Modumetal公司哪怕能够复制美国铝业当年的一小部分荣光,都将是巨大的成功。(财富中文网)

    译者:朴成奎

    审校:任文科

    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 AA -1.10% . If Modumetal could gain a fraction of the traction that Alcoa has had it would be a major success.

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