Ted Simons: Tonight's look at Arizona technology and innovation focuses on nanovoltaic, a Phoenix-based high-tech firm that helps other companies improve their products. One of those customers is Arizona State University, which employed nanovoltaics to help design and maintain tanks to grow what some see as the ultimate in clean, green energy. Producer Lorri Allen and photographer Scot Olson have the story.
Lori Allen: This is a photo bioreactor. Think of it as a high-tech fish tank. But instead of fish, it grows algae. At the ASU polytechnic campus, these engineers with nanovoltaics designed the equipment and test bed to take algae from the lab to a gas pump.
Mark Kleschock: Five years ago, if you told me I would be growing algae, helping people grow algae, trying to squeeze oil out of algae, I would have told you you're crazy.
Lori Allen: Nanovoltaics was a small start-up. The staff came from the semi conductor industry.
Steve Coray: How hard is it to build a fish tank? No problem. But the first reactors we installed, all of them cracked. So we were humbled.
Lori Allen: But after long days of determination, the team solved the problem.
Almost a red.
John McGowen: They really bring a lot of engineering expertise to us. Something that while we have engineering faculty and students, it's really the practical side of things. And nanovoltaics really helps us formalize the things that are running around in our head and figure out how to implement them. So it's been great having them as resources and partners with respect to the engineering work that we do, as well as with respect to the facilities development that we've done. They've been a key partner with respect to all of the test bed expansion we've done.
Lori Allen: ASU is just one of nanovoltaics' satisfied customers. But that's saying a lot, since this is the nation's largest test bed in a University setting.
John McGowen: We've worked with other firms in the past, and to be honest, with respect to the ones that kind of get working with an academic institution and get working with the bureaucracy that can exist at a large scale University, nanovoltaics has by and large always been one of the easiest companies for us to work with with respect to getting things done. They're very, very flexible, they understand us.
Ted Simons: Here now are terror tell us more about nanovoltaics is the company's CEO, Henk de Waard. Good to have you here.
Henk de Waard: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Define if you would nanovoltaic and nanomaterials. What are we talking about here?
Henk de Waard: Nanotechnology in general is technology that acts at the nanoscale, talking about materials that behave differently at the nanoscale than macroscopically in the real world. It's a very broad topic.
Ted Simons: How does that then affect things like technology and resource issues?
Henk de Waard: Well, our focus as a company is on producing designing and manufacturing equipment for algae, so our customers are companies that produce algae, and algae is very important for example for the production of biofuels. And especially longer term will be very important for that. Though right now it may not be economically viable yet for biofuel production, but algae is already important for other applications such as in nutraceuticals
Ted Simons: Talk about that. How does algae play a part?
Henk de Waard: Everybody knows about omega 3s, algae actually is an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids. And there are several companies out there that are now ramping up production to produce algae for that very purpose, to make omega 3 fatty acids, because it's such an excellent source of that healthy oil.
Ted Simons: And when you were involved in these products, are you helping the company along? How much involved do you get and how much involved in the final product are you?
Henk de Waard: So we're not biologists or ficologists who know everything about which strain of algae to use for a particular purpose. That happens in research institutes such as at ASU where the Arizona center for algae technology and innovation has a leading position in that research nationwide. We are the engineers. And our focus is on getting the technology out of the research lab and turn it into production capability. So we design equipment that allows our customers to produce the algae in high volume at a low cost.
Ted Simons: Your company is also involved in things like thermal insulation and removing arsenic from drinking water. These sorts of things. Talk to us about that.
Henk de Waard: That's correct. That's actually a different aspect of our company. We have two main focuses. One is the algae production equipment, which is a little further along, we actually work for commercial customers. And some of the revenues we make doing that, we fund our own internal R&D on nanomaterials. And also in the nanomaterials area we partner with ASU and we have actually licensed a portfolio of patents from ASU on these nanomaterials. We have received a national science foundation grant, phase two grant for this work, and we use our nanomaterials to remove arsenic from the drinking water.
Ted Simons: And nanomaterials as I was reading through the material, it's described as a new class of nonporous material? What does that mean?
Henk de Waard: Nanoporous materials. Our materials are basically claylike materials. They're green materials. Everything we do in our company is green, clean tech. So we don't use any nasty chemicals. And the nanoporous materials, you consider it like a sponge. Very porous material with large surface area. And we can stuff this sponge with active materials, for example an iron compound in the case of arsenic removal, the iron compound is the active compound that basically adheres to the arsenic and removes it from the water very effectively.
Ted Simons: My goodness. When did the company start and what was your original mission?
Henk de Waard: About six years ago. And the original mission was actually to apply some of the lessons learned from the semi conductor industry to the renewable energy sector and the clean tech sector. I have a 25-year background in semi conductor capital equipment, where we did basically the same thing. Design innovative products that help transition products or technology from the R&D stage to high-volume manufacturing. So that was the mission of nanovoltaics, to do the same thing with the focus on algae and other clean tech applications.
Ted Simons: Has that mission changed over time?
Henk de Waard: Initially we had a strong focus on solar, but with all the difficulties in the solar market, we -- Somebody came to us and started talking about algae, and here we are today.
Ted Simons: All right. Well, we thank you for joining us tonight on "Arizona Horizon."
Henk de Waard: Thank you.