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Published: Thursday, 3/3/2005

Ohio parley focuses on the tiny as path to big economic gains


FAIRBORN, Ohio - First, there was high-sulfur coal. Then there were impossibly small, painfully small, human-hair-doesn't-begin-to-touch-it small fibers. Then, there will be Harley-Davidson gas tanks. And maybe tank armor.

That's a formula for economic development in one northwest Ohio community. The unlikely equation arose from a series of agreements that stretch from Cedarville near Dayton, to the University of Toledo, to the city of Lima. And it's all due to the science of the itty-bitty: nanoscience.

This emerging technology is the subject of a two-day Ohio Nanotechnology Summit that began yesterday at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton. More than 500 scientists, community development experts, and industry representatives are gathered to talk about the realm where big things happen when you get small.

While the scientists focus on the strange behaviors and unique properties of materials such as nanofibers, carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, and quantum dots, those with an eye on Ohio's economy were dazzled by the boost that materials no bigger than the width of a DNA strand could offer to the state's economy.

Frank E. Samuel, science and technology adviser to Gov. Bob Taft, was positively effusive. "I'm astonished at what I see,'' he said.

"We cannot predict exactly how this ferociously fertile technology will develop,'' he said. But he told the gathering their work could translate into a healthier Ohio economy.

Lima Mayor David J. Berger is already translating. He and the Ohio Coal Development Office form the pivot-point of what could be the start of a nanotech boomlet.

It began six years ago, when Global Energy Inc. proposed construction of a $565 million plant to turn Ohio coal into energy. The plant would use a high-temperature, high-pressure process called gasification.

The process produces less pollution than a plant burning low-sulfur coal, said Dwight Lockwood, senior vice president for Global Energy.

In Mr. Berger's hard-strapped community, a gasification plant looked like an opportunity. In the 1990s, the city lost 8,000 jobs in a workforce of about 55,000.

So, the mayor began attending annual meetings of gasification experts, where he became convinced that gasification was something the city could build on. And Global Energy said it could spare 5 percent of the gas it makes for uses other than energy production - that 5 percent is 1 million cubic feet of gas every hour.

An hour south of Lima, the Ohio Coal Development Office approached a company called Applied Sciences Inc. in Cedarville. Could Applied Sciences use high-sulfur coal to make its product, carbon nanofibers?

Carbon nanofibers are hollow tubes about a thousandth the width of a strand of hair. When these fibers are added to plastics, they provide strength, electrical conductivity, and stiffness. The materials are useful for the aerospace, automotive, and consumer electronics industries.

Yet the expense of carbon nanofiber production limits its market.

It turned out, by using high-sulfur coal as the raw material for nanofibers, Applied Sciences cut its production costs from $100 a pound to $10, said John Mackay of Applied Sciences.

Now, the firm intends to build a plant in Lima to exploit the gas from Global Energy. The proposed plant will make 25 million pounds of carbon nanofiber annually.

In the meantime, the University of Toledo began working with Applied Sciences to help the company characterize its material and to develop new applications, said Abdy Afjeh, a professor in UT's engineering department.

Arunan Nadarajah, also a UT engineering professor, was working on making carbon nanofiber material that could replace the structural components of automobiles when the engineering department got a call from Lima.

Through Mayor Berger's intercession, he's now also looking for ways to make nanofiber armor for tanks, in an effort to keep the 400-employee Lima tank plant in town.

The mayor also approached a Lima company called American Trim LLC. Its 1,600-employee factory makes coatings for the appliance industry, heavy trucks, and Harley-Davidson motorcycle gas tanks and fenders.

Nanotech could lead to better coatings for the company, said Roger Naguit, American Trim's vice president of technology.

Contact Jenni Laidman at:


or 419-724-6507.

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