CHAMPAIGN – Scott White is impatient about a few things.
One is how long it takes new technologies to get into the marketplace.
So White, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois, decided to do something about it – namely, start his own company.
Autonomic Materials Inc. took up residence in the University of Illinois Research Park last fall. Housed in the park’s EnterpriseWorks business incubator, the company aims to develop commercial applications for the “self-healing” technologies White and his colleagues are creating at the UI’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
First up: developing “self-healing” polymer-based coatings for ships, oil rigs and other metal structures exposed to corrosive saltwater environments.
During his 18 years at the UI, White has studied materials and how they fracture. Inspired by biology and nature, he considered how living things heal and wondered whether those concepts might be used to help materials repair themselves.
White and his colleagues used the techniques of “microencapsulation” and “microvascular materials systems” to distribute healing substances throughout the material.
When their findings were published, they received interest from many quarters in applying the concepts to products. But White decided if the technology was going to get to market quickly, he should start his own company.
“I never thought I would do this,” he said.
But from his observations, large companies aren’t the most efficient when it comes to employing new technologies.
“They’re very slow,” White said. “The pace I see the fruits of our labor being used is too slow for me.”
He concluded that if he wanted to see that kind of technology applied and used, it would have to be done by a small company. Autonomic Materials incorporated in 2005, with members of the UI’s Autonomic Materials System Group accounting for most of the core investors.
At this point, the company has two full-time employees: senior development scientist Magnus Andersson and development scientist Gerald Wilson. Both have doctorates from the UI, Andersson in fluids mechanics and Wilson in materials science.
For now, Wilson spends much of his time on technical development, while Andersson acts as the lead on business development. More technically trained employees will be needed this year as the company ramps up its testing program for evaluating coating systems.
White said Autonomic Materials is focusing on developing epoxies, polyurethanes, vinyl esters and silicon rubber with self-healing properties that can be used in marine environments.
Among the likely end users: commercial shipbuilders, defense contractors and companies that need to protect oil production platforms and piping from corrosion.
Though Autonomic Materials is smack-dab in the Midwest, its lab at EnterpriseWorks is equipped with salt fog chambers that replicate the corrosive environment of the sea.
White said he hopes to have Autonomic Materials Inc.’s first commercial product formulated by April. During the initial stage of the company, it will focus on developing commercial products, optimizing materials systems and proving performance characteristics, he said.
Once it develops clients, the company expects to partner with large manufacturing firms to supply the product.
Eventually, White hopes the broader paint industry will adopt self-healing technology in its products.
“I want to walk into Lowe’s and see a self-healing paint on the shelf,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why this can’t occur in three to five years.”
White said the technology is “remarkably cost-effective” and there are no significant costs that would boost the price of paint.
“There’s not a magic dust that costs an ungodly amount,” he said. “The materials are widely available.”