Technology

The invention and commercialization of Kevlar and Teflon, and most recently M5, have revolutionized the polymer industry by demonstrating that peak-performance materials are highly profitable.  NSC is poised to continue this trend and meet the increasing demand for high-tech, peak-performance materials.

NSC has established intellectual property for enabling bottom-up manufacturing (nanostructural self-assembly) of a wide variety of novel, fully nanostructured polymer materials.  NSC’s objective for these inventions is to enable solutions to R&D materials-science problems faced by a multitude of industries.  The materials-science market is growing rapidly, and it is lucrative.

Nanostructural self assembly is recognized by the world’s most visionary scientists as a transformative technology.  For biotechnologists, this is easy to grasp.  Nanostructural self assembly of proteins, enzymes and DNA by living systems is pervasive in the natural world.  The transformative power of biological systems has no equal.  In industry, transformation has manifested in countless ways, as fermentation of bulk chemicals, rapid throughput screening of drugs, PCR testing of infectious agents, and biological remediation of toxic agents, just to mention a few highlights [see Note #1 below].

But for general manufacturing, the transformative power of nanostructural self assembly (i.e., bottom-up manufacturing) has not been easy to see.  The most obvious reason is because it does not yet exist in an easily recognizable form.  Rudimentary versions of self assembly exist in liquid crystal technology and some semiconducting nanocrystals, but nothing comes close to the structural specificity, vector directionality and broad applicability inherent in true nanostructural self assembly.

Nevertheless, many nanotechnologists recognize the lure of bottom-up manufacturing—some because they have the vision to extrapolate from biological capabilities to future technology, and others because they are forced to struggle with the logistical intricacies and practical inefficiencies of imposing nanostructure using top-down methods.  Their common vision of the future is to achieve nanostructure by self-assembly (bottom-up) methods.  K. Eric Drexler’s book Engines of Creation posed this vision in its most advanced form: atomic assembly. NSC’s molecular assembly technology is a practical stepping stone toward that larger, more futuristic vision.

NSC’s polymers have the promise to achieve nanostructural self-assembly at the molecular level (i.e., from the bottom up).  Once this potential can be validated, industrial bottom-up manufacturing will likely become a dominant materials-manufacturing method.

We believe that the economic potential here is analogous to that of the solid-state transistor and the integrated circuit, which have transformed modern society through computers, personal electronics, digital control systems, movie special effects, mapping of the human genome, drug design, international telecommunications, and countless other enabled technologies.

Nanostructural Self Assembly in Nature

Living systems most commonly utilize molecular self-assembly of amino acids to make nanostructured materials (proteins and enzymes).  Yet nature’s biological nanotechnology scheme has a design problem that generally precludes its use for de novo (starting from scratch) design of new industrial materials.  The design problem is that adjacent amino acids in proteins do not interact with each other to create nanostructure [see Note #2 below].

Amino acids interact only at a distance, rarely with their third next-door neighbor, most often with their 5th through 8th next door neighbors, and commonly with amino acids dozens to hundreds of neighbors distant.  This distant-neighbor bonding creates an apparent chaos and unpredictability in the way proteins fold into their nanostructures [see Note #3 below].

Unpredictability is a huge liability in manufacturing and business.  The risks of a de novo protein design not folding into its desired conformation are simply not manageable.  A better way is needed.

Nanostructural Self-Assembly using NSC Technology

NSC’s approach bypasses the protein-folding problem.  NSC’s IP encompasses direct, monomer-to-adjacent-monomer bonding, resulting in predictable nanostructures that are thermodynamically constrained, thus enabling spontaneous nanostructural self-assembly.  We predict that a bottom-of-the-line personal computer will be sufficient to 1) predict nanostructure from a specified polymer sequence, and 2) predict monomer requirements and the assembly sequence from a given polymer design.

NSC’s nanostructuring method is “tight,” which is superior to biology’s “loose” approach.

NSC’s nanostructuring method is deterministic, in stark contrast to the chaos inherent in biology.

NSC’s nanostructuring method provides simple predictability, while nature’s approach is complicated, unstable to environmental conditions (see Note #4), and just plain risky.

With simplicity, tight nanostructuring and predictability, NSC’s nearest-neighbor bonding approach opens the door to de novo design of simple and sophisticated nanostructures for commercial purposes.  See Note #5 for an economic perspective.

The core idea behind both patents is essentially to combine robust polymer backbones with biological bonding features.  In the simplest implementation, hydrogen-bonding features are exploited.  Hydrogen bonding is the core technology for protein folding, RNA enzymes and DNA helices (all of which are polymers).  For the iminol polymers claimed in NSC’s first patent, this hydrogen bonding is enabled by placing a hydrogen-bond acceptor on one side of the polymer linkage and a hydrogen-bond donor on the other side.  The hydrogen bond donor and acceptor provide a push-pull polarization of the polymer linkage which locks it into its lowest energy posture.  See the head-tail-arm-and-leg illustration below for a visually oriented explanation of this process.  A larger, less eye-challenging illustration is available on a dedicated arm-and-leg page.  Animations of the polymerization process are also available in PowerPoint presentations.

Unlike nature’s relatively fragile proteins, which require solvent water, hydration water, a precise blend of electrolytes, a narrow temperature range, and the right amount of acidity, NSC’s polymers are predicted to survive extremes of temperature (-100°C to +200°C) and to withstand vacuum, strong acid, and dehydrated conditions.  In addition, they can be synthesized in organic solvents (pyridine).

The robustness of the new materials that our IP will make possible will have strong, universal appeal to prospective clients and customers.

The Vision and Economics of Optimally Nanostructured Materials

The invention and commercialization of Kevlar and Teflon revolutionized the polymer industry.  These two polymers were peak performance polymers, and they commanded a five-fold price premium over the competition.  The monomers for making Kevlar and Teflon were more expensive, and this stretched the mainstream view in the then-mature polymer industry that cheap monomers were an essential requirement for profitable polymers.  But Kevlar was five times stronger than steel, and Teflon wouldn’t stick to anything.  Both were also chemically stable at high temperatures and resistant to chemical solvents.  So they both found their market niche and prospered.

NSC’s nanopolymers represent the same kind of revolution, only more so. From the perspective of monomer costs, they are more expensive than Kevlar and Teflon [see Note #6 for further discussion].  Although Kevlar and Teflon were outside the box in costs, they still used the same kind of bi-functional monomers as their competition.  In other words, they only have a head and a tail, and the head bites the tail of the next monomer [see Note #7].  NSC’s polymers have a head, tail, arm and leg.  They are outside the box in an entirely new way.  The head bites the tail of the next monomer, as usual, but then the leg reaches backwards (step 2) to stabilize the monomer in back and the arm reaches forwards (step 3) to stabilize the monomer in front.  NSC monomers are tetra-functional, not bi-functional.

So what is the advantage of paying extra money for tetra-functional monomers?

Is this advantage sufficient to command a five-fold price premium over Kevlar and Teflon?

What can NSC’s polymers do that other polymers cannot?

Why Four is Better Then Two

The first principle advantage of NSC’s tetra-functional monomers is nanostructural self assembly; the adjacent monomer-to-adjacent-monomer bonding creates precise nanostructure.  Another way to say it is that NSC’s polymers are vector directional.  The polymer monomer segments have a precise three-dimensional direction relative to the one in front and the one in back.  This kind of “structured backbone” is a unique feature not present in other polymers, even biological ones.

A direct benefit of this first advantage is that NSC’s polymers can correct the nanostructural flaws in Kevlar and Teflon. Kevlar has a structural conflict between one monomer and the linkage that prevents straightness [see Note #8 for technical details].  One of NSC’s extra functionalities converts the conflict into a bonding feature.  This repairs the flaw in Kevlar—and NSC has a new proprietary polymer material we call Stevlar.  Both Kevlar and Stevlar have tensile strength, but Stevlar is semiconducting, semi-rigid and self-repairing [see Note #9 for a clarification].

Teflon is non-sticky because its surface is covered with carbon-fluorine structures.  But since Teflon’s backbone is limp, even the interior polymer strands are covered with carbon-fluorine structures.  These internal carbon-fluorine structures prevent Teflon from sticking to itself, making it soft and nanostructurally fluid.  This is great for O-rings but bad for perfluorocarbon membranes in fuel cells.  When the perfluorocarbon polymer strands shift within a functioning fuel cell, there is risk that a hole will form and the cell will short out, burst into fire, or explode.  NSC’s fully nanostructured polymers can position the carbon-fluorine structures exclusively on the outside surface of membranes.  In other words, the core of the polymer is like super-Kevlar while the outside surface is like super-Teflon.

This cannot be done with the current state-of-the-art polymer technology.

The second advantage of tetra-functional monomers is material efficiency, the ability of a very small amount of primary material to make a unit product.  One teaspoon of NSC polymer can make a billion meters of thin-diameter nanotube, a million meters of large-diameter nanotube and an ion-conducting surface for tomorrow’s super-batteries that is larger than a football field.  Such economies of scale open the door to the possibility that one kilogram of fully nanostructured material could meet the entire world’s demand for a decade.  So why would it matter if the monomers cost more?  In other words, the monomer cost per unit product can be trivial even with monomers costing 100 times or 1000 times more than ordinary monomers.

The third advantage to emphasize that we eagerly anticipate is rapid prototyping.  Because NSC polymers are nanostructurally self assembling, the iterative process for prototyping nanotechnological applications can be cycled rapidly. Each new prototype self-assembles in a day [see Note #10 for elaboration] which can then be assessed by the engineering team for comparative functionality.  New prototypes that require the synthesis of a new monomer (a monomer not already in the monomer library) require the synthetic time (days to weeks) in addition to the polymerization time (a day).

All of the selected examples on the applications page are specifically enabled by the above-listed nanostructural advantages of four functional groups over two.

Note #1:  The transformative power of biological systems also extends from the physical to the mental, with the development of brains which enable consciousness, concepts, symbology, language, logic, discovery, mathematics, analysis, science and invention.  The creation of human knowledge and culture can be viewed as an emergent manifestation of nanostructural self assembly.  Such far-reaching transformations are exceedingly difficult to anticipate, just as computers were not predicted by the inventors of the solid-state transistor, and personal electronics were not predicted by the makers of the integrated circuit.  (Return to main text.)

Note #2:  Amino acids have a tetrahedral sp3 alpha-carbon atom at their center, which 1) isolates the sequential amide linkages from any pi interaction/resonance, and 2) positions adjacent amide linkages away from each other so that 1) charge interactions are trivialized, and 2) hydrogen bonds are impossible. NSC’s use of aromatic monomers enforces pi-resonance interactions and imposes next-door-neighbor hydrogen bonding.  Distant neighbor interactions are not impossible with NSC’s design system; they are merely not inherent in the system and must be added by design choice. (Return to main text.)

Note #3:  In typical proteins, thousands of potential amino-acid-to-amino-acid interactions are present which are not helpful for creating the desired nanostructure.  Biology has dealt with this design problem by a trial-and-error approach (evolution) in which errors die and are weeded out of the gene pool.  Despite sophisticated programming and supercomputers, the best software programs are still not able to reliably predict the folding of known proteins, let alone unknown, modified and custom-designed proteins.  Thus, a more manageable process is needed within the commercial material-design environment to 1) minimize developmental time frames, 2) keep R&D and manpower costs under control, and 3) minimize unpredictability risks.  Our design system addresses exactly these issues.  (Return to main text.)

Note #4:  Biological systems are sensitive to 1) temperature (warm-blooded enzymes more than cold-blooded enzymes), 2) pH (acidity and alkalinity), 3) hydration (too much or too little water spoil the "colloidal" soup), and 4 electrolytes (a fairly delicate balance of sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride is needed).  Biological systems actively maintain the stability of these factors, and they actively adapt to stresses with secondary mechanisms (buffering systems, heat-shock proteins, chaperone proteins, etc.  NSC's approach bypasses these limitations and opens the door to nanostructural functionality in organic solvents, extremes of temperature and pH, the absence of colloid, the presence of chemical pollutants, and even the vacuum of space.  (Return to main text.)

Note #5:  The top-down approach to nanostructural development increases in cost, time and manpower as the degree of required nanostructural perfection approaches the bottom-end of the nano scale (i.e., small molecules).  Much of this cost is due to “interferences” between conflicting top-down methods, requiring continuous re-assessments of each top-down method when any other top-down method changes, and requiring meticulous quality control against “drift” in an automated multi-step manufacturing process. These high costs and long developmental timeframes have resulted in a bottleneck in the commercialization of nanotechnology. By shifting to a bottom-up (self assembly) approach, the problems inherent in top-down manufacturing become optional rather than required.  Where bottom-up methods prove to be entirely sufficient, 1) capitalization costs are dramatically reduced, 2) the timeframe for meeting R&D challenges is short, and 3) optimization of nanostructure for a particular specification can be rigorously evaluated.  This is an unprecedented advancement in nanotechnology development.  (Return to main text above.)

Note #6:  We estimate that monomer costs will be approximately 5-fold greater.  Monomer costs may range from 2-fold greater for the more common, more routinely used monomers, which would be mass produced for economies of scale, to 10-fold greater for exotic monomers, which might only be used in a single application or product.  Widely used monomers would be like elbows and couplers in plumbing applications; it’s hard to do anything without them.  Exotic monomers and custom-designed supramolecular assemblies used in nano-scale devices and sensors could be 100-fold and 1000-fold greater in cost and still cost less than a hundredth of a penny per product unit.  See “Potential Cost Savings from Vector-Directional Polymers” for an example of such a low-cost product (a meter of nanotubing).  (Return to main text.)

Note #7:  The head-bites-tail analogy is easiest to intuitively understand when each monomer has both a head and tail.  However, in commercial polymer manufacture, the polymer industry prefers to use two-headed monomers (which cannot self-react because there are no tails) and two-tailed monomers (which cannot self-react because there are no heads).  Control of the polymer reaction is superior.  The preferred art for NSC’s polymers are two-headed-two-armed monomers and two-tailed-two-legged monomers.  (Return to main text.)

Note #8:  The keto oxygen atom and adjacent neutral ring-hydrogen atom have a steric conflict.  Because of this, adjacent Kevlar monomers cannot lie coplanar and Kevlar is not a semiconducting material.  In other words, Kevlar’s backbone is kinked at every polymer linkage and has utility only under tensile load.  For bullet-proof vests, this is sufficient.  But for nanotechnologists, this is severely limiting.  NSC’s iminol (aramid tautomer) polymers are missing this neutral ring-hydrogen atom.  The adjacent monomers lie coplanar and electrons resonate through the ring-linkage-ring structures.  This makes them fully semiconducting.  And kinkless.  (Return to main text.)

Note #9:  Broken hydrogen bonds self-repair and restore the polymer conformation.  Broken covalent bonds do not self-repair.  (Return to main text.)

Note #10:  This is a gross estimate.  Polymerization time could be one hour, or it could possibly be a week.  (Return to main text.)