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It's tiny, but could become huge

A Pasco company looks simple enough, but it's working in the field of nanotechnology - construction at the molecular level.

By DAVE GUSSOW
Published August 15, 2005


[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
How to make a high-tech membrane: a polymer and alcohol solution is poured. The alcohol evaporates and a polymer membrane is left.
Thu Le Mai and John Tran attach membrane to the flow field, or spacer, during the core assembly process.

ODESSA - Dais-Analytic's simple metal building doesn't say high tech. Nor do the bare concrete floors and plain interior. But its hydrocarbon ionomeric membrane material has tech written all over it.

While the membrane name may not roll off the tongue, this ultrathin sheet has some intriguing possibilities: lowering air conditioning and heating costs, making military uniforms more resistant to chemical and biological warfare, desalinating water, keeping barnacles from growing on the bottom of boats.

"It's virtually unlimited as far as the applications we see," said Bob Brown, the vice president/solutions at the small Pasco County company.

The membrane is a product of nanotechnology research, a growing field of high-tech work that uses molecular-sized building blocks. Nanotechnology is, essentially, manufacturing at the molecular level: a nanometer measures all of one-billionth of a meter.

Gauging the size or potential of the nanotechnology market is difficult. According to a report last year from the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (www.mancef.org) some experts have predicted up to a $1-trillion market by 2014. But, the group says, that may include products that are not totally a product of nanotechnology.

Dais-Analytic (www.daisanalytic.com) is a product of Florida's high-tech recruiting efforts and the tenacity of a small group who believe they are on the cusp of something big, and perhaps even a profit by next year.

Born about 10 years ago from an idea for developing fuel cells at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the company moved to Florida in 1998, lured by tax breaks and assistance to Pasco County.

"The fact that Florida offers a reasonable cost of doing business is a plus for us," said Tim Tangredi, president and chief executive.

The state also offers a perfect working environment for Dais-Analytic's technology: lots of heat, lots of humidity. Its first commercial product, called ConsERV, is used with heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems.

The basics of the operation go like this: The material used for the hydrocarbon ionomeric membrane arrives as pellets the size of small beads. Those are dissolved in a chemical reaction, cleaned in its liquid form, then reformulated.

It is added to alcohol to make a polymer. The polymer is poured on to a metal plate, smoothed and heated, and the membrane is formed. As part of the process, chains form that create microscopic channels that allow molecules of water to pass through the filter.

The membrane, which looks a little like wax paper, can be from 6 to 40 microns thick, according to Scott Ehrenberg, the chief technology officer. For comparison, it takes 25 microns to make up one-thousandth of an inch.

Despite the high-tech origins, manual labor takes over when it's time to make the ConsERV filters. A sheet of membrane is put onto a plastic mold, bonded with heat and then placed in a case that makes up the filter. Each case has about 115 layers of the membrane.

Because production is low, it is done by hand by as few as two people. If demand soars, the company says, it can outsource production to an automated process.

So, how does it work? Simplified, it is attached to an air conditioning, heating or ventilation system. Incoming and outgoing air pass through the membrane in separate channels, with the outgoing air helping to cool the incoming warm air. The humidity in the air is condensed to molecules, so it becomes vapor with no condensation.

For heating, outgoing warm air is used to heat the incoming cold air. Humidity in the air is absorbed into the membrane and then evaporates. The process cuts down on electricity use, lowers humidity and purifies the air.

It has been certified by the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute, a national trade association and has been included in incentive programs by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light.

Dais-Analytic says its system is more efficient than the other main energy recovery products, called a wheel technology. While not taking sides, studies by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light indicate the ConsERV system works.

At a Walgreen's drugstore in St. Petersburg, a Progress Energy study last year estimated annual electric savings of up to $620 using ConsERV.

Larry Nelson, heating, air conditioning and ventilation program manager at Florida Power & Light, says the importance of these systems is that they allow builders and homeowners to use smaller air conditioning/heating units and save on electric bills. Nelson says it can reduce peak cooling loads by 20 percent, which means less demand on utilities' systems.

ConsERV pricing varies by size, but ballpark figures would be $200 for one room, $1,200 for a 3,000-square-foot house and commercial space $2,500 and up, Brown says. It can be used with existing and new systems.

Dais-Analytic is not focusing just on the ConsERV segment. Other projects in the works include:

* Clothing: In addition to working with the Army to use the membrane in uniforms, where it would keep contaminants out while keeping personnel cooler, the company is exploring other possibilities. It also could be used for hazardous waste uniforms, athletic wear and consumer clothing.

It could even eliminate stitching, Ehrenberg says, because it can be used as an adhesive bond.

* Boats and barnacles: Tests are under way to add the polymer to paint for bottoms. It has a characteristic that, Ehrenberg says, prevents barnacles from attaching to the surface, though it's being studied to determine why.

* Dryers: Using the same principles as the heating and air conditioning system, Dais says the technology could be applied to clothes dryers, recycling the heated exhaust air to warm cooler air coming in.

* Medical: The membrane could be used for treating wounds because of the way it absorbs moisture and can keep bacteria out.

* Desalination: A wood model sitting on a counter in the company's production room is testing this concept. It would work best if it's near a utility that has waste heat, but it's a long way from being ready to market.

But there's one thing holding things up: money. Tangredi spends a lot of his time pitching the technology to companies and investors. So while the company works with the desalination model, it would like to do more.

"What it really needs is someone to sponsor a trial," Tangredi said. "It's that simple."

The private company would not disclose specifics of its finances, though Tangredi said revenues have topped $1-million a year. And an interesting aside, the infamous Enron became an investor in 2000, a holding that was sold to another investor.

"The validation that brought in the marketplace was huge," Tangredi said. "Dealing with a big company is very good for a small company."

While Florida has advantages, beating out New York and North Carolina to lure the company, Tangredi says its main disadvantage is a lack of capital. To help on that front, Gov. Jeb Bush has written letters on behalf of the company, Tangredi says.

Dais-Analytic has 10 employees, but expects to add 30 or more over the next 18 months just to handle the ConsERV line. Over the next few years, Tangredi expects the company to grow to around 300.

If that happens, it will have to expand beyond its modest home at the West Pasco Industrial Park. "We don't try to impress people with the way we look," Ehrenberg said.

And it will watch its budget, too. Dais shopped eBay to find a used Kentucky Fried Chicken oven to dry material.

"It smelled like chicken for a month after we fired it up," said Brian Johnson, senior design engineer.

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or 727 771-4328.

[Last modified August 13, 2005, 09:55:02]


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