Imagine a highway guardrail crafted from a new kind of metal that doesn’t rust. Or a car that you design yourself one day, is delivered to your door the next and weighs a fraction of what current vehicles do.
The first exists, thanks to a Seattle startup called Modumetal. The latter … well, that might take a little longer, CEO Christina Lomasney told KUOW’s David Hyde.
Lomasney says the new metals are already being used for a number of applications, including a field trial in Washington state to make tougher, longer-lasting bridge materials.
“If you drive down I-90 in the direction of Cle Elum from Seattle, you'll see some of our guardrails alongside the road,” she said. “They’re the really shiny ones that aren't corroded.”
She said Modumetal’s products already are cost-competitive with conventional materials.
“It's the same old zinc, it’s just configured in a different way to get a very different performance characteristic,” she said. “It's very similar in principle to the way that the old samurai swords are made. We're just layering the material to get totally different properties.”
Lomasney says Modumetal’s approach to materials design can be applied to structural engineering. Take those ultralight cars —
“We can create these layered structures that are 10 times stronger than conventional steels. And we can grow them near room temperature,” she said – no more heat-intensive steel plants.
“And so you can imagine a future now where you might have a manufacturing facility right in your neighborhood. You could sit in your in your living room and design a new automobile structure for yourself and the next morning have it delivered right there to your door. It would be a lightweight structure. So you can imagine an automobile that maybe weighs a tenth as much as a current automobile but without compromising on safety.”
The Modumetal process uses electrochemistry – an outgrowth of work Lomasney did in Russia with remediation of sites contaminated by radioactive metals.
“It was a natural progression for my co-founder, Dr. John Whittaker, and I to look at applications where instead of pulling the metals out of soil and groundwater, we were trying to deposit them and configure them in different ways,” she said.
Lomasney’s field is dominated by men – she was one of only two women to graduate from the University of Washington Physics Department that year.
“That's also something I hope will change, that we can inspire young women by the opportunities that companies like Modumetal represent,” she said, “to get more involved in science and to see the potential that it represents – for women and men.”