Small Wonders of Oregon's Nanotech Frontier

How the state's enterprising nanotech companies are innovating at the micro level.

By Benjamin Tepler June 22, 2015 Published in the July 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Nanotechnology builds microscopic machines, chemicals, and materials using individual molecules and atoms. Our homegrown version of this cutting-edge sector rallies around Corvallis’s Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), which connects inventors to equipment and doles out $1.2 million in seed money annually. “We deal with the earliest of early-stage companies,” explains ONAMI president Skip Rung. “Some are still working out of their kitchen sinks.”  


Founded: 2010

ONAMI’s investment: $320,000

You’ve probably never heard of molybdenum-99, the nuclear isotope used to make some medical imaging—like heart and brain scans—possible. The world’s Mo-99 comes from just four specialized nuclear reactors—the nearest to us, an aging facility in Canada, will be decommissioned by the end of 2017. NW Medical Isotopes tech allows small, low-energy research reactors at universities like Oregon State to produce Mo-99, boosting a vital but scarce resource.


Founded: 2010

ONAMI’s investment: $312,000

Renewable energy is great—until the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. Applied Exergy has found a way to store wind and solar power in a giant frozen slushy. The company’s “microchannel heat exchanger”—which looks like a prop from Mr. Freeze’s icy lair—supercools the frozen slurry with microscopic tubes. When the slushy melts again, the heat can be turned into electricity. While the tech is still two years away from commercial use, Portland General Electric is already considering adopting it.



Founded: 2012

ONAMI’s investment: $330,000

The priciest part of an LCD screen is the backplane: a complex, delicate array of transistors that requires an economy of scale to produce. Amorphyx does away with the backplane and allows TV manufacturers to spray special metal diodes onto an inert surface, paving the way for screens that can roll up like a rug. “We want to put the US back in the consumer electronics industry,” says CEO John Brewer.


Founded: 2014

ONAMI’s Investment: $250,000

Imagine never again having to put new batteries in your phone or smart watch. That’s the hope at Thermogen, whose energy-sucking sensors use human-generated heat to produce electricity. While its parent company, Perpetua, already has a contract with the Department of Homeland Security for its field agents, Thermogen’s target market is in consumer wearables, from calorie-counting fitness bands to EKGs. “There are going to be 50 billion sensors and devices attached to the Internet by 2020,” explains CEO Jim Hensel. “They will need a power source.”

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