CERION: Custom Nanomaterials for Next Generation Products

For this new instalment of the NIA Member Spotlight series, we interviewed Landon Mertz, CEO of Cerion Nanomaterials and Chair of the NIA Board of Directors. The interview was recorded and can be watched here; the transcript below was lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Landon, could you briefly introduce us to Cerion Nanomaterials?  

Cerion Nanomaterials has been around for about 15 years. We are one of the leaders in the US for design, scale-up and manufacturing of nanomaterials. As a company, we’re primarily focused on metal, metal oxides, ceramics nanoparticles – that tends to be the bulk of the market today – and our customers are mostly based in the US and the EU, and are mainly large companies, often multinationals. We support customer process in about forty different industries and countless numbers of products. Most of our customers would be defined either as industrial, life sciences, or in the defense industry  

There are different approaches to the manufacturing of nanomaterials. Can you tell us more about the Cerion approach and its rationale?  

About 15 years ago we struck off in a different direction from our peers. Most companies are designing nanomaterials specifically to solve an industrial challenge, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s not our focus. What we do is providing companies that are developing products leveraging nanomaterials with advanced expertise in the design, scale-up and manufacturing of those materials. So when you think about our relationship with the customer, we tend to serve as the subject matter expert for the design, scale-up and manufacturing of the nanomaterial; the customer serves as the subject matter expert in their industry, customers, and products – and so we support those customers from applied research all the way through the manufacturing; and importantly, we don’t develop products and never compete with customers. We started out with precipitation – a technology that was created at Kodak – which we heavily invested in to bring it well beyond the current state-of-the-art; over the years we’ve increased our synthesis capabilities to include things like hydro/solvo-thermal, high-temperature processes, ionic exchange. The whole reason for doing that was to be able to provide the customer the exact right technical solution and manufacturing solution that meets their requirements. One particular method will never cover all types of materials synthesis and manufacturing.   

What approach does Cerion have to the integration of R&D into the manufacturing process?  

Moving out of the lab and into the production environment is our specialty. About 15 years ago we developed a process we call “Design for manufacturing”, working from Day 1 in the lab to ensure that the materials we design today can be manufactured tomorrow, and most importantly that this is done cost-effectively. It is a proprietary process, but at a high-level: our chemical engineering team are actually embedded with our researchers, and what they’re looking to do is ensure, as a researcher is creating a synthetic approach or a formula in the lab, that it is going to fit within certain parameters which we know scale well in a manufacturing environment. It’s really a whole-company approach: our purchasing teams will do raw material cost analysis at various scales, business analysts will do manufacturing price simulations at various scales, and it’s an iterative process that happens throughout the entire life of the programme, in the lab all the way through to commercialization. 

One of our recent webinars looked at global trade trends. In terms of global markets, opportunities and challenges, what should companies keep in mind? 

Society needs to address 6 macro-challenges, which ultimately become the drivers of market innovation: energy, food, cities, human health, raw materials, water and air. A few examples in terms of applications: energy density for storage e.g. in batteries is a key area we are going to have to address; the thermal management of buildings, light-weighting of automotive and aerospace components… ultimately in energy it is all about efficiency and productivity, being able to get more for every dollar invested. When looking at cities, corrosion prevention has been an issue for the centuries, with a global $3 trillion drag on the economy, and therefore an area where we’re going to need significant innovation: something like cement, doing more with less, decreasing the degradation process over the years. Material science has been the pillar of innovation throughout the centuries, it’s advanced our society, and there is no doubt that materials broadly speaking, and nanomaterials specifically, will play a role in addressing those 6 macro-trends. 

One of the fascinating things about nanotechnology is the versatility of its applications, which is reflected in the diversity of the NIA membership. As new Chair of the NIA Board since September 2020, what are your priorities for the association? 

There are two macro-goals: I am really passionate about what the NIA has done over the last 15 years, and I believe that over the next decade it has the opportunity to become “the” global industry group and voice for the nanomaterials community. That spans a whole number of dimensions: commercial, technical, health & safety, environmental, regulatory, public affairs. The other thing is, I would love to see the NIA grow from its EU-based operation to one that expands to incorporate the US, because I believe that we need to speak with a common voice even if we may have different priorities. 

Our final, non-nano question. As someone passionate about macro-economics, what do you think lies ahead for the global community? 

We live in very interesting times. When you look back at past empires, you see very distinct patterns: usually they start with periods of so-called “short-term debt cycle”, each phase of which lasts 10 to 20 years. Usually they’re punctuated by periods of income growth, followed by debts rising faster than incomes, and then a recession. At that point usually central banks step in with monetary policy, governments do the same with fiscal policy, which in essence means papering over the cracks to keep driving down the road. On top of these short-term ones, we have a long-term debt cycle, typically (although this is not a hard-and-fast rule) composed of about four short ones and lasting 80 to 100 years. The last one occurred in the 1930s and during that time the ratio of debt to GDP was about 250% – today in the US, including the COVID-19 impact, that ratio is nearly 300%. What happens in a long-term debt cycle? You reach the end of it, the government and the central bank have very little capacity to intervene, and there is therefore a very significant market correction at that point. This is not exclusive to the US but has been happening for hundreds of years, going back all the way to Roman times, or more recently the Dutch and British Empires. I think we are currently somewhere in that fourth cycle here in the US, and what happens here will ripple over through the global economy. So we need to be prepared and manage corporate debt wisely – this is where a lot of companies typically get in trouble. One also has to realize that debt is money borrowed today at the expense of money generated tomorrow, slowing economic growth. We can already see that across the global economy, with a current growth of perhaps 1% (excluding China). This needs to be factored into long-term planning. We will be a generation that sees what they call the “fourth turning”, probably in the next 20 years.