New Mexico-based 'quantum dot' maker growing by leaps and bounds

·10 min read

May 21—Microscopic, New Mexico-made "quantum dots" could soon be powering up commercial buildings, boosting greenhouse production and, eventually, even feeding astronauts on the moon.

Los Alamos-based Ubiquitous Quantum Dots, or UbiQD Inc., is turning the nanoscale, three-dimensional structures — which measure about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair — into sunlight-harvesting machines to make solar-generating windows, plastic row covers that accelerate greenhouse plant growth and a new type of security ink to protect official documents against counterfeiting.

The company, which launched in 2014, is already deploying its technology in real-world applications, with commercial sales of its quantum-dot-based greenhouse film cover rapidly expanding in the U.S. and Europe, and new window-generation pilot projects underway in New Mexico and elsewhere.

And now, thanks to new collaborations with two large industry partners, the company is poised to scale up production of its quantum dots for a major thrust into commercial markets over the next two years.

In March, UbiQD joined forces with Canadian solar panel manufacturer Heliene Inc., which operates two factories in the U.S., to integrate UbiQD's quantum-dot film into Heliene solar panels for greenhouses.

And in late April, it signed a new partnership with SWM International — a global leader in the materials industry that makes polymer films for windows — to directly incorporate UbiQD's quantum dots into SWM's plastic sheets as a drop-in product for manufacturers to create solar-generating windows.

Heliene is one of North America's fastest-growing solar panel manufacturers, and SWM is a publicly traded company with worldwide operations, said UbiQD founder and CEO Hunter McDaniel.

"These partnerships provide a new level of validation for UbiQD," McDaniel told the Journal. "It shows that our quantum dot technology works, and that there are real market opportunities for it."

Light-bending structures

Commercial use of quantum dots is not new. The nanoscale structures manipulate light in unique ways, absorbing it and emitting it back out in specific colors.

They're used today in everything from transistors and sunscreen to LCD televisions, tablets, smartphones, lasers and even medical applications. But traditionally, they've been extremely expensive to make, and they're usually composed of toxic materials.

UbiQD's product, however, is made through an alternative, inexpensive process that uses low-cost and nontoxic elements.

McDaniel helped develop that new process as a post-doc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He then licensed it from LANL, along with complementary technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to make and market next-generation quantum dots for many different applications.

From the start, UbiQD set up its own production operation, now housed at a 9,000-square-foot facility in Los Alamos, where the company makes batches of quantum dots for sale to public and private research institutions to explore different applications, often in partnership with UbiQD.

That led to its potential application as a security ink, which UbiQD is now developing with partners as an "anti-counterfeiting" technique that imbeds quantum dots into documents to make them harder to reproduce, providing unique optical features for things like passports or driver's licenses.

"We continually supply the quantum dots for research and development purposes targeting different niche markets," McDaniel said. "The security ink is the biggest one."

Solar-generating windows

Since launching, however, UbiQD has prioritized development of quantum-dot-tinted windows to provide solar electric generation, potentially converting buildings into self-powering structures.

That idea is also not new. But until now, most commercial development has focused on applying photovoltaic cells directly to windows, which is a more complex and expensive process.

In contrast, UbiQD aims to imbed quantum dots directly into the windows to absorb solar energy, and then channel the photons to solar cells attached to window frames, making the process simpler and more affordable.

Since 2016, the National Science Foundation has awarded UbiQD about $1.6 million in grants to develop a marketable product. That, along with assistance from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other entities, enabled development of UbiQD's current technology — a plastic film imbedded with quantum dots that's fitted in between two glass panes as an "interlayer" inside the window.

Such double-pane windows with plastic interlayers are used widely by industry as a safety feature.

"It makes them more robust," McDaniel said. "All car windows have them, and they're often used in hurricane and earthquake zones, because it helps hold the glass together so that, if a window cracks, it won't necessarily fall onto people. It also dampens noise penetration, which makes it popular in cities."

In November, the company deployed quantum-dot-laden windows for the first time in three pilot projects, including a half dozen windows at NREL in Colorado, another half dozen at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos, and in nearly all the windows at UbiQD's own facility. The company is now monitoring electric output, assessing performance as sunlight changes throughout the day and during different seasons and varying weather.

"So far, there's been no surprises," McDaniel said. "They're performing pretty consistently with all the preliminary modeling we did."

The project is generating enthusiastic feedback. The Holiday Inn now wants the windows installed throughout the building, said Brian Patrick Martin, managing member of the hotel ownership group.

"It's turning a low-utility part of our building that people look through but don't really even notice into something much more useful," Martin told the Journal. "That's exciting for us as a business, because in the future, it could offset fixed costs for power generation."

Hotel guests are intrigued.

"After they see the windows, everyone wants to learn more," Martin said. "There's real interest in next-generation energy solutions."

As UbiQD expands the hotel project, it will start testing products that solar windows can power up, such as automated shades that open and close independently, saving energy by shading the room in summertime or opening the blinds in winter for additional heat.

"We're prototyping motorized shades and other ways of using the window power to operate smart technology," McDaniel said. "The idea is to start by harnessing the power for local things. But ultimately, the goal is full integration to power up buildings."

More pilot projects are planned. Western Washington University is installing them. And, while not yet officially announced, the U.S. Air Force signed a contract for UbiQD to deploy them on a military base to test its potential to reinforce energy resiliency and efficiency, McDaniel said.

SWM partnership

The new alliance with SWM can pave the way for rapid commercial deployment. That firm is currently merging with another specialty materials manufacturer, creating a $3 billion combined company with business operations in 90 countries.

SWM is now working to incorporate UbiQD's quantum dots directly into SWM's extrusion process to make plastic interlayers for double-pane windows. The end goal is a scalable, low-cost production process where the quantum dots become an integral part of standard interlayers already used throughout the window industry.

"It will be a drop-in solution for manufacturers to integrate the solar-generating interlayers into their window-making operations," McDaniel said.

The partners expect to conclude the integration process within 18 months, creating an initial prototype this year, a standard product within a year, and then commercial launch in late 2023.

"We're marrying our two technologies together," McDaniel said. "SWM has all the large infrastructure and equipment needed to do it."

SWM Vice President and General Manager of Films Caio Sedeno said the partnership is mutually beneficial.

"SWM has a track record for delivering demanding and value-added solutions, solving our customers' most-challenging problems," Sedeno said in a statement. "This new relationship extends our technical contributions to the built environment, enabling property owners and developers to push towards net-zero."

UbiQD's go-to-market strategy is still evolving. Supplying quantum-laced interlayers to window makers is the first step, now resolved through the partnership with SWM, which has global distribution chains.

But once integrated into double-pane windows, PV cells must still be attached to frames to generate electricity and turn the final product into a fully-functioning solar window.

"We have yet to determine who makes and sells that final product," McDaniel said.

UbiQD could establish its own brand, subcontracting manufacturers for PV frame attachments for sale to distributors and installers, or it could license the final product to others to make and sell.

"Ideally, production and assembly would become automated for direct production in window factories," McDaniel said.

For the prototypes deployed in pilot projects, UbiQD contracted Albuquerque-based window maker GlazTech Industries.

"GlazTech is an example of window factories we could work with to produce final products, but there are similar factories all over the world we could partner with," McDaniel said.

Agrivoltaic modules

Still, broad deployment of quantum-dot-based solar windows likely won't begin in commercial buildings, but rather, in greenhouses, thanks to UbiQD's new partnership with solar panel manufacturer Heliene. And, unlike the solar-window market, the greenhouse product could provide growers with double the bang for their buck by combining PV generation with a proprietary, red- and orange-light-emitting film that UbiQD began selling in 2018 to boost crop production.

Nearly three dozen field trials at greenhouses in seven U.S. states and seven other countries since 2017 have shown that UbiQD's quantum-dot-based film, called UbiGro, can increase crop yields by up to 20% or more. The latest trial results, which UbiQD released in February, demonstrated a 21% improvement in tomato production, a 16% increase in trimmed cannabis yield, 21% more flower clusters in geraniums, 13% enhanced lettuce weight, and up to a 28% boost in strawberry production.

The company developed UbiGro while exploring quantum-dot-based solar generation for greenhouses. The dot-laced film, which is placed above crop rows, shifts sunshine into a red-and-orange light spectrum that mimics late-summer-like sun rays all year round. That's considered the most potent time of year for plants, because they sense winter coming and grow faster.

The company now sells rolls of UbiGro at $3 per square foot, with market uptake steadily expanding.

UbiQD doubled its revenue last year to $2.5 million, with about one-third of that coming from UbiGro sales, and the rest from its development partnerships for solar windows and security ink, McDaniel said.

"This year, we're on track to roughly double our revenue again," he said.

In fact, UbiGro's potential has caught the interest of NASA, which awarded $825,000 in grants since 2018 to study its ability to boost yields for greenhouse vegetables that astronauts could eventually grow on the moon and Mars.

Now, through the partnership with Heliene, UbiQD will combine its two technologies into a single solar-generating roof for greenhouses that simultaneously shines red and orange light on crops below. Heliene will integrate UbiQD's quantum-dot interlayer between two sheets of glass with a solar cell in the middle, with a potentially marketable product expected to be ready in 18 months.

McDaniel called it the intersection of technology for "kilowatts and tomatoes."

"We're combining solar windows with greenhouse films," he said. "We're creating a new line of products right at the intersection of the two."

For Heliene, the partnership can accelerate that company's strategic thrust into "agrivoltaics," where solar generation is employed in agricultural operations, said Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk.

"As energy costs continue to rise, the controlled environment agriculture industry will have to utilize energy sources more efficiently," Pochtaruk said in a statement. "Greenhouses and photovoltaics generate hundreds of billions of dollars of value from sunlight, and our plan is that with our agrivoltaic modules, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts."

To date, UbiQD has raised more than $14 million in private equity and grant funding to pursue different market applications for its quantum dots. It currently employs 26 people full time, 24 of them at its headquarters in Los Alamos.