Photo: Grant Norton in his lab with student Aaron Wilkinson. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services).
Grant Norton begins with the basics: “A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, so nanotechnology has evolved to describe the study and application of materials on that extremely small scale.

“Materials at that size have unique properties,” continued Norton, professor and associate dean at the College of Engineering and Architecture. “For example, gold is a very unreactive metal, yet nanoparticles of gold are very active catalysts. A gold wedding band will stay solid and shiny in molten glass, but nanoparticles of gold will turn the same glass purple.”

Nanoparticles are so tiny that almost all the atoms are on the surface of the particle, he explained. That lack of thickness helps impart those unique properties.

Norton has been investigating nanoparticles since the mid-1990s. Since 2005, he has focused his research, in collaboration with University of Idaho physics professor David McIlroy, on producing commercial quantities of nanomaterials and on breakthrough applications of these particles in energy-related technologies.

Norton and McIlroy have developed three primary commercial applications for their nanoparticles. First, they have created an extremely efficient solar cell nanomaterial that can absorb and use energy from sunlight.

Second, they have discovered a nanomaterial that can be used to safely store and transport hydrogen. Third, they found uses for nanomaterials as effective catalysts to spur chemical reactions, such as the generation of hydrogen.

“The efficient use of alternative and renewable energy sources is one of the biggest challenges we face globally, and the potential for these nanomaterials is phenomenal,” Norton said. “We wanted to set up a company to commercialize our ideas into products, which could then be used to benefit society.”

Entrepreneur Tim Kinkeade, who lives in Moscow, Idaho, joined as both an investor and as the CEO when Norton and McIlroy formed GoNano Technologies (ONLINE @ in May 2007. Kinkeade said he agreed to manage the company because “the economic implications are gigantic, and the impact for humanity is even greater.”

And what are the chances the company will succeed in finding a way to make and market these nanoproducts?
“One hundred percent,” Kinkeade said. “I’m convinced.”

Brian Kraft agrees. Kraft, a commercialization manager at the WSU Research Foundation, has worked to support Norton’s technology transfer plan since August 2005. He helped evaluate the company’s commercial potential, has filed three U.S. patents on their behalf, and is involved in international patent filings.

“GoNano has tremendous potential,” Kraft said.