UBiQD technology could ‘change world’

-A A +A
By Arin McKenna

Imagine what could happen if every window on every high rise in New York City were a solar generator. Hunter McDaniel, founder and president UBiQD, imagined just that.
UBiQD is a developmental-stage company exploring low-toxicity quantum dot (nanoparticle) manufacturing and applications. Their initial focus is on quantum dot window tints that harvest sunlight for electricity.
“The reason why we’re really excited about that direction – much more so than the other applications for our materials – it has the potential to really change the world, to convert windows into literally electricity sources,” McDaniel said.
“Windows are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere. Having a distributed power supply wherever there’s glass, essentially, could have all sorts of value.”
As a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory, McDaniel helped develop the manufacturing technique his company is utilizing and coauthored the patent for the solar window technology with LANL fellow Victor Klimov. LANL has granted UBiQD Intellectual Property (IP) licenses for those technologies. The company has also secured an IP license from Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the material itself.
Utilizing those technologies, UBiQD is developing materials that can me applied as a coating to glass or mixed with the raw material for plastic windows to harvest sunlight. The company has also applied for a patent (one of several) for applying the technology to safety (laminated) glass, which is not only used in automobiles but is being increasingly utilized in high-rise buildings.
Quantum dots can be tuned to different wavelengths on the visible and nonvisible color spectrum by adjusting their size. For the solar application, the nanoparticloes are tuned to the near infrared range, where they absorb some of the light passing through a window to create a “glow.” That glow is trapped inside the glass then transmitted to a solar cell at the edge of the window.
UBiQD is partnering with window manufacturers to develop windows that utilize that technology. UBiQD will manufacture the quantum dot material itself in its new Los Alamos laboratory and supply that, as well as the intellectual property license for the technology, to the window manufacturers.
At this point, new building construction is the target market, but McDaniel believes there may be retrofit options down the road.
The technology – with a target of 50 watts per square meter – will have very limited residential potential at this point. UBiQD is working on a window prototype that could charge phones during the day but, according to McDaniel, rooftop solar provides a better residential option.
But the potential for high-rise buildings is remarkable.
“This will enable a building to be not completely off the grid, but a lot less dependent on a grid and maybe during the day actually supply electricity to the grid. Typically a building is a load on the grid. It’s just sucking energy out,” McDaniel said.
“And it’s in those urban centers where you have the greatest demand for electricity, but the smallest amount of available real estate to put solar cells. Rooftops of skyscrapers are not big compared to the energy needs of the building. But if you start looking to the sides of the building, there’s all sorts of space. The problem is that all that space is covered with transparent glass. You can’t put a solar cell in front of the glass.”
The safety glass application could open up a potential market for automobiles. Instead of the usual window tint, the quantum dot window tint could help supply electricity.
“If we can provide a cost-effective solution to a problem, then maybe it becomes a standard feature like anti-lock breaks, or power windows.,” McDaniel said. “There are a lot of electrical demands on vehicle batteries these days, even when the car is sitting parked.”
The company just received a  $225,000 National Science Foundation grant for developing the solar application materials. At a ribbon cutting for the startup’s new facility, Katy Richardson, a field representative for Sen. Martin Heinrich, noted, “This is a real sign that the federal government believes the innovation and commercialization and potential of this technology.”
UBiQD also received grant funding from the Department of Energy to develop a cheaper, more efficient phosphor to convert blue LED light to white light for solid-state lighting, which could help DOE meet its goal of doubling the efficiency of LEDs.
UBiQD has received additional funding from Los Alamos National Security’s (LANS) Venture Acceleration Fund and from New Mexico’s Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP) for training new hires.
“So we’re getting a lot of support, and that’s great,” McDaniel said. “The more support we get, the easier it’s going to be for me to maintain the business here.”
Friday marked a milestone for UBiQD, when it hosted a ribbon cutting for its new facility. The startup has been operating out of the New Mexico Consortium (NMC).
“They are actually critical to our success, because at the very beginning, when this was just an idea, they essentially took a chance on me and gave me an office, gave me a lab to start the business,” McDaniel said.
NMC was willing to take equity in UBiQD in exchange for rent and later invested in the company as well.
Katharine Chartrand, who was NMC’s executive director at the time, now sits on UBiQD’s board.
“Hunter is unique, with his combination of vision, technical skills and business skills,” Chartrand said during Friday’s ceremony. “As a board member it can be a little unnerving, because his vision goes beyond what most people see. But I’ve always just intuitively trusted Hunter and it’s been amazing to watch this company grow.”
The capital provided by NMC and “Angel Investors” – wealthy individuals looking for a higher return on their investment – allowed UBiQD to negotiate a 10-year lease on a 10,000-square-foot facility on East Gate Drive and invest $90,000 dollars in improvements.
The building’s owner, Philip Kunzberg, supported the modifications, including installing high efficiency LED lighting throughout the facility. Kunzberg called UBiQD “one of several high tech startups that are on the road to success.”
“It’s a big deal for us to be out on our own, autonomously manufacture our materials, developing this technology and deploying it,” McDaniel said. “It sends a strong message to our partners, our customers, our investors that we’re moving forward toward these big opportunities, particularly the solar application.”
McDaniel is currently seeking large-scale venture capital in order to expand UBiQD’s manufacturing capacity, grow its team (McDaniel plans to double the number of employees every year) and cover other overhead costs for a “runway” of two to three years. McDaniel is also seeking Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) funds from the county.
According to McDaniel, the current location provides plenty of room to grow, since the company is currently utilizing only 3,000 square feet.
“Typically, when you hear manufacturing, people think dollar signs like big equipment, big buildings, lots of people,” McDaniel said. “In our case we can actually make a lot of material with a small amount of equipment. Even a small amount of material goes a long way.”
McDaniel anticipates being able to supply enough material for 20,000 square feet of windows with a single batch by the end of next year. A batch takes three or four hours to make.
“Running through the numbers, even if we hit all of our pretty ambitious targets about supplying into automotive and buildings over the next five years, we’ll have plenty of space,” McDaniel said.
Room to grow is important, because McDaniel has no plans to leave Los Alamos.
“I love Los Alamos. I was trying to figure out a way to stay back when I started the company, after I left LANL,” McDaniel said.
“I just think it’s an ideal place to live, from my perspective: great weather, the outdoors, very safe, family friendly…So I’m trying my best to convince investors that we can actually create a sustainable business here.”