Updated: Apr 21, 2020
When Brian Schultz and Sean Depner emerged from their doctorate studies in chemistry at the University at Buffalo in 2013, they stepped into a cleantech economy that was just sprouting. Superstorm Sandy had recently ravaged New York’s coastal communities, and state officials were searching for ways to fight climate change and spark economic growth by weaning the state from fossil fuels.
Schultz and Depner had something to contribute: an innovative process for making extremely useful nanomaterials with minimal environmental waste and energy. They had the drive to give their science life beyond the lab, to create cutting-edge, eco-friendly products with practical uses in the real world.
What they couldn’t find, to their surprise, was the kind of job at the kind of company where they could do that.
In Western New York, where Depner grew up and both men earned their degrees, the cleantech industry at the time was still a dream. The nanotechnology field (which deals in materials smaller than one ten-millionth of a meter) was also nascent. Unable to find an organization they wanted to work for, Schultz and Depner created it themselves. Now their company, Dimien, is preparing to put its first product—an invisible coating that turns windows into heat filters that adapt to the weather in real time—on the market.
Schultz founded Dimien six years ago and recruited Depner, his labmate from the university, as Vice President of Research and Development a year later. Around the same time, New York launched Reforming the Energy Vision, a plan to spur clean-energy innovation and make the state’s energy sources more renewable and affordable.
Dimien’s core technology is its process of creating specialized nanomaterials using supercritical water. Water takes on different properties when it’s subjected to extreme heat and pressure—specifically, 373 degrees Celsius and 220 bars, or more than 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. “It’s similar to an espresso machine,” only much, much hotter and more pressurized, Schultz explains. When a stream of supercritical water meets a stream of regular water, mixed with dissolved metals or other additives, nanomaterials instantly form.
The idea sounds straightforward enough, but the reality is incredibly complex—as Schultz, Depner, and their small team found in the three-and-a-half years it took them to fine-tune the process and bring it to commercial scale. They had to pinpoint the precise methods and ingredients to produce materials with exactly the properties they wanted, while preventing literal clogs in the system.
While in the UB lab, “we were doing things in these little batches, maybe 2 ounces at a time,” says Schultz. “Now we can produce 100 gallons in a day.”
New York’s commitment to cleantech helped propel Schultz and Depner through early challenges. Dimien won funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), along with a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant. The UB-affiliated incubator, where Dimien is housed, provided the company’s scientist-founders with business training. Meanwhile, the state’s five-year-old 43North competition, which grants $5 million annually to promising Buffalo start-ups (and for which Dimien was a finalist), kept the team in increasingly good company.
“It’s definitely motivational when you see growth and entrepreneur innovation happening around you,” says Schultz, who has in turn advised younger local start-ups.
Buffalo’s growing talent pool has also fueled Dimien’s growth. The company’s entire staff of four, spanning business and science specialties, earned degrees at UB. Its lead chemical engineer was born and raised in Buffalo and still rides his bike all over town.
Environmentally, Dimien’s supercritical water process brings benefits. In traditional chemical manufacturing, Depner says, “Either you’re using a lot of organic solvents or you’re using lots of energy to keep those organic solvents and recycle those.” The Dimien process requires none of those often-toxic solvents, which are themselves energy-intensive to produce. Plus, the water comes out clean and reusable.
Schultz and Depner also point to the environmental benefits of Dimien’s first product, the E3 View Smart Window. Most windows today are static—they let in the same amount of infrared light (and thus heat) whether it’s freezing or sweltering outside. The E3 contains a nanomaterial in its coating that transforms in response to temperature, letting in less heat when it’s hot outside and more heat when it’s cold—that means less energy and money spent for indoor heating and cooling.
Dimien could start selling the E3 View to early adopters in the automotive, architecture, and greenhouses industries within the next 18 months. The company aims to use its supercritical water process to produce high-capacity batteries next.
Meanwhile, Western New York’s cleantech ecosystem also has taken root. Solar arrays and wind turbines have replaced some of Buffalo’s shuttered steel mills. Tesla opened its Gigafactory 2 solar-panel plant in South Buffalo in 2017, now employing 800 people. And Schultz, among other observers, partly credits clean energy for the city’s revitalization.
“Buffalo is coming back to life,” he says. “You’re starting to see that snowball effect.”