SAFI-Tech Makes Waves in the Market With Revolutionary Product

While SAFI-Tech, one of the first members of the Iowa State University Startup Factory, has made some pretty big waves with the release of its revolutionary product, the team’s approach to science isn’t overly sophisticated. SAFI-Tech leaders Martin Thuo, Ian Tevis, and Jiahao Chen are committed to driving innovation in a way that is practical, sustainable, inexpensive and all about solving problems.

SAFI-Tech’s first product is checking all of those boxes.

The team has invented small, liquid metal filled balloons that, when broken, release the contents. The material can be applied as an ink, paste, tape or spray, and upon release, the liquid metal inside the balloons flows then solidifies.

The primary benefit is that the metal can be applied without heat, greatly increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of work on sensitive electronic materials. Additionally, the technology allows for making electrical connections and performing 3D-printing without heat. This has the potential to decrease energy use and overall expense in the manufacturing process of millions of goods.

The Dawn of an Idea

The project started as a search for a way to stop liquid metal from returning to a solid – even below the metal’s melting point. That’s something called undercooling and it has been widely studied for insights into metal structure and metal processing. But it had been a challenge to produce large and stable quantities of undercooled metals.

Thuo’s research team thought if tiny droplets of liquid metal could be covered with a thin, uniform coating, they could form stable particles of undercooled liquid metal. The engineers experimented with a new technique that uses a high-speed rotary tool to sheer liquid metal into droplets within a liquid formulation.

Once they perfected this, they got a hand from nature: The particles, when exposed to oxygen, form a thin oxide layer that covers the particles. This creates a capsule containing the liquid metal. Once the capsule is created, the outer layer is then polished until it is thin and smooth.

“We saw the first supercooled particles and we felt like we had something special,” Tevis says. “It has the potential to be mechanically stronger than conventional solutions on the market today.”

Thuo’s research group proved the concept by creating liquid-metal particles containing Field’s metal (an alloy of bismuth, indium and tin) and particles containing an alloy of bismuth and tin. The particles are 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a red blood cell.

“We wanted to make sure the metals didn’t turn into solids,” Thuo says. “So we engineered the surface of the particles so there is no pathway for liquid metal to turn to a solid. We’ve trapped it in a state it doesn’t want to be in.”

Initial feedback on the development, has been extremely positive. In addition to gaining entrance into the competitive Startup Factory at ISU and a $100,000 technology translation grant from the Iowa board of regents, the group also received a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant and a matching $25,000 grant from Iowa Innovation Corporation.

Testing the Market

Tevis says that while the team was ahead of the game in the lab, they still had a lot to learn about getting the technology to market. That is why they took the step of applying to be a member of the first cohort of the ISU Startup Factory.

“We weren’t real sure how we fit into the market,” Tevis says. “The commercialization of a product like this is challenging. There are a number of different paths to market we could follow. The guidance at the Startup Factory has helped us to narrow down the path that is most likely to lead to success and commercialization.”

Gaining insight on the business side has been just as important as the work in the lab in getting SAFI-Tech to a point where they can begin to test the market. But, Tevis says, simply figuring out how to make the jump from doing research and creating a product, to actually forming a business, could have been a big stumbling block without guidance.

“We have been aided in every step of the startup process,” Tevis says looking back on his team’s year in the Startup Factory. “From customer discovery and developing a strong investor pitch to simply understanding the various steps involved in moving from working primarily in the lab and actually running the day-to-day operations of a business – we’ve had the opportunity to learn it all.

“I can say,” he continues, “that the way we are approaching potential clients today has been positively impacted by our participation in the Startup Factory.”

Massive Appeal

Tevis says he is confident SAFI-Tech will have a place in the market. Currently, the team is working on three practical applications of the product:

  • Cold Soldering: Using SAFI-Tech’s nano-sized liquid metal particles to solder has several distinct advantages. First, it requires no heat, eliminating the potential for components being ruined, which is essential for printed and flexible electronics manufacturing.  Secondly, it is significantly more precise in its application. Combined, these benefits make for the most effective contact possible. SAFI-Tech recently won a Technical Development Materials Award at the IDTechEx Show for its advancements in this area. Additionally, the ability to create metal castings without heat has the potential to significantly change how metalworking, jewelry and crafts are done today.

  • 3-D Metal Printing: International authority Wohler’s Associates, Inc. expects the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry to reach $12.8 billion in annual sales by 2018. Sales totaled just $3 billion in 2013. That growth will be fueled by the type of nanoparticle SAFI-Tech has developed, enabling low-cost 3D printers to print metal and plastic parts together in the same system. In addition, the ability to use these nanoparticles in large scale manufacturing operations would open entirely new markets.

  • Metal Repair: According to NACE

International, a worldwide authority on corrosion, the cost of corrosion to metal components in things like naval vessels, bridges, pipelines, utilities, small electronics and more is in excess of $276 billion dollars annually. SAFI-Tech’s solution can repair cracks and leaks, and provide for structural integrity, at a much lower cost—and without the need of heat—than conventional solutions.

“There are so many applications,” Tevis says. “Naval ships at sea, aircraft away from repair facilities, potentially explosive gas pipelines, and other difficult to repair metal objects, can be fixed regardless of conditions. Personal electronic devices can be manufactured without heat and with connections that are better than anything currently on the market. Anything that is now manufactured using metal has the potential to be revolutionized.

“There is a reason we are excited about the future.”


Building the Brand

Tevis says the team is hard at work perfecting the technology—and the way they pitch it. The team has been active doing demos of the new solder at trade shows, understanding that it may take awhile to gain market acceptance.

In looking at practical applications, Tevis says the potential is limitless.

“There are applications in a number of areas,” he says. “From flexible electronics, like a smartphone you can bend without breaking to repairing electronics in your home, or serving as the basis of mass producing electronics anywhere.”

Other applications include the development of solar cells, wearable and flexible displays, to name a few.

Regardless of where the market takes them, Tevis is sure that SAFI-Tech’s team of scientists is doing exactly what it set out to: Solve problems.

“We have materials users interested now. They are itching to get our technology in hand and begin using it,” he says. “We are confident that in the next five years our technology will be common in consumer electronics. It offers better connectivity with no heating required. That’s pretty hard to beat.”