According to the National Association of Corrosion Engineering International, around 3 percent of the national GDP is spent dealing with the decay of natural metals. Nanolaminated alloy might sound like something out of a superhero comic, but Christina Lomasney of Modumetal believes her company’s technique for fabricating a material stronger and more sustainable than steel marks a very real, and important, sea change in how and what we build. The CEO and physicist looks back on her year in post-USSR Moscow, a stint at Boeing, and the breakthrough that helped her “grow” metal.
1991–93: Harder Science
Lomasney wanted to study poli-sci in college but got better grades in physics. There were definitive solutions to this science, an analytical method that attracted her. So in 1991 the New Orleans native switched her major at Vassar College to pursue “the quest for right answers.” It was a significant change in trajectory for a young student, but one that could provide many potential avenues of study. “The thing that’s unique about physics among the sciences is that it’s so broad,” she says.
1993–94: The Motherland
Lomasney moved to Moscow for her junior year as part of a Department of Education program to support former nuclear weapons scientists struggling to find work after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her job was initially clerical, and as the lone foreigner at the host institute she was carefully monitored. (She was sometimes locked in her office, and the phones cut off when she said certain words.) But the experience was “an incredible opportunity to work with a group of scientists that approached science from a completely different perspective and with a different set of tools.”
1994–2001: Northern Exposure
After returning from Russia with a newfound interest in nuclear decontamination, Lomasney transferred to the University of Washington to learn under Dan Schwartz, a chemical engineering professor. From there she went to work at Boeing, building high-end components, like parts for the F-22 fighter. Even though she was accustomed to the Deep South, the transition to the Northwest was easy—especially after her time in Russia. “Anyplace that does not experience 100 percent humidity in the summertime was really nice.”
2001–05: Nuclear Family
In 2001, Lomasney left Boeing. She and her father, a mechanical engineer, started Isotron, which specialized in the decontamination of biological, chemical, and industrial materials. One of their first collaborators was her former mentor Dan Schwartz. In 2005 the company was approached by DARPA to help develop lightweight, ballistic-resistant materials for defense purposes. Isotron agreed to take part in DARPA’s Armor Challenge, and the experience inspired Lomasney to switch gears.
Lomasney and another Isotron vet, John Whitaker, spent two years researching steel alternatives and eventually landed on nanolaminated alloys. The new class of corrosion-resistant materials is “grown” using electric currents and layered on the nanometer scale, much like folding and hammering in traditional metalwork. The result is a stronger, lighter, and more cost-efficient material than traditional metals. In 2007 the two spun off Modumetal and began manufacturing for clients in sectors like energy and electronics. “Now,” she says, “it’s just about developing the market.”