Imagine particles that can self-assemble at the nano-scale, so that machinery can delay its need for repair. Or that your 20-year-old truck could suddenly become more fuel efficient than today’s model.
Two years ago physics graduate student Pavlo Rudenko ’09 MS started his company, TriboTEX LLC, to develop bio-based super lubricants. He found that nanoparticles of ceramic powders in lubricants can, at high temperatures, create a film on metal surfaces that reduces both friction and wear behaviors.
He bought used analytical equipment off eBay and is running the business on a shoestring out of his home in Colfax.
Last summer he won a highly competitive Small Business Innovation Research grant for $150,000 from the National Science Foundation. The money is to support his development of ceramic nanosheets used to form a self-generating coating to improve lubrication in machinery.
Rudenko explains his life as a start-up entrepreneur with an analogy. “Trying to do business without money is like seeing how fast you can ride in a car without fuel,” he says. “You can push it, but you’re not going to go as fast as you should go.”
Originally from Ukraine, Rudenko came to the United States to attend graduate school at Washington State University. He began his research into lubricants with Amit Bandyopadhyay in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.
In 2011, he was one of only 80 students in the nation to participate in Singularity University, a privately funded corporation that offers a 10-week summer program for graduate students. The program brings together specialists in academia, business, and government to harness technology for addressing critical global challenges.
Rudenko has found his business ideas have widespread appeal, taking prizes in WSU’s business plan competition in 2012 and being one of about 150 semifinalists in a national clean technology business competition, the Clean Tech Open. He is quick to credit several WSU faculty members and alumni advisors for mentoring and helping him to get his company off the ground.
To be a successful entrepreneur, Rudenko says, you have to have passion and drive. Maybe be a little crazy and not afraid to fail—a lot. “But,” he adds, “it’s only valid if what you do is going to change the world.’’
And he is certain that what he’s doing could change the world. “Every moving part can use our technology,’’ he says. And, yes, there are a lot of industrial moving parts.
In cars, for instance, one-third of an engine’s mechanical energy is lost to friction. If that energy could be conserved and his technology used in existing transportation systems, it would provide more energy than all that is generated by wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar sources combined or from all U.S. oil imports, he says. When the lubrication is improved, it will dramatically reduce fuel consumption and costs.
For now, Rudenko has put pursuit of his doctorate on hold in favor of developing his business. And he has worked to hone his entrepreneurial skills.
“If you go into an unknown country and try to dance on their national holiday, you will look awkward,’’ he says, as he explains his efforts at selling his ideas. “People expect you to do things in a certain way.’’
With the support of the SBIR grant, Rudenko is building his idea into a business. The highly competitive grant program provides seed money for high-risk, high-reward private sector ventures.
Rudenko envisions starting off by targeting gear boxes in windmills. The gear boxes notoriously wear out quickly, and to replace or repair them is extremely difficult, requiring at least a crane and a whole lot of expense. If the lubricant can delay the need for repair or replacement, then it may be widely adopted by the energy industry.
If his work goes as planned, Rudenko hopes that people are using his product in the next two years.