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March 20th, 2008
Turning Gold Dust Into Clean Air
At age 82, William Miller might be excused for kicking back, playing with grandkids or simply puttering around. He's doing none of those things. Instead, Miller is leading a start-up with two big ambitions: to clean up diesel emissions and to spread a new approach to designing a key ingredient in countless chemical reactions, namely catalysts.
"I like to be an explorer. This is an exploration," declares Miller.
And that approach--the exploration of both a new technology and of the opportunity for using that nascent tool--is at the core of genuine innovation.
Over the course of his 53-year career, Miller has been a computer scientist, chairman of a major software maker, an adviser to both venture capitalists and government leaders, and a teacher. These days, he is chairman and co-founder of Nanostellar, a four-year-old, 22-person start-up in Redwood City, Calif. Miller is too savvy to use the hyperbolic language common to most start-up founders. But he exudes quiet confidence that Nanostellar has a shot at making a genuine difference, both in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in changing commercial chemistry.
Nanostellar is developing novel chemical catalysts that promise big improvements over existing ingredients. The company's first product: fine powders of precious metals--gold, platinum and palladium--that when used to coat a filter for a diesel truck or car can reduce its toxic emissions by as much as 40% over existing catalytic converters. At Nanostellar's heart is a computer program that predicts how different compounds will work under specified conditions. Think of it as a design tool for chemists: "We have CAD-CAM tools for mechanical engineers, computer-aided design for circuit makers," says Pankaj Dhingra, Nanostellar's chief executive. "The impact our tool could have on the world of chemicals is absolutely humongous."
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