Mallinda's laboratory

What’s one way to cut a car’s weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by up to 40 percent? Make it out of carbon fiber instead of steel. What if everyone had access to such a vehicle? Chris Kaffer, co-founder and CEO of Denver startup Mallinda, believes his company’s reusable carbon-fiber composite can help make that future a reality.  

With Phase II funding of $750,000 recently awarded by the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, Mallinda—founded by Kaffer (PhD, molecular biology/immunology), fellow CU Boulder alumni Philip Taynton (PhD, chemistry), and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Wei Zhang—is one step closer to making its versatile polymer material a contender in commercial manufacturing markets, including the high-volume automotive industry.

Especially attractive in industries where a high strength-to-weight ratio and extreme rigidity are required—including aerospace, consumer electronics, civil engineering, and sporting goods—carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRCs) are expensive and time-consuming to produce, as well as notoriously difficult to repair and recycle. But their “lighter than aluminum, stronger than steel” properties are so attractive that CFRCs are quickly replacing existing materials in multiple markets. How to do so sustainably, efficiently and cost-effectively has (until now) remained unclear.

It’s the perfect opportunity for a paradigm shift. Pliashell, Mallinda’s CFRC product, is not only efficient to manufacture, it’s also fully reusable, keeping end-of-life products out of landfills. The resin can be separated from the carbon fibers simply by placing the material in an organic room-temperature solution—eliminating the chemically involved and wasteful process that is the current standard for recycling CFRCs.

Taking green plastics to the next level

The Phase II award will enable Mallinda to take its eco-friendly composite out of the lab and into an industrial production cycle where it can be produced at volume.

“We have a new material that has never been processed by any industrial means,” says Kaffer, “so we have to be able to plug and play into those systems in order to achieve widespread adoption of the technology.”

By the end of the two-year award, Mallinda plans to have developed a process for producing preimpregnated carbon fiber (prepreg) input materials, as well as processes for consolidating these materials into multi-layer, structurally durable parts. The company also plans to complete a short-run production of protective sports equipment in partnership with brands in the athletic protective gear market.

But the founders’ goals for the company go far beyond sporting goods.  

From Boulder to the Bay Area and beyond

The research that forms the backbone of Pliashell was performed at CU Boulder under the tutelage of Wei Zhang, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. A co-winning entry in CU Boulder’s 2014 New Venture Challenge and several milestones in fundraising and grant support have since propelled the pair’s innovation to new heights.

Now operating out of a lab on the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora, Colorado, Mallinda recently hired two CU Boulder students to work in their Denver facility. Meanwhile, Kaffer says, the startup is busy exploring opportunities in the Bay Area as an incubating company supported by the Cyclotron Road incubator at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.    

“One of the great things about being out here is that we’re exposed to so many other industries where our technology can enable new functionalities,” Kaffer says. He cites the battery space and consumer electronics as possibilities, along with printed circuit boards, which are one of the largest composite markets in the world (and therefore a major contributor to CFRC waste). “Being able to make sustainable circuit boards that can be economically recycled would be a major step forward.”

Sustainability isn’t yet a top-level priority for commercial markets; cost, performance, and value still rule decision-making processes. But if Mallinda can make a successful leap into industrial production, Pliashell’s long list of advantages may be too tempting for commercial adopters to pass up—and sustainable carbon-fiber plastics will be one step closer to becoming a new standard.