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A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

Is this the kind of cutting-edge research lab you expect from a self-proclaimed nanotech leader that was (earlier this year) worth several hundred million dollars? In the words of one of my waggish colleagues who spent years of his life in the pharmacology lab, that lab's got "less equipment than a high-school chemistry class." Open-toed, high-heeled shoes in the research room? What kind of important experiment is being conducted with that red fluid in the center? Is this all play-acting?

I don't want to oversnark this, but I think this is a fair question, especially because Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI  ) produces a lot of fluff, and it has a long history of generating more enthusiasm than earnings.

In recent weeks, reality has begun to creep back into the share price at Altair, which earlier this year shot up to more than $6 a stub after a press release purported to describe a breakthrough in its lithium-battery technology. Said breakthrough has thus far produced only an R&D agreement with an undercapitalized Chinese battery company that plans to try and sell its wares to the manufacturers of electric cars. And we all know how many of those there are clogging the streets and highways.

Its greatest success this year was securing a load of cash through a private placement, shortly after the PR and investor overreaction sent the stock through the roof. Since then, it's been the same old thing: promises of great potential for products and processes. If these great products and processes ever reach market, they'll have to compete with established products made by established companies such as Genzyme (Nasdaq: GENZ  ) , DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) , and Lyondell Chemicals (NYSE: LYO  ) .

Not that this doesn't make for great drama. In addition to the recent exit of the firm's independent auditor, there are lawsuits and ex-insiders posting their not-entirely-sanguine thoughts on the company on public message boards.

There's a lesson here, Fools. What goes up like a rocket eventually rains down like meteoric shrapnel, especially when the only fuel to keep things afloat is overhyped hope. The next time a "big news" press release rolls out, take a deeper look. Start with that picture.

For more cutting-edge Foolishness on Altair:

Seth Jayson is always pretty skeptical about the next big thing, especially when it wants access to his wallet. At the time of publication, he had positions in no company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.

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