Accelrys (Nasdaq: ACCL ) announced last week that it had added seven new members to its nanotechnology consortium. Two in particular caught my attention: Millennium Chemical, a wholly owned subsidiary of America's third-largest chemical company, Lyondell (NYSE: LYO ) ; and PPGIndustries (NYSE: PPG ) , which supplies coatings, glass, fiberglass, and chemicals. The news that these major chemical companies have climbed onboard offers additional support to Accelrys' claims that the consortium is creating software tools to speed up the design of new nanomaterials and devices.
Millennium Chemical is the world's second-largest producer of titanium dioxide and has already used titanium dioxide nanoparticles in its interesting new product called Ecopaint. What makes the environmentally friendly paint so special is that its custom-made nanoparticles can soak up and neutralize nitrogen oxide gases produced by car exhaust, manufacturing operations, and other sources of pollution.
Other companies are also using titanium dioxide to do interesting things like make self-cleaning glass. In this case, it reacts with sunlight and causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the dirt. This neat little trick not only reduces the need for costly detergents, it may also cut down on the human labor associated with cleaning windows -- a substantial cost for owners of skyscrapers and office buildings.
Such cost savings are the tip of the iceberg. The number of aerospace, automotive, industrial, and coating applications for new nanomaterials is virtually limitless. The fact that major chemical and material sciences companies like Millennium Chemical and PPG have now joined Corning (NYSE: GLW ) and Fujitsu in the nanotechnology consortium is a bullish sign for Accelrys: It suggests that the company believes the consortium can help it stay on the leading edge of such advancements.
In the same press release, Accelrys also announced that it had developed something called ONETEP. This unwieldy acronym is the name of the first consortium-developed software application. This suggests that the company is making good on its promise to use consortium members to help it stay at the forefront of developing sophisticated software. In turn, the consortium can model the complex behavior of nanoscale materials to help companies translate those findings into real, value-added products more quickly and efficiently.
Accelrys remains a small company (its market cap is about $140 million) and as such, carries some risk, including a general predisposition to volatility. But if you believe in the potential of nanotechnology, as I do, it represents an intriguing "pick and shovel" play.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich has been thinking small since grade school. He own shares in Accelrys but none of the other companies mentioned in the article. He is the author of The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business.