All Systems Go
By Jim Stafford
Tulsa’s Infinite Composites poised for space launch of patented pressure vessel technology
TULSA – As Matt Villarreal welcomed visitors recently to the headquarters of Tulsa’s Infinite Composites, he stood in front of a cabinet that held what could have been a propane gas tank.
It was low and squat, but shiny and black.
The tank on display actually was a patented, liner-less composite “pressure vessel,” produced by Infinite Composites, manufactured out a super strong carbon materials and weighing just a fraction the weight of steel tanks.
As co-founder and CEO of Infinite Composites, Villarreal described how the liner-less composite pressure vessel concept has potential for use in a wide variety of industries.
“Typically, you have an all-metal tank, very heavy but very cheap to make,” Villarreal said. “In order to make the tanks lighter, non-metallic materials are starting to be introduced. Carbon or glass fiber can be used to replace some of the metal structure and give it the same strength.”
By conducting rigorous research and development over the past decade, Infinite Composites created its own class of pressure vessels that exceed anything the industry has previously conceived.
“What we’ve done is to eliminate the need for any metal or plastic liner on the inside,” Villarreal said. “And that leaves behind only a carbon fiber shell, incredibly lightweight. Carbon fiber is about 10 times stronger than steel, so it’s a natural fit.”
Turns out that Infinite Composite’s innovative pressure vessels are a natural fit for several emerging industries with big needs for light-weight storage capacity.
The company anticipates its technology launching into space as major components in launch vehicles within a year.
“Space is the primary market, probably 60 to 70 percent for people building rockets, also known as launch vehicles, space constellations and other spacecraft that may carry satellites into orbit,” Villarreal said. “That’s the primary thrust, but we’re also getting a lot of traction for groups that are pursuing hydrogen electrification. So, like a passenger aircraft or next-generation hypersonic aircraft. And the final area is in transportation for transporting large quantities of gas over the road.”
Today, Infinite Composites owns seven patents on the pressure ve technology, as well as trade secrets on the resins and materials that are used to build the containers. It employs 18 people, including about six engineers and six in operations.
Villarreal and co-founder Michael Tate were students at Oklahoma State University when they began pursuing the development of liner-less composite pressure vessels in 2010. Neither had an engineering background. Villarreal’s major was entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises, while Tate was an advertising and PR major.
So, what sparked their interest in pursuing a technology venture?
Start with their participation on OSU’s racing team that built and raced quarter-sized Formula One cars. The team began experimenting with using low-priced compressed natural gas as the racing car’s fuel.
But the steel fuel tanks were tiny and heavy, requiring too many pitstops to be competitive.
That led Villarreal to explore the potential of building a fuel tank out of composite materials.
“I saw an article in Composites World magazine that was basically saying that liner-less pressure vessels were the holy grail of gas storage,” he said. “That was a major signal. We felt the pain of the natural gas tank and decided it was a viable opportunity to pursue a business.”
They competed in the i2E-managed Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup (now called the Love’s Entrepreneur’s Cup) business plan competition as team CleanNG with a concept to use composite materials to build fuel storage tanks that would be lighter, stronger, and provide more fuel storage for CNG vehicles.
The CleanNG concept eventually became Infinite Composites and launched its first technology, the infinite Composite Pressure Vessel in 2013.
In May of that same year, the company received R&D support from the Oklahoma Applied Research Support (OARS) program through the Oklahoma Center for the advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST).
“We’ve done a few OARS programs, where we got funded to develop our cryogenic tank technology, which is ideal for lunar landers, primary propellent tanks on space launch vehicles and storing very low temperature gasses like liquid methane, liquid hydrogen, liquid nitrogen.”
The company also has participated in the Techstars nationally recognized business accelerator program, as well as the OCAST Intern Partnership program. Today, three of its team members are former OCAST interns
Along the way, Infinite Composites has developed deep relationships with the U.S. space program through NASA, and counts as customers such industry players as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Stratolaunch. It has attracted significant investment from Texas angel groups and investors.
The company distinguishes itself against pressure vessel competition with tanks that are lighter, liner-less, made with fewer ‘failure points’ and with faster manufacturing cycle.
So, the countdown is on. Within a year, Villarreal anticipates Infinite Composites pressure vessel technology being launched into space as an integral part of the launch vehicle.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to send something into space since I was 5 years old.”
Big for Villarreal personally, but a huge milestone for Infinite Composites.
“That’s kind of a major signal to our well established space companies that the technology is ready to fly,” he said. “It’s been proven and risk has been reduced to a level where they are going to be comfortable buying in and integrating it into their systems.”
All systems go for Infinite Composites.
Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).