The next big cleantech innovation may, ironically, come from a company that thinks small. Nanotechnology, a multidisciplinary field of applied science that operates at the atomic or molecular level, is increasingly making the leap from the lab setting to the startup phase, with firms like MemPro Ceramics, a maker of catalytic filters, trying to blaze a new industry.

The company, founded in 2001 and based in Copper Mountain, Colo., uses a ceramic nanofiber filtration technology licensed from the University of Akron to scrub pollutants from exhaust systems in cars and power plants with a very small amount of catalysts. Ceramics are considered a superior filter material because they can easily withstand extreme conditions and harsh chemicals. They are cheap to make and reusable, and, because of their small size and toughness, offer more versatility.

Nanofibers coated with catalysts, which help speed up chemical reactions, capture and filter nitrogen oxides and particulates from the exhaust, leaving only oxygen and nitrogen behind. MemPro’s goal is to design filters capable of capturing upwards of 90 percent of particles.

While not revolutionary in itself — the filtration technology was adapted from a technology that the firm already uses in its products for the food and beverages, biotech and pharmaceutical industries — this new technology could allow companies in the automotive and energy sectors to develop a broad range of much cleaner exhaust systems.

John Finley, MemPro’s CEO, believes the filters could eventually become the basis for a multi-billion dollar industry. Not only will this technology help companies reduce their emissions, Finley says, but it will also drastically reduce manufacturing costs.

Though still widely viewed by environmentalists and scientists alike with some suspicion, nanotechnology has come a long way toward being broadly accepted over a relatively short period of time. Indeed, while there are lingering concerns about the unintended health effects of nanoparticles, many now realize that nanotechnology could yield some significant environmental benefits.

Companies like NanoGram and SunFlake A/S claim nanotechnology will help them manufacture ultra-efficient, low cost solar cells while others, like NanoDynamics, are using it to improve the efficiency and reduce the emissions of everything from fuel cells to water filters.

NanoGlowa, an international consortium of universities, power plant operators and other carbon-intensive industries, is designing nanostructured membranes that can capture and separate carbon dioxide from flue gases — a technique that is much cheaper than existing scrubbing technologies, it says.

Many of the most promising technologies, such as a chlorine-tolerant membrane that would make desalination much simpler, are still in the lab, however. It’s also important to point out that even the technologies being developed by companies like NanoGram and MemPro Ceramics are still in their infancies.

MemPro Ceramics, for one, could benefit from raising more cash to back its research and commercialization efforts. So far, it has received several grants from the National Science Foundation, including, most recently, $500,000 to cover its R&D costs through June 2010, and some funding from several small private investors. It is currently in talks with several major energy firms to negotiate distribution agreements, and plans on building up its production capacity over the coming months.