by Howard Lovy, contributing editor
Like nanotechnology in general, carbon nanotubes (CNT) are seen — depending on the industry you’re in and your world outlook — as the enabling technology for cleantech or a possible environmental and health hazard. They are viewed as a creator of jobs and of new market opportunities. They are optimistically seen as an engine for an elevator to the stars and a lift out of economic recession.
They can, of course, already be seen in a few products, like tennis rackets and bicycles, but nothing on the scale that yet match the hype that has surrounded them in the decade and a half since they were first produced. However, if you take a look at some of the companies, new and old, that are developing new ways of making and applying CNTs, you might cautiously conclude that nanotube prosperity is right around the corner.
Here, then, are a few snapshots of companies that are betting the farm on nanotubes, trying their luck at the little miracle workers in a big way.
In Chempark Leverkusen, in Germany’s Rhineland region, Bayer MaterialScience is attempting to conquer the market for nanotubes, which it estimates will grow at an annual rate of 25%. In 10 years, the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant believes annual carbon nanotube sales are expected to reach $2 billion. The company is preparing now for this expected windfall by building what it is calling the largest nanotube factory in the world, investing around $29 million on the project and creating about 20 jobs. The project adds to a pilot plant with an annual capacity of 60 tons that has been in operation in Laufenburg in southern Germany since 2007.
Bayer MaterialScience claims to be one of the few companies that can produce carbon nanotubes of consistently high quality on an industrial scale. “Bayer is investing in this, the world’s largest CNT production plant, because we are convinced of the technological and economic efficiency of the process,” said Wolfgang Plischke, a member of the Bayer AG Board of Management responsible for innovation, technology and the environment.
Bayer is not alone. Its efforts have the backing of more than 80 partners from industry and science, which have joined together to develop new technologies and applications for carbon nanotube-based materials. The effort is part of the “Innovation Alliance Carbon Nanotubes” (Inno.CNT), created with the support of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research.
Baytubes production process illustration. (Source: Bayer MaterialScience)
What Bayer is doing is important for a couple of other reasons beyond the mere scope of the project. While mainstream media coverage of nanotubes has focused primarily on what is not known about the environmental and health effects of nanotubes, Bayer is focusing its efforts on what is known about them — they help forge a path toward greener technology. As part of a companywide push to develop sustainable technologies, Bayer is working on membranes to produce fresh water through seawater desalination.
And in December, the US Environmental Protection Agency gave Bayer MaterialScience regulatory approval to sell its multiwall carbon nanotubes — what it calls Baytubes — in the United States.
BayTubes were developed through a collaboration between Bayer Technology Services and Bayer Material Science to develop a cost-effective production process for CNTs that paves the way for their industrial application. Baytubes make plastics not only electrically conductive, but also very stable and strong, while keeping the material extremely lightweight, the company says. These improved properties are already being put to use today in the production of various sports goods, such as ski poles and baseball bats.
Nanocomp Inc., based in New Hampshire, is answering the call from the aerospace industry for materials that are lightweight and strong with high thermal and electrical conductivity. Nanotubes seem a natural for this purpose, and the US Air Force seems to agree, granting the company a number of contracts under the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
With Nanocomp’s CNTs as a test case, the Air Force is hoping to finally replace copper wiring with nanotubes, which are much lighter and harder to break down. Nanocomp will use this funding to advance the suitability of nanotube-based material for a number of aerospace applications, ranging from thermal management and electromagnetic shielding to electrical and power generation system enhancements.
Nanocomp production furnaces. (Source: Nanocomp Inc.)
The first SBIR award builds upon Nanocomp’s successful demonstration, accomplished under a Phase I contract awarded in early 2008, of the use of lightweight conductive wires made from CNTs. During Phase II, Nanocomp will work toward optimizing processing and manufacturing methods to produce CNT wiring in the quantities and forms required for direct integration into aircraft electric power applications.
The Air Force awarded Nanocomp a second SBIR contract to develop carbon nanotubes as a viable substitute for nickel-based conductors in electrostatic discharge (ESD) and electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding applications. This Phase I research has been designated as a “critical program,” indicating that the government places a high degree of importance on the research. The goals of this program are to optimize the properties of CNT sheet materials to meet shielding requirements, develop a process to integrate the mats into existing commercial EMI/ESD shielding systems, and develop on-line production quality-control methods.
Unidym, through acquisition, is the company that ended up inheriting the groundbreaking work of the late Rick Smalley, one of the original discoverers of the carbon nanotube. Unidym is owned by Pasadena, CA-based Arrowhead Research Corp., which has its hands in many different types of nanotech companies. It appears to have pinned its highest hopes, however, on Unidym’s ability to turn its deep nanotube intellectual property into business success — Arrowhead recently upped its ownership in Unidym from 51.5% to 58.1%. Still, it was not able to stop burning cash and aborted a planned IPO, and laid off half its staff in Houston.
Still, Unidym plans its first product release in the second half of 2009: rolls of its carbon-nanotube-coated plastic films. The transparent, conductive films could make manufacturing LCD screens faster and cheaper, and enhance the life of touch panels used in ATM screens and supermarket kiosks. They might also pave the way for flexible thin-film solar cells and bright, roll-up color displays for cell phones, billboards, and electronic books and magazines. The company has said that Unidym is already working with leading touch-panel makers, and recently announced a year-long joint development partnership with LG Display.
Carbon nanotubes dispersed in polycarbonate, which is highly electrically conductive. Formed into an enclosure for sensitive electronics, this plastic protects the internal circuitry from external radio-frequency interference, and prevents escape of radio-frequency interference from within the enclosure. (Source: UniDym)
To further Unidym’s push into electronics and displays, it formed an important partnership with Continental Carbon Company (“CCC”), a global provider of carbon blacks, conductive blacks, and carbon nanotubes, to take over its bulk CNT business. The agreement is the latest in a series of steps taken by Unidym to accelerate the development of its CNT technology for application to the electronics industry and reduce its cost structure. It is intended to provide Unidym and its partners with a reliable and scalable source of high quality CNTs by leveraging CCC’s deep experience manufacturing large quantities of carbon materials. In addition, it will allow Unidym to capture additional value from its extensive CNT patent portfolio by enabling CCNI to focus on end-markets that are not core to Unidym’s business.
Other companies, such as Nantero, are continuing their quest to make nanotubes an integral part of future electronics — in Nantero’s case, nonvolatile memory. Others, like Cheap Tubes Inc., are going for bulk (as their name implies). And while some inroads have been made, much of the promise of nanotubes remain just that — a promise. Some analysts have said that nanotubes are a promising technology in search of a market that has largely been uninterested until now. Other analysts are more optimistic — the Freedonia Group projects the total demand for carbon nanotubes is expected to be about $1 billion by 2014, up from $6 million in 2004. Still others are cautious, as environmental and health regulatory agencies worldwide weigh in on the “unknowns” about environmental and health effects.
So, companies like Bayer, Unidym, and Nanocomp choose to remain optimistic that, during a time when nothing is certain, there is at least a certain market waiting for those who know how to find the right formula to produce and market this nanomaterial of the future.
Howard Lovy has been covering nanotechnology since 2001. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.