WESTWOOD, Mass., Oct. 27, 2003 — Brace yourself. The fullerenes are coming.
Nano-C Corp. is the latest company to push its way into the market for mass-production of fullerenes, amid signs that major chemical and manufacturing businesses have warmed up to the tiny carbon molecule’s potential. Thanks to technology pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nano-C can now affordably make fullerenes by the ton — opening vast new commercial possibilities.
The 12-person startup signed its first customer this summer, a subsidiary of a Japanese conglomerate. Company executives, who declined to name the customer, say its fullerenes eventually could be used in everything from chemical coatings to semiconductors to pharmaceuticals.
“U.S. companies aren’t quite as excited yet,” says Gordon Fowler, Nano-C’s chief executive officer. “In Japan the companies are more open-minded.”
Nano-C Inc. has developed what is known as combustion synthesis: hydrocarbons burned in specially controlled atmospheres, which allows fullerenes to be harvested from the soot. The soot is nearly pure fullerene; that makes combustion far more cost-effective than the older method of arc synthesis, where an electrical jolt is delivered to a piece of carbon and fullerenes are scraped from the resulting residue.
“It’s just inherently very efficient,” says Jack Howard, the MIT professor who developed combustion synthesis and now serves as Nano-C’s chairman. “We don’t see any alternatives.”
Howard and Fowler might not need to look for one. Nano-C and its lone rival in combustion synthesis, TDA Research Inc. in Colorado, both have paying customers in Japan eager to put fullerenes to use. Pilot facilities in Japan can make about 40 tons of fullerenes per year right now, with plans to scale up to several hundred tons by the end of the decade.
Fowler admits that fullerenes were hyped in the early 1990s with little to show for it, but he insists that the fullerene adoption curve is at an inflection point. “How steep is that curve and how long will it last? I don’t know,” Fowler says. “This won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it tackles some really interesting ones.”
The problem with fullerenes so far? Their high cost. For example, fullerenes of only 60 atoms (C-60 fullerenes, which look like a soccer ball) are the least expensive and still fetch $25 per gram. Larger fullerenes can cost thousands. At such high prices, few researchers could afford to study them — and without that demand, nobody bothered to make them.
Nano-C and TDA hope to break that chicken-and-egg cycle with combustion synthesis. Both say they can make C-60 fullerenes for about $4 or $5 per gram. They expect the cost to tumble below $1 with large-scale equipment.
Nano-C has a prototype burner in its headquarters that can produce one ton of fullerenes a year. A metal cylinder standing 10 feet tall with various monitors and probes poking into it, the flame burns at the bottom; fullerenes are collected at the top. The standard atmosphere in the cylinder is a low-pressure mixture of oxygen and benzene, heated to more than 3,140 degrees Farenheight. By manipulating conditions inside the reactor, workers can make different types of fullerenes.
At the moment, TDA is slightly ahead in the commercialization race. It sold several burners to Frontier Carbon Corp., a Tokyo-based company that can make 40 tons per year. A spokesman at Frontier said demand is growing at 500 percent annually, and he expects to churn out 300 tons of fullerenes per year by 2007.
Hideki Murayama, Frontier’s head of research, says the company already has 300 buyers for its fullerenes. One customer uses them as an additive in a polymer coating for bowling balls. The bowling balls go by the name Nanodesu, Japanese for “It’s nano!”
More lucrative uses in lubricants, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are further off, Murayama says. “These applications have been under development, but we know they need an array of evaluation steps before commercial use,” he said.
Michael Alford, senior chemist at TDA, agrees with Howard that combustion synthesis “is very close to the most efficient way to make fullerenes.” He expects fullerenes to find their way into fuel cells and chemical resists in semiconductor manufacture. Another hot item: carboxylated fullerenes, useful in pharmaceuticals. Alford predicts that adoption in Big Pharma is still five years away, “but it will be pretty impressive.”
Nano-C and TDA Research both trace their roots to Howard’s MIT lab; one of his graduate students helped develop combustion synthesis and took the idea to TDA in the mid-1990s. After a brief patent skirmish MIT licensed the technology to both companies.
33 Southwest Park
Westwood, MA 02090
Incorporated in 2001, Nano-C is targeting affordable large-scale production of fullerenes (ultrasmall carbon molecules) using technology developed at MIT by company founder Jack Howard.
Small tech-related products and services
Nano-C’s proprietary combustion synthesis process is more efficient than the commonly used arc synthesis method. Using their on-site reactor, the company hopes to shorten time-to-market for fullerene applications.
Dr. Jack B. Howard: chairman and founder
Gordon Fowler: chief executive officer
Dr. David Kronholm: vice president of research & development
Materials and Electrochemical Research Corporation
TDA Research (uses combustion synthesis process based on Howard’s research)
Barriers to market
Because of prior fullerene “hype” in the US that did not materialize into business, Nano-C may find it challenging to convince American companies of the value fullerenes can add to existing products. Additionally, fullerenes are still expensive to produce, and Nano-C will need to bring production costs down greatly in order to attract a broader customer base.
– Research by Gretchen McNeely