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Innovations in Bucky Balls, Nanotubes, Single Wall Nanotubes (SWNTs) and Nanopores Make Commercial Production a Reality, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Bucky Balls and Carbon Nanotubes:  Carbon has proven to be the most promising element for use in nano-sized structures.  It was previously thought that pure carbon came in only two forms (called allotropes):  diamond (commonly known as a gemstone), forming densely packed cubes; and graphite, which is made up of carbon atoms bonded into sheets that slide along one another.  However, in 1985 the buckminsterfullerene (commonly called “bucky ball”) was discovered in the U.S., when an electric arc was passed between two carbon rods.  New formations, composed of 60 or 70 carbon atoms, were arranged in a spherical shape, resembling the geodesic domes designed by the popular architect Buckminster Fuller, after whom the molecules were named.

Carbon nanotubes (sometimes called “buckytubes”) are cylindrical members of the fullerene structure family.  They were discovered in Japan in 1991, under a similar experiment, and are much like graphite sheets except that they have been rolled into tubes.  These tubes seem capable of achieving infinite length, theoretically ranging from nanometers to thousands of miles long, although no tube has yet stretched more than a few centimeters.  The tube walls can be composed of one or many layers of carbon sheets.  Nanotubes have shown some incredible properties, and much of the research into nanotechnology to-date has been focused on finding practical applications and improved production methods for nanotubes.  They theoretically have a tensile strength 30 to 100 times that of steel, yet at a mere fraction of the weight, making nanotubes one of the most promising materials ever for the production of such products as airplanes, spacecraft and bullet-proof vests, where light weight and high tensile strength are of extreme importance.

Even more promising are the possible applications of nanotubes in electronic circuitry—depending on a tube’s exact composition and diameter, it may act as a conductor or a semiconductor, giving rise to dreams of superconducting, molecule-sized wires.  Variants of nanotubes have also been made out of other materials, such as silicon and metals that have great potential for both circuitry and optical devices.  One of the most desirable features of such structures is superconductivity.  That is, many of them have almost no electrical resistance, meaning that nanowires lose very little energy in carrying a current and do not build up heat like traditional wires.  As a result, they may be used to create extremely small, energy-efficient circuits—a logical progression in the continuous miniaturization of electronics.  Nanotubes are also efficient conductors of heat.

Single Wall Nanotubes (SWNTs):  Some important distinctions should be taken into account when thinking about nanotubes.  The first nanotubes that were discovered were the relatively low-grade multi-walled tubes, made up of nested tubes, which often have irregularities.  These stand in high contrast to today’s single-walled nanotubes (SWNT) of consistently high quality and important electric properties that may be used in molecular computer chips and nano-sized machines.  SWNTs are superb conductors of electric currents.  The largest obstacle to the commercialization of SWNTs is the fact that they have historically been expensive to manufacture.  Researchers worldwide are working on methods to create them in high quantity on a cost-effective basis.

For example, in mid-2004, Thomas Swan & Co., in the UK, announced a commercial manufacturing process for high-purity SWNTs.  Likewise, in the U.S., Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico is having great success in SWNT production research, and NASA is heavily involved.  Raymor Industries, based in Montreal, Canada, ( ) has a SWNT manufacturing capacity to one kilogram daily (up from 10,000 grams per day in 2006), using a high-power plasma torch technique.  Today, Raymor (which acquired NanoIntegris Technologies in 2012) is a global leader in the production of carbon SWNTs that have applications in electrodes for super-batteries, super-capacities and fuel cells.  In late 2014, Raymor became the first company to commercialize polymer-wrapped, semiconducting carbon nanotubes dispersed in organic solvents for use in ink jet and aerosol jet printing.  Raymor also has a production technique for SWNTs using plasma, which allows production at industrial volumes.

Today’s nanotube advances include printable integrated circuits.  Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created flexible, fast printed circuits with semiconducting “inks” using carbon nanotubes.

Researchers at Rice University’s R. E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology in 2010 had a breakthrough in single-walled nanotubes when they discovered a method to simplify the creation of pure nanotube samples.  These pure samples are often required in potential applications such as semiconductors and nano-machines.  The process, which involves tailored nonlinear density gradients, requires less ultracentrifugation (high-velocity centrifuge used to separate submicroscopic particles) to sort nanotubes into different species.  An instrument that spectroscopically maps nanotube contents was developed as part of the research.

In May 2014, OCSiAI announced a breakthrough commercial manufacturing process for single-walled carbon nanotubes.  The process uses a synthesis method to lower costs and increase output, which was estimated to reach an annual production of one ton in the first years (effectively doubling the previous global production) and increase to as much as 10 tons per year over the mid-term.  The nanotubes are being marketed under the brand TUBALL, and are effectively the first universal additive capable of enhancing mechanical strength and thermal and electrical conductivity of a variety of materials such as composites, metals, batteries, transparent conductive films and polymers.  The price for TUBALL started at $2,000 per kilogram.

Even easier-to-manufacture multi-walled nanotubes (MWNT), consisting of multiple layers of graphite, have found many uses.  Using small quantities as a sort of magic powder to sprinkle in more mundane substances, such as plastics, gives them extraordinary qualities such as increased strength.  Additionally, the carbon structures that were first discovered proved to be only the forefront of a wave of discoveries: tubes, pyramids, cones, horns and other shapes made from much more esoteric substances, utilizing gold, tungsten and sulfur in their construction.

BNNT, LLC ( ), a nanotech firm in Newport News, Virginia, manufactures boron nitride nanotubes that it states are as strong as carbon nanotubes but are more resistant to heat, high voltage and neutron radiation.  Instead of a powder form, boron nitride nanotubes are cotton-like in appearance, and on the molecular scale are about three to five nanometers across, highly crystalline, few-walled and boast an aspect ratio of almost 1 million.

Nanopores:  A nanopore is an extremely small channel between two oppositely-charged fluid reservoirs through which a DNA sequence is squeezed.  Using nanopores could save significant amounts of power and expense if used for the process of desalination.  Instead of reverse osmosis, which is the process of forcing salt water through a membrane that is impermeable to salt (a process that requires a great deal of power to create enough pressure to force the salt water through the membrane), MIT researchers are working with an alternative that uses graphene fabricated with holes too small for salt molecules to pass through.  The system requires far less pressure, making it cheaper and faster to use.  As global population grows, demand for water will increase commensurately, and water processing industries are going to benefit greatly.

Nanoscale Struts and Joints:  Researchers at Caltech have conducted research on a ceramic material on the nanoscale, fashioned of tiny struts and joints that is light enough to float in mid-air and can spring back into shape after being crushed.  The lattice-work shape of the material allows air to permeate it, making it super light.  The concept was originally developed at HRL Laboratories in 2011.  Future applications may include batteries and materials for use in airplanes.



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