Enabling Large Scale Applications of
Carbon Nanotube Based Materials
Since being discovered in 1991, carbon nanotubes (CNT) attracted a lot of attention and were intensely studied by many of the best researchers all over the world generating tens of thousands of publications and thousands of patents. The excitement around this wonder material was due not only to fascinating molecular structure but also a premium package of unique properties such as unmatched strength and toughness combined with light weight, semiconducting performance exceeding that of silicon, ballistic electrical transport, chemical inertness, high surface area, high thermal conductivity, high aspect ratio, and many others.
However, in spite of all these activities and tremendous amount of resources spent on the research and development over the last twenty plus years, real-world breakthrough CNT products haven't yet materialized. What are the missing pieces of the commercialization puzzle that needs to be put in place to finally unleash the enormous latent potential of CNT materials?
Of course, there is the proverbial gap between academic research and industrial products. And then, there are also purely technical issues. For example, until recently, the availability of consistent high quality CNT material was considered a major, if not the key, obstacle for large-scale commercialization. However, this problem has been largely solved since. Currently, reasonably good quality CNT materials are manufactured by many companies and are readily available in variety of diameters, lengths, purity levels, and prices.
The CNT market is growing rapidly driven mainly by unmatched mechanical and electrical/thermal transport properties. The global carbon nanotubes market size was over US $1 billion in 2015 and expected to reach over US $5 billion by 2020. In terms of value, the largest market share in 2015 belonged to electronics and semiconductors applications. In terms of volume, the highest growth rate between 2015 and 2020 is expected in aerospace and defense applications. In terms of geographic area, the largest market volume for carbon nanotubes is in the Asia-Pacific, and this region is also projected to have the highest growth rate between 2015 and 2020.
Carbon nanotubes may be used in many applications such as additives for structural reinforcement, wear resistance, electrostatic discharge, electromagnetic shielding in polymers, resins, ceramics, other matrices, various energy storage/conversion devices (batteries, capacitors, fuel cells, solar cells, thermoelectrics), sensors, displays, coatings, lubricants, thin films, biomedical applications. A number of review articles were published discussing potential applications for CNT materials, for example, by Ray Baughman, Morinobu Endo, Jan Schnorr, Michael De Volder, Valeria Amenta.
Many researchers who worked hands-on with CNTs have come to realize that CNT powder is very difficult to handle. The powder is easily airborne and tends to cling to pretty much all surfaces (including human skin) presenting containment and health challenges. The powder is usually heavily aggregated rendering the outstanding nanoscale properties of the CNT material almost useless.
To commercialize most of these exciting applications, CNT material has to be available as dispersion, a form that is much more conducive for processing. The availability of carbon nanotubes as dispersions rather than as powders is the factor behind the commercialization bottleneck. Currently available CNT dispersions relying on use of surfactants or high density chemical functionalization are not fully adequate to support large scale applications. The reason is, not only these dispersions require complicated post- or pre-processing and generate hazardous waste, they also deliver non-optimum material properties.
To mitigate the problem, Voxelum developed a fundamentally new technology that can, for the first time, produce stable CNT dispersions that do not have any additives, do not compromise material properties, and do not require any post/pre-processing steps. The Voxelum technology is sustainable and fully scalable, and transition to large scale manufacturing is expected to bring the dispersion prices down to the levels adequate for practical applications. Hence, please don't let the material price factor discourage you: the prices may be notably lower for industrial scale technology.
Adoption of Voxelum dispersions may result in greatly simplified process, cost and time savings, improved product performance, reduction of waste, and better overall sustainability of the entire chain. Adoption of the additive-free CNT dispersions may turn out to be the key that unlocks large scale applications of CNT materials in commercial products.