September 12, 2003 4:00 AM PDT

Here come the nanotubes

Carbon Nanotechnologies, the company that produces carbon nanotubes for IBM and various research institutions, plans to expand production over the next two years, a move that could help jump-start commercial deployment of nanotubes.

The Houston-based company plans to increase production of single-walled carbon nanotubes to around 100 pounds of nanotubes a day, according to Tom Pitstick, director of business development for the company. CNI will also begin erecting a full-scale commercial plant capable of producing 1,000 pounds of tubes a day in 2005.

Right now, the company can produce only around a pound or two a day, and typically makes only around 2 pounds a week.

"We will be able to produce some relatively real volumes in 2004," Pitstick said. Although volumes are low now, the first commercial products featuring CNI's nanotubes will come out later this year.

In the past few years, carbon nanotubes have become the leading celebrity in the world of materials research. Single-walled nanotubes--the kind CNI manufacturers--are microscopic spools of carbon atoms that resemble a single coil of chicken wire.

Due to their size and the inherent properties of carbon, the tubes can conduct electricity better than copper and heat better than diamonds, said Hongjie Dai, an associate professor of chemistry at Stanford. They are also flexible yet extremely strong.

Some of the first commercial applications will involve sticking nanotubes into paints or plastics to allow them to conduct electricity. In this way, lighter plastic parts could replace metal in certain products. Pitstick, in fact, said that the product using CNI's tubes coming later this year is a conductive polymer. Coatings infused with carbon nanotubes could also serve to deflect static electricity or absorb radar.

Years down the road, the tubes could be used to carry signals in optical fibers or replace traditional transistors in semiconductors.

However, the industry is currently stuck with the familiar chicken-and-egg dilemma.

"There are almost no applications for this material today and there are also no plants for producing this material today," Pitstick said. "There is not much capacity."

Carbon nanotubes are also expensive. Currently, CNI charges $500 a gram for the materials. Additionally, techniques for purifying them--sorting good tubes from bad ones--and ways to incorporate tubes into other products need to be perfected. Some of these tasks may require Nobel-quality breakthroughs, said Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at Lux Capital, a venture firm concentrating on nanotechnology

CNI was co-founded by Richard Smalley, a Rice University professor and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Rice licenses the technology developed in its labs to CNI.

 

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