Nanotubes: Directions and Technologies

Published - Nov 2000| Analyst - Sam Brauer| Code - NAN024A
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Report Highlights

  • Nanotubes, cylinders of carbon atoms with diameters ranging from 1 nm to 300 nm, are some of the strongest, stiffest materials known. Furthermore, these materials are either conductors or semi-conductors, depending on their structure and environment. Nanotubes have some physical properties that have no counterpart in macroscopic materials.
  • With advances in synthetic techniques and the ability to characterize materials readily on an atomic scale, interest has been piqued in nanometer-size materials. Since nanometer-size grains, cylinders, and plates have dramatically increased surface areas compared to their conventional-size materials, the chemistry of these nano-size materials is altered compared to conventional materials.
  • Macroscopic carbon compounds, such as diamond and graphite, have been known for centuries. These two forms of carbon compounds have been used in various applications ranging from lubricants to wear-resistant coatings. Although these materials have been available for many years, new applications of these materials are still being discovered today. It is clear that both graphite and diamond are economically important materials.

INTRODUCTION

OBJECTIVE AND PURPOSE OF THIS REPORT

This report focuses on carbon nanotubes — their technology, production, and applications. There has been enormous interest in the commercialization of nanotubes for both near and distant applications and several of these applications will be successful shortly.

Nanotubes, cylinders of carbon atoms with diameters ranging from 1 nm to 300 nm, are some of the strongest, stiffest materials known. Furthermore, these materials are either conductors or semi-conductors, depending on their structure and environment. Nanotubes have some physical properties that have no counterpart in macroscopic materials.

With advances in synthetic techniques and the ability to characterize materials readily on an atomic scale, interest has been piqued in nanometer-size materials. Since nanometer-size grains, cylinders, and plates have dramatically increased surface areas compared to their conventional-size materials, the chemistry of these nano-size materials is altered compared to conventional materials.

Macroscopic carbon compounds, such as diamond and graphite, have been known for centuries. These two forms of carbon compounds have been used in various applications ranging from lubricants to wear-resistant coatings. Although these materials have been available for many years, new applications of these materials are still being discovered today. It is clear that both graphite and diamond are economically important materials.

For many years it was thought that graphite and diamond represented the only two stable forms of carbon-only compounds. Thus, it came as quite a surprise when Richard Smalley and coworkers at Rice University in 1985 announced the discovery of a new form of carbon compound. These carbon compounds were called "fullerenes," or "buckyballs," after Buckminster Fuller. Buckminster Fuller is best known for developing the geodesic dome, and the new carbon compounds greatly resembled these domes, albeit at an atomic level. The first fullerenes to be characterized consisted of 60 carbon atoms arranged like a soccer ball.

Since the two known forms of carbon, diamond and graphite, have proven to be very useful materials, it was hoped that fullerenes would prove valuable as well. Unfortunately, although these compounds stirred a great deal of interest, their primary value to date has been for academic researchers, who have received innumerable grants to study these compounds. No applications to take advantage of these molecules' structures have been developed, although there is still a great deal of research being carried out on drug delivery systems.

In the past decade, Iijima at NEC discovered a similar type of molecule, a fullerene that which was cylindrical rather than spherical. These cylindrical fullerenes have a much wider range of potential applications compared to the spherical molecules, and already these compounds have been used in some limited applications.

While it is impossible to make a wire out of a sphere, cylinders are another matter. Characterization of the fullerene cylinders, soon termed "nanotubes," showed that there were a range of conductivities of these molecules. Therefore, it was theoretically possible to use nanotubes to produce wires that were orders of magnitude smaller and lighter than anything previously technologically possible. Cylinders can also be used to make fibers or construct weaves or mesh — something that cannot be accomplished with spheres. Thus, nanotubes are really much more versatile than the first buckyballs, and are being studied for a much broader range of applications.

This report summarizes the status of nanotube production and technology. It also covers the applications for these nanotubes and estimates their possible future markets. Armed with this information, readers with interests can then make sound judgements regarding marketing strategies, investment decisions, or strategic plans concerning the market for nanotubes. This report has been written to be readily accessible for those readers with a background, but accuracy concerning the technical aspects of nanotube manufacture and applications has not been sacrificed.

REASONS FOR THIS STUDY

While there has been much ballyhoo in the popular press concerning the wonders of nanotubes, it is difficult to get solid information on how much of these nanotubes are being produced and sold. Furthermore, many articles have presented wildly misleading information concerning these materials' manufacture, markets, and applications. This report offers a timely picture of trends for nanotubes that cannot be obtained from other sources.

CONTRIBUTION OF THE STUDY

This report shows the current (negligible) size and the future size of the nanotubes market in the U.S. and globally. Since research on nanotubes is being done worldwide, this report covers developments in all regions of the world. However, there are large sums of money being appropriated for nanotube research by Congress; thus, the U.S. will be one of the countries at the forefront of nanotube research and development for some years to come. Readers of this report will be able to distinguish the hype concerning the uses of nanotubes from the reality of the market. A number of the potentially significant markets of nanotubes have received relatively little press, and many of the published articles concerning the uses of these materials do not provide an accurate picture. This report will also show what applications are achievable without any new breakthroughs in production methodology of nanotubes, and what applications require nanotubes to be produced much less expensively.

SCOPE AND FORMAT

In order to generate the information necessary to construct a reasonable future market for nanotubes, it is necessary to take a hardheaded look at the potential advantages and pitfalls of these materials. However, given the novel applications of nanotubes, it can be difficult to compare these materials to more conventional macroscopic materials. Furthermore, nanotubes do offer the possibility of revolutionary, rather than evolutionary developments in many product applications.

While many applications of nanotubes are clearly not going to happen in the next decade (especially the highly touted replacement of silicon in integrated circuits), this does not mean that there will be no applications of nanotubes in other markets. Thus, this report focuses on near-term potential applications of nanotubes, rather than applications that require major technological leaps, such as micro-electromechanical (MEM) applications or other electronic applications of nanotubes. Therefore, applications of nanotube materials that are possible within 5 to 10 years are discussed.

The report is broken into six sections. First there is a technology overview that gives the broad details of nanotubes, along with some of their physical properties and methods of manufacture. Next there is an extensive description of the industry that is developing the manufacturing capability for nanotubes. Firms that are developing applications for nanotubes include automotive manufacturers, chemical firms, electronic manufacturers, display firms, and others. These firms are described in the section on company profiles. Following this section on industry structure is a brief description of the government and academic laboratories that have been doing extensive research in nanotubes, after which there is a description of nanotubes by type, followed by a description of the markets for nanotubes, including future trends. The report concludes with a section on the patents that have been filed pertaining to nanotubes.

METHODOLOGY AND SOURCES OF INFORMATION

This report is the end result of four months of concerted effort by the author. The primary sources of information for writing this report came from interviews with several dozen people in industry, academia, and the government. The author also attended meetings and conferences, and much precious insight was gained from these sources as well. Many of the people interviewed are recognized authorities in the field and provided invaluable assistance, and the author would like to thank all who took the time to offer their help with this project. Secondary sources used for this report include a number of publications by the federal government, plus items gleaned from the Internet, corporate literature, and publications in the peer-reviewed literature.

Anytime an estimate for a number has been made, the underlying assumptions are discussed. Thus, if the reader chooses to interpret the raw data in a differing manner, it is possible to do so. Dollar amounts are in constant 1999 dollars, and average annual growth rates (AAGR%) are calculated using standard tables.

AUTHOR'S CREDENTIALS

The author has published over 10 reports with Communications Co., Inc. (BCC), several of which related directly to this report. The author has also performed custom studies for BCC, has presented original research to corporate clients, and holds a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. Research included the formation of chromium complexes in an interdisciplinary group; and the author is also a member of SAMPE (Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering.).

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