Bringing carbon nanotube products to market is a chicken-and-egg problem. Companies with potential applications need a steady supply of high-quality tubes in sufficient quantity to manufacture commercial products. And suppliers must perceive a large enough market before investing in facilities that can turn out nanotubes in volume.
But engineersincluding Ben Wang at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineeringare champing at the bit to realize their nanotube dreams. As demand has grown, some high-tech companies have responded with plans and investments in plants to make carbon nanotubes in commercially useful quantities.
Suppliers face technical hurdles in scaling up laboratory methods of nanotube production to industrial size. Additional challenges arise in assuring the quality and purity of the final product. Nanotubes are so tinya billionth of a meter wide and maybe a millionth of a meter longthat quality assurance and testing require sophisticated techniques such as electron microscopy and various types of high-tech spectroscopy.
Furthermore, single-walled nanotubes, favored by Wang and others for certain applications, are more difficult to manufacture than their multi-walled cousins.
Worldwide, there are over 200 suppliers selling nanotubes. Many, however, are primarily research outfits that make a few extra bucks selling excess nanotubes to other researchers. Only a dozen or so companies can be considered major suppliers.
Following are examples of a few single-walled nanotube suppliers:
- Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc., co-founded by the late Richard Smalley of Rice (Smalley died in October 2005), is a leading supplier of single-walled tubes. The company operates several pilot plants in Houston, Texas. Its newest commercial demonstration units are designed to produce 100 pounds of nanotubes per day.
- Thomas Swan & Co. in the United Kingdom built a facility, developed in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, to produce nanotubes in commercial quantities. In 2005 the plant was making two kilograms of single-walled nanotubes per month.
- Advanced Powders and Coatings, a subsidiary of Raymor Industries, began commercial production of single-walled nanotubes in 2005. The Canadian company's expressed goal is to manufacture 10 kilograms of nanotubes per day.
- SouthWest NanoTechnologies, based in Norman, Oklahoma, makes single-walled tubes with technology developed at the University of Oklahoma. The company says its processes are scalable to produce tubes in commercial amounts.
- The Greek company Nanothinx has a pilot plant for producing both single-walled and multiwalled nanotubes and says it is developing large-scale production processes.
- Likewise, Guangzhou HeJi, Inc., in China makes both varieties of tubes with processes it says are scalable for volume manufacturing.