by Karl Burkhart
I recently sat down for an e-chat with John Dorr, vice president ofNanocomp, a new and exciting company that has taken nanotechnology out of the laboratory and into production, manufacturing new materials with strange and almost unbelievable properties.
Karl Burkart: So Nanocomp produces textile sheets made from carbon nanotubes, and your materials actually conduct electricity?
John Dorr: Yes, we produce macro materials in the form of nonwoven mats and yarns (or threads). They are in the form of pure nanotubes without any binders. The sheets actually look like carbon paper.
And from what I understand, these materials are incredibly strong–strong enough to stop bullets. It just seems like Star Trek.
It’s easy to get carried away with the properties, so I would put that in some perspective. For example, a single sheet will not stop a bullet, but there is great promise of our materials having a meaningful role in armor solutions as either part of a hybrid solution or many layers of CNT by themselves. The particular stop you mention was accomplished with over 100 layers of our material, or the thickness of several business cards. It was able to stop a 9mm round in that example.
While armor is a highly visible application, the real near-term benefit of our materials is in electrical applications such as EMI shielding, wire/cable (copper replacement for weight savings), etc.
So I’m counting three major properties of the Nanocomp material–amorphous conductivity, electromagnetic shielding and physical shielding.
I would add that our materials are also thermally conductive, which is an added benefit depending on the application.
With all these miraculous properties and obvious military applications, will this ever see the light of day outside the U.S.military?
The Department of Defense is always the early adopter for emerging technology. However, we are very focused on scale, which will drive cost down and volumes up to a level that will appeal to certain commercial applications.
I was just at NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] and saw a demo of a new superconductive power cable, but could your nanocables leapfrog over that technology? Nanocomp wouldn’t need coolant, so it would ultimately be cheaper to produce, I imagine. Will Nanocomp offer the electrical cable of the future?
We have a long way to go before we can compete with DC power cables–both from a properties point-of-view and in your specific example, capacity as well. Our near-term focus with wire is in higher-frequency applications where we significantly outperform copper.
It’s interesting that when you use our sheet material in a tape format for replacing cable shielding, you can obtain as good or better electrical performance with significantly less weight. This has great appeal to many applications, as you might imagine.
What do you think will be the nearest-term applications? And what are the most exciting long-term ones?
Near-term it’s “all things electrical.” We can do some amazing things today as an alternative to copper for wiring as well as for EMI protection in weight-sensitive applications. Longer-term will be applications that demand greater material capacity, such as armor.
It’s important to note that we are one of the few U.S.-based manufacturers of nanomaterial at the macro scale, unlike others that focus on CNT powder solutions such as those used in battery applications and elsewhere. We’re striving to develop materials that are easily integrated into existing manufacturing processes or end-user applications.
When do you think you might meet cost parity for cooper wiring of, say, an aircraft or home? And are there benefits that make added costs worth higher costs in the beginning?
Home is a long way off, because we’d be competing in a commodity market. However, there is real and tangible near-term benefit that can be accrued in aerospace, so we can see implementations beginning in months or years vs. decades. In the case of EMI sheets, you can also potentially gain structural advantage, lightning protection–simultaneous advantages if you will. As you probably know, there is a lot of hype in this business. We strive to keep it real and focus on technology solutions that show immediate promise.
Who invented the Nanocomp technology?
There was a lot of early work by Japan’s Endo and also Richard Smalley. Our specific advances have to do with longer nanotubes [producing improved properties] and the ability to scale them into a large manufacturing environment. It’s worth checking out nanocomptech.com, and especially check out the movies on our site that show our materials being made.
One question on the environmental side: Since your material is made with carbon and titanium dioxide, does it mean all your materials are nontoxic? Do they decompose?
Safety is a big deal for us. We do not use carcinogenic catalysts in our manufacturing processes [such as nickel or cobalt]. In addition, we have been vetted by many government and university entities for safety, with impressive results. The bottom line is that our materials do not decompose at the nano scale, and thus present no hazard from a handling point of view.
Given all the hype in the nano world, what would you say really distinguishes you from other nanotechnology companies?
We started from day one to build a scalable manufacturing enterprise, not a research institution. That is what gives us distinction in this business and has drawn so much attention. When I tell people that we can produce 10 kilometers of yarn in a week or send them a 200-foot sheet of material, they are amazed. Frankly, the industry needs more of that reality, and that’s our vision for the future.
Karl Burkart blogs about technology for the Mother Nature Network.