Here is the John Dorr interview by Sander Olson. Mr. Dorr is the Vice-President of Business Development at Nanocomp Technologies. Nanocomp Technologies is a technology development that is capable of mass-producing nanotubes in the millimeter size range. The company is producing large nanotube sheets and wires which have superior properties to conventional materials. The military is heavily investing in nanotube technology, and as a result the cost of nanotubes is steadily falling while the performance and capabilities of nanotubes continues to rise. Nanocomp is scaling up its production facilities, which should further reduce the cost of nanotube products
Question: Many companies are offering nanotubes. What makes Nanocomp’s offerings special?
Answer: Nanocomp is based out of Concord, New Hampshire, and has been producing nanotube-based products for six years. At present, we are the leading American manufacturer of material from pure carbon nanotubes – both in terms of product performance and production output. Unlike most companies that deliver nanotubes in powder form, like black talcum powder, we produce longer nanotubes that can be manufactured into deliverable “macrostructures” that not only carry forward the attractive properties of each individual nanotube, but can also be inserted easily into existing applications and manufacturing processes.
Question: How much have the cost of carbon nanotubes dropped in the past decade?
Answer: Costs have dropped by orders of magnitude during the past decade. Our basic core manufacturing components, such as grain alcohol and hydrogen, are inexpensive, so in theory nanotube materials can be inexpensively mass-produced. We rigorously track the projected costs of making our materials, and we know that the price of our products will continuously fall as we scale-up.
Question: Nanocomp has succeeded in making nanotubes millimeters in length. How long before your company can provide nanotubes of arbitrary length?
Answer: We are capable of producing millimeter long tubes in bulk. Although I can’t say when we will be able to cost-effectively produce nanotubes in longer lengths, we are about to open a factory which will produce sheets and threads on a much more scalable basis. So we know that the performance of our materials will steadily improve and that our prices will continue to fall.
Question: Is Nanocomp able to precisely control the chirality of nanotubes?
Answer: No, and I’m fairly confident that no one else can, either. Customers rarely ask if our nanotubes are single-walled or double-walled, because it doesn’t necessarily affect their end-applications. During the next decade, technology should progress to the point where we can precisely control the process of production. At that point we should be able to manufacture tubes with a variety of “tuned” attributes designed for specific applications.
Question: Tell us about the new body armor that Nanocomp has developed.
Answer: Under a series of research grants by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center, we have been developing body armor technology for the Army for some time now. Although we are not close to having a commercial product at this time, we have succeeded in advancing the state of the art. In controlled ballistics testing, for example, Nanocomp has shown that a multi-layer coupon of our nanotube material can stop a 9 mm bullet. Future body armor solutions may include nanotube sheets to augment traditional materials.
Question: It would seem that the aerospace industry would be very interested in your nanotubes.
Answer: Nanotubes have enormous potential in the aerospace industry. For coaxial cables, we have shielding made out of a tape format of our CNT sheets, which reduces the cables’ weight by 50 percent. A 787, for example, might have 60 miles of cable, so the weight savings in that alone would be considerable. Eventually, we would like to be able to create nanotube composites that could be used in airframes and perhaps even engines.
Question: What about energy storage? How would the energy density compare with that of conventional batteries?
Answer: We have done internal research on this subject, and we are collaborating with some other organizations which also see the potential. These are early days but the potential for using these materials for energy storage, and even thermo-electric power generation, is huge.
Question: The military has been sponsoring your research. What military organizations are funding you?
Answer: DARPA is a major recent funder, but the Office of Naval Research was one of our original supporters along with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. We have also done work with the Air Force Research Labs, and other government agencies. In total, it is a rather broad and impressive portfolio.
Question: Have any venture capitalists shown interest in Nanocomp?
Answer: Although we have a small amount of outside private funding, we have been building our company largely through contracts with a number of Government agencies, combined with an increasing success selling our products in the marketplace.
Question: Will the frenetic pace of nanotube research increase or decrease in the next five years?
Answer: I think that the pace of improvement in carbon nanotubes over the next five years will be even greater than during the past decade. This business is often typified by hype more than reality, and this has contributed to a hesitancy by the marketplace to take this technology seriously. We are currently producing sheets and wires that have superior properties to many conventional materials, and we are investing heavily to scale-up production. The combination of high R&D funding and scale-up investment will be a powerful momentum builder.
Question: Your nanowire already has a strength of up to 3 Gpascals. Yet carbon nanotubes have shown strength of up to 63 gpascals. To what extent can you increase the strength of your wires?
Answer: Our goal has always been to carry the analogous properties of individual nanotubes forward to the macro scale. We are currently working under a contract with DARPA that is specifically focused on increasing the strength of our products. So we expect to increase the strength of our materials over the next few years. Since our products are already superior to many conventional products, one can imagine the potential if the actual strength came anywhere close to matching the theoretical properties of individual nanotubes.
Question: How does the conductivity of a nanotube wire compare with a copper wire?
Answer: Nanotubes have much better conductivity than copper at higher frequencies. In theory, if all of the nanotubes were lined up perfectly with their neighbors, a nanotube wire would behave essentially as a superconductor. In the real world the tubes are entangled and isotropic. But, in this case, the technology is steadily improving.
Question: What progress do you foresee in carbon nanotubes by 2020?
Answer: This technology is in an exponential growth phase, so we should see nanotube materials go through accelerated adoption during the next decade. Few technologies on the near-term horizon offer the potential for game-changing results as do carbon nanotube products, but in an age where the state-of-the-art in global defense, transportation and energy depend on meaningful advancement and delivery of novel materials, it is critical to view scalability to be as important as product performance itself. We do, however, envision that the nanotube materials market will grow into a multi-billion dollar industry.