Current and projected carbon nanotube business market

US-based BCC Research is forecasting the global market for carbon nanotubes to reach $79.1m in 2007.

This is up by 55% from the $50.9m that BCC estimates the global market was worth in 2006 and the group predicts even stronger growth ahead.

At a compound annual growth rate of 73.8%, the booming market for carbon nanotubes will reach $807.3m by 2011, according to a report by the group.

Composites held the largest share of the market by a wide margin. In 2006 they were worth more than $43m, more than 80% of the total global industry. By 2011, this sector will be worth $451.2m, BCC said.

The carbon nanotube companies are consolidating. Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. and Unidym to merged into a nanotube blockbuster company—patents were key to the deal. The resulting company will be the first “vertically integrated” carbon nanotube electronics company, both manufacturing the material and using it in an electronics application.

“We believe this deal is transformational for the industry and will enable more rapid commercialization of products incorporating nanotubes, since so much of the intellectual property can now be licensed from one company,” says R. Bruce Stewart, chairman of Arrowhead Research, the majority owner of Unidym. The deal is expected to close in April. The combined company will retain the Unidym name.

Unidym is developing a technology to replace indium tin-oxide (ITO) as the transparent conductor that forms the wires in flat panel displays and solar cells. The overall market for the material is thought to be worth $1 billion per year.

Unidym’s solution is a mesh of randomly oriented conductive carbon nanotubes. According to the company, the nanotube mesh is more flexible, more transparent, easier to apply, and more conductive than ITO. Unidym also plans to construct nanotube-based electrodes for fuel cells. The company, whose work is based largely on the research of University of California, Los Angeles, physicist George Grüner, is also developing nanotube-based thin-film transistors, which would compete with organic semiconductors to form the pixel control elements in future flexible displays.

CNI, a Houston-based firm spun out of Rice University, is the largest manufacturer of carbon nanotubes in the world. But its patent portfolio, comprising about 100 patents, goes beyond manufacturing nanotubes to include methods for making nanotube ropes and fibers, as well as supercapacitors.

Even after the merger, though, Unidym will be one of a few big IP holders, including IBM, NEC, Intel, and Stanford University. Some legal advisors suggest a forum where major patent holders, universities, seekers of licenses, and the Justice Department could examine the nanotube patent problem and perhaps work out a solution.