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Nanomaterials August 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Bradley

Reducing Costs in CNTs Mass Production

Why is this topic significant?

The potential commercial applications of CNTs are under considerable investigation because of the outstanding physical properties that the materials exhibit. However, CNTs suffer from a significant disadvantage: their high cost.

Description

Researchers at Northwestern University developed an additive-free method to produce carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with rheological and viscoelastic properties similar to the properties of currently available polymers. The researchers used cresol solvents to disperse powders that contain CNTs in various concentrations. Increasing the concentration of CNTs enables the nanotubes to transition from dilute dispersion to a thick paste, a freestanding gel, and a kneadable playdough-like material. Following CNT dispersion, the researchers wash or heat the material to remove the cresol solvents. The researchers claim that they can scale up the method to industrial production without affecting the purity of the CNTs. The researchers can shape, mold, and use the playdough-like CNT material for various applications such as three-dimensional printing. The new CNT material also offers high processability, enabling manufacturers to use it with currently available material-processing technologies to mass-produce CNT products with custom structures.

Implications

Researchers have hailed CNTs since their discovery for their outstanding mechanical and electronic properties: They can be 100 times stronger than steel and have over 70 times the electron mobility of silicon. CNTs' unique properties are likely to continue to enable manufacturers to develop a wide range of high-end products, such as sensors, electronic devices, consumer goods, and auto parts. However, a key obstacle to the commercial development of CNT products has been the difficulty of synthesizing CNTs with high purity, high yield, and uniform dimensions. Overcoming this obstacle—as the Northwestern University researchers claim to have done—without the use of additives that can alter the surface properties of CNTs is likely to bring down the cost of mass-producing CNTs. Low-cost CNTs available in large volumes will be necessary for new CNT products to see adoption in mass-market applications such as in the electronics industry.

Impacts/Disruptions

CNT has broken the barrier of being a novel but niche material and, with a range of already-established applications, is set for market growth: MarketsandMarkets forecasts annual growth at about 17% through 2022. Partnerships between research organizations and CNT-product developers will be key enablers in advancing CNT applications. However, these developers may still have to consider the cost of ensuring and certifying the CNTs' property data and the challenges of receiving certification for new structural components.

Reducing manufacturing cost may be insufficient to guarantee the success of nanomaterials such as CNTs. Some manufacturers tend to be risk averse in adopting new nanomaterials. Even if those materials are compatible with existing manufacturing processes and capital equipment, little incentive exists to take the financial and technical risks and difficulties in bringing nanomaterials-based products to market without the promise of substantial benefit over well-understood conventional materials.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

CNT mass production, nanocomposite manufacturing, nanoelectronics, sensors, nanosensors, auto parts, consumer products, medical devices

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Nanomaterials-Enabled Direct Solar Desalination

By Susan Leiby
Leiby is a principal consultant with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

The development of one-step solar-desalination technology is progressing and could represent a major advance in providing safe drinking water to millions of people worldwide.

Description

In July 2018, the US Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $1.7 million to researchers at Rice University to further develop and field test its nanophotonics-enabled solar-membrane-distillation (NESMD) technology. Rice University's Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), a multi-institutional engineering research center, pioneered the development of light-harvesting nanoparticles to convert sunlight into heat. NESMD embeds light-capturing carbon-black nanoparticles (suppliers include Massachusetts-based Cabot Corporation) within a polymer coating on a commercially available membrane. This thin layer creates a sunlight-to-heating element that can drive water desalination by membrane distillation. The tiny nanoparticles have an extremely large surface-area-to-volume ratio that enables them to absorb large volumes of sunlight quickly. The resulting intense heating then creates steam at the surface of the particles.

In 2017, the researchers reported that a lab-scale NESMD prototype, including a lens to concentrate sunlight, produced six liters per hour of desalinated water per square meter of light-harvesting membrane. The system is easily scalable and offers very high thermal efficiency—eliminating the need for external energy sources to heat the input water.

Implications

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) established NEWT in 2015 to develop NESMD for portable off-grid water desalination to provide clean water to people who lack it. The technology shows promise and continues to attract considerable funding for development. NEWT has received more than $40 million, including $18.5 million (which could see renewal) from the NSF and funding from industrial partners across the value chain (nanomaterial, equipment, and water-service providers and end users). Other technology approaches for off-grid solar-thermal desalination also exist, however. The DOE's Solar Desalination program is funding 14 novel research projects for a range of potential applications. The levelized-cost-of-water target for small-scale plants processing low-volume, high-salinity water is $1.50 per cubic meter.

Water desalination needs are increasing worldwide, but currently available desalination processes are very energy intensive. Numerous organizations are working on a variety of advanced nanomaterials—especially carbon nanotubes, zeolites, and graphene—to create more energy-efficient, highly-selective membranes for desalination and other water-purification applications (see the June 2016 Viewpoints). The cost of manufacturing nanomaterials can be high, but energy savings that reduce process costs significantly could offset the cost of the nanomaterials. A potential barrier to the use of nanomaterials in water desalination is their impact on human health and ecosystems. Such assessments are very limited, thus far.

Impacts/Disruptions

Successful development of NESMD could be a game changer for the nearly 1 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water (many of whom also lack reliable power supplies). Nanomaterials-enabled direct solar-distillation desalination could also see use in applications such as emergency response, rural water systems, wastewater treatment, and water-reuse systems at remote industrial sites (the DOE is targeting recycling of brine from oil and gas operations). Significant commercial markets are probably at least ten years away, but new nanomaterials could enable much more efficient, lower-cost, and lower-carbon-footprint water-desalination technologies.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Nanoparticles, nanophotonics, desalination, water purification, oil-and-gas exploration

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: