Thomas Swan Commission Commercial Carbon Nanotube Production Process

The UK’s first commercial manufacturing process for high-purity single-wall carbon nanotubes has been commissioned by the performance chemicals company, Thomas Swan & Co. Ltd.

Since their discovery in 1991, carbon nanotubes have promised the development of a wide range of applications and novel products, but commercial research and development into these applications has been constrained by the lack of a reliable manufacturing process.

The availability of commercially produced carbon nanotubes of a consistent quality and at an accessible price is expected to unlock the potential for a wide range of industrial applications including ultra-strong materials (lightweight plastics that are 100 times stronger than steel), conductive composites and new electrical and electronic devices.

An ongoing collaboration between Cambridge University and chemical innovators Thomas Swan & Co. Ltd., has resolved the technical issues in scaling-up existing laboratory production techniques into a commercial process.

Tom Swan, Chairman of Thomas Swan & Co. Ltd. comments: “This is a very important step towards the development of a wide range of fascinating new products from lighter, fuel-efficient planes to conductive plastics that are stronger than metal. Carbon nanotubes are an exciting new raw material and I hope that today’s announcement will assist scientists and engineers around the world to harness their true potential.”

The breakthrough at Thomas Swan & Co. Ltd. is to have devised a scalable manufacturing process that produces high purity single-wall carbon nanotubes in greater quantities than is currently possible in the laboratory. Working with the Department of Materials Science and the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University, Swans have proven a reliable production technique and a fully operational plant has been commissioned at their Consett site, in North East England. The plant uses a chemical vapour deposition (CVD) process and the carbon nanomaterial products are being marketed under the Swan brand name of ELICARB™.

Carbon nanotubes are large molecules of pure carbon that resemble rolled up sheets of graphite. The tubes are approximately one nanometre in diameter - about 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. Despite their size they display a remarkable range of physical and chemical properties. They are almost 100 times stronger than steel by weight, and are potentially the best conductors of heat and electricity ever discovered. These key features can be used to create a variety of new and improved materials.

Carbon nanotube based composites are being widely researched to develop ultra lightweight and extremely strong materials for aerospace and other high performance applications such as defence (body armour), sports equipment (yacht masts, tennis racquets and fishing rods) and the automotive industry (car body panels).

Carbon nanotubes have also been used as an additive to create plastics that conduct electricity and heat without altering the performance of the plastic. This has a major application in electronics for shielding delicate systems from static build-up and from overheating.

On a larger scale, car manufacturers are exploring the use of conductive plastics for car body panels. This allows electrostatic spray painting thereby reducing the need for primers. This improves painting reliability, reduces costs and lessens the impact on the environment by reducing the use of volatile organic solvents. Conductive plastics have also been used to make conductive fuel lines for cars, reducing the risk of static build-up and the danger of a spark.

Carbon nanotubes are also being used to develop exciting new electrical and electronic devices. Their high conductivity and unique characteristics outperform many conventional materials – promising applications in flat screen displays, super-capacitors, electromagnetic shielding, advanced microchips for computers and nano-electronics.

For more information on carbon nanotubes, click here.

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