Most of the commercial activity involves the use of hollow multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs), which are a single tube with five to 15 layers; and the closely related carbon nanofibers (CNFs). Less advanced commercially are single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), which are hollow tubes with one layer.
Although high cost is a hurdle to commercialization of all these carbon nano-particles, SWCNTs have a much higher barrier to leap, as their prices are 50 to 100 times above MWCNTs or CNFs.
Who are the producers of carbon nanotubes
The field of entrants into carbon nanotubes has expanded rapidly since the expiration of patents held by the 25-year-old pioneer of carbon nanotubes, Hyperion Catalysis International. In the last three years, Hyperion has reportedly scaled-up to full-scale manufacturing capacity of its “Fibril” MWCNTs, although the firm will not disclose its capacity. Hyperion is the only carbon nanotube supplier that sells its product in resin masterbatches.
Last year Bayer MaterialScience unveiled a new process for making electrically conductive MWCNTs on an industrial scale with consistent purity and considerably lower cost. Bayer sees potential for its Baytubes in electrostatically paintable automotive parts, antistatic films for packaging electronic components, and EMI shielding of computers and cell-phone housings.
Baytubes are said to comprise up to 15 graphene layers (more than most other MWCNTs, which typically have six to seven layers). Bayer has scaled up its production pilot plant from 30 to 60 tons/yr. The next step reportedly will be to boost capacity to 200 tons/yr in the next two years, with an industrial-scale 3000-ton (6.6-million lb) plant envisioned for 2011-12.
Another key player is France’s Arkema, with its Graphistrength MWCNTs. Chris Roger, director of corporate and external research in Philadelphia, says the company has been operating a pilot unit since early 2006 in the south of France that is producing 10 mt/yr (22,000 lb/yr) and is now running five days a week, 24 hr a day. “This is our first scale-up, with the next one scheduled for 2010/2011 and planned to produce a few hundred tons per year.”
Another new entrant is Belgium’s Nanocyl, which had been operating a 5-ton/yr pilot plant, but is due to start up 35-ton/yr commercial capacity next month. North American marketing manager Andy Rich says a significant part of the capacity from the new plant has been pre-sold. As a result, another scale-up is being planned.
Pyrograf Products has been working on both larger capacity and quality control over the last five years, according to Max Lake, president. “We now have 25 mt/yr and by 2009 we expect to be sold out,” he says. Pyrograf aims to expand to 100 mt/yr by 2009 and potentially by as much as 1 million lb/yr by 2012.
Three other players appear to be scaling up. One is San-Diego-based Ahwahnee Inc., which has reportedly developed a process to allow for the highest volume production of economical MWCNTs, and is seeking partners to develop applications such as reinforced and conductive composites.
Two South Korean companies are also said to be actively seeking partners in the U.S. One is Carbon Nano-Material Technology, which produces CNFs, and claims to have a mass-production technology at a cost only 20% to 30% as high as existing technology.
The other is Iljin Nanotech, which can currently supply both SWCNTs and MWCNTs and claims to offer them at a low price.
Pyrograf’s Lake says Japan’s Showa Denka has plans to increase nanotube capacity from 40 mt/yr to 100 mt/yr by 2008, and to introduce new grades for sale in North America, including one similar to Pyrograf’s CNF, as well as a MWCNT.
Prices are dropping:
Nanocyl’s Andy Rich says within the last year MWCNT prices have dropped by as much as 40%—below $200/kg down from $275/kg, for multi-ton purchases. Arkema’s Rogers says, with recent scale-ups, prices are lower by a factor of 2 or 3 than 6 years ago.
Cientifica predicts that prices could fall another 5-50 times over the next 3-4 years. China and South Korea could become the main suppliers.
Past article on the carbon nanotube business
Following completion of expansions at plants in Decatur, Ala.; Abidos, France; and Ehime, Japan, Toray will have annual carbon-fiber capacity of 17,900 tons. Additional expansion plans will bring the firm's capacity to 24,000 tons in 2010, Toray says, at which time it predicts it will capture 40% of the global carbon-fiber market, up from the 34% share it claims today.
Therefore, carbon fiber market in 2010 would be 60,000 tons per year. 27,000 tons in 2007.