Carbon nanotubes - been there, done that? | IDTechEx Research Article

Carbon nanotubes - been there, done that?

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are now making a steady but quiet comeback.

Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh
Carbon nanotubes - been there, done that?
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) were once the favourite new kid on the block. They were poised to be a revolutionary material that transformed countless industries and helped us create an elevator to the moon. It then fell off the radar for many as it struggled to make commercial headway and as the newest kid on the block, graphene, stole away all the attention and money.
 
Despite this, CNTs are now making a steady but quiet comeback. Multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) have seen their prices fall to as low as $50/Kg for un-purified versions in some quarters, helping open up a range of markets. The production capacity was scaled up creating an estimated total capacity in excess of 2500 tpa worldwide. In fact, the IDTechEx Research report Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2016-2026 forecasts that the CNT market can reach $150m in as early as 2021.
 
This report covers both carbon nanotubes and graphene. It provides:
 
  • Granular market forecasts in tonnes and value for 16 specific application areas.
  • 40+ interview-based company profiles as well as a benchmarking of graphene companies.
  • Detailed and data-driven assessment of numerous application areas highlighting the latest progress, unresolved performance and cost challenges, addressable market size, and the status of competing materials.
  • Data on latest revenue expectation, production capacities and investments by company.
Already a growing commercial reality
Carbon nanotubes are already a commercial reality. They are used in conductive plastics and batteries. In conductive plastics, a small loading of CNT additives imparts conductivity to otherwise insulating plastics. The low loading makes it cost effective even if CNTs are still more expensive than high-end carbon black on a $/Kg basis. Furthermore, CNTs' long and thin morphology gives better electrical results without affecting the mechanical properties. This means that it is a more-for-same or -less value proposition helping it penetrate application sectors like fuel lines, industrial pipes, electronic packaging, and so on. In batteries, CNT additives will help reduce the electronic resistance and improve cycle life. These are critical in applications involving high discharge rates, explaining why electric vehicles are emerging as the number one target market for carbon nanotube suppliers.
 
A new of wave of applications is now emerging. There is good progress on the use of carbon nanotubes in moulded 3D-shaped touch-sensitive surfaces. There is also progress on electrostatic shielding layer but competition has lower costs. Supercapacitors also remain an attractive market where carbon nanotubes can be used as electrode additives in the medium term.
 
Some applications will however remain out of reach for some time despite repeated news releases and prototype announcements. One example is tires where CNTs show good results but commercial acceptance is not yet there because the price target is less than $20/Kg and there exists a high liability risk for tire manufacturers.
 
 
A new round of winner will emerge
The carbon nanotube industry has already seen a mild consolidation period with many mamas and papas companies going out of business although there are still some standing particularly in China. Most players on the market now are either larger firms with access to cash and/or have already scaled up production and started generating revenue.
 
Despite these we believe that a second wave of consolidation is likely. This is because some key markets are likely to take off faster than others and the rewards are not likely to be spread evenly. This means that winners will emerge, capturing an outsized share of the market and using the proceeds to scale up even further with a view to create a favourable cycle. The early signs of this trend are already here and the difference will tell in the next round of capital expenditure.