"The global market is expected to grow exponentially over the next three years, reaching perhaps $500 million to $700 million in 2005," explained Cynthia Kuper, director of nanotechnology at NanoDynamics Innovations in Buffalo, N.Y.
Nanotechnology deals with the manipulation of matter at the atomic or molecular scale, measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. A double-stranded molecule of DNA, for instance, is roughly two nanometers wide.
Nanotechnology promises to yield smaller, faster supercomputers and scores of medical breakthroughs. Among its key building blocks are structures called fullerenes -- molecular cousins to diamonds that are cages of carbon possessing incredible mechanical, electrical, thermal and chemical properties.
Scientists reported the first fullerenes in 1985 -- soccer ball-shaped "buckyballs" smaller than a wavelength of light. Buckyballs and fullerenes are named after Buckminster Fuller, who created the geodesic dome, which buckyballs resemble.
"Buckyballs can withstand great pressures without deformation -- greater than over 3,000 atmospheres," Kuper told attendees at a nanotechnology business conference.
By 1991, chemists had learned how to produce grams of buckyball powder relatively easily. In the process, they also discovered carbon nanotubes -- carbon pipes roughly 1.2 nanometers wide.
"Single-walled carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight, and are highly conductive and have high surface area," Kuper said. That high surface area "gives them lots of surface to put stuff on," she explained. In theory, they offer a very receptive structure on which to attach such things as hydrogen for efficient fuel storage, for applications such as fuel cells.
Carbon nanotubes already have entered the realm of practicality, finding use in the automotive, aerospace and telecommunications industries, as well as in sporting goods, medicine and household appliances. Kuper noted the estimated market shares by industry for carbon nanotubes is 21 percent for automotive, 19 percent for electronics, 15 percent for aerospace, 10 percent for energy, 8 percent for consumer use and 5 percent for sports.
Nanotubes as additives can greatly strengthen materials. Moreover, Kuper said, they make great field emitters for flat panel displays. Samsung, Dupont and NEC currently are working in that area, she noted. Displays and lamps make up 9 percent of the estimated market share.
"Because of the nature of how the tubes agglomerate together, they're ideal to create muscle structures," Kuper added, but said at present health applications make only up 2 percent of the nanotube market.
Although science and investments have focused heavily on single-walled tubes, they also come in multi-walled forms -- tubes within tubes. They are not comparable to single-walled nanotubes' strengths in applications such as electrical conductivity, but they are cheaper and easier to produce in bulk.
Purified, single-walled nanotubes can cost up to $500 a gram, Kuper said. while multi-walled nanotubes cost about $50 a gram.
Global carbon nanotube production volume runs a little more than 2.5 metric tons per day. The volume of multi-walled nanotubes is expected to grow to roughly 1,750 metric tons per year as early as 2005. In contrast, next year, single-walled nanotube production is expected to be only about 12 metric tons.
"The quality -- in particular for single-walled nanotubes -- remains very poor, so that for multi-walled nanotubes, composite materials or structural materials may be nearer term," David Reisner, president and chief executive officer of Inframat, a nanomaterials company in Farmington, Conn., told United Press International.
Commercialization of nanotubes favors bulk production, which is why about 30 percent of nanotubes are used in plastics, 30 percent in advanced composites and 27 percent in fibers. Only 8 percent are employed in research and development and 2 percent in field emitters.
"Consumer goods is an area where a lot of large chemical conglomerates can easily innovate with nanotubes," Kuper added. "They've already done the market research (and) know what the goods are. If you can supply them with the right material, it's a straightforward deal to do."
When it comes to buckyballs, she said, "they have much more chemical reactivity than carbon nanotubes. From a manufacturing standpoint, that is extremely important."
Nanotubes are insoluble, or intractable. "This can cost a lot of money, and you can really get hung up on production issues because of it and limit the application in which you can use it," Kuper said. "Buckyballs are soluble, and can be purified, be processed into polymers, plastics, whatever you want."
The chemical reactivity of buckyballs can make them very useful to medicine. C Sixty, a buckyball company in Houston, signed a research license with pharmaceutical giant Merck in 2003 to develop antioxidant buckyball drugs, "working on cardiovascular disease and also heart attack," said C Sixty co-founder Stephen Wilson.
He explained that reactive oxygen species can damage tissues, and scientists link them to diabetes, blood vessel damage, aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's. Buckyballs can deactivate them.
"Buckyballs have proven completely contradictory to timelines given to venture capital communities. Four, five, even three years ago, West Coast analysts said biomedical applications would be the longest terms, and that materials (incorporating buckyballs) would be first," Kuper said.
Nanotubes are pursued globally. Producers in the United States include Bucky USA, Carbolex and Carbon Nanotechnologies, while France has Nanoledge, Russia has Nanocarblab, Cyprus has Rossetter, Japan has Mitsui and Showa Denko, Korea has Iljin and China has Guangzhou Yorkpoint and Sun Nanotech.
"The key for investors pursuing nanotubes is there are so many applications for them, you want to know what the specifications are for your particular application sector. Some applications may require minimum purity, for which you could use multi-walled nanotubes. For others, purity issues could be a deal-breaker," Reisner said.
Charles Choi covers research and new technologies for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com