Carbon nanotubes are exceedingly small - 10,000 times thinner than a human hair - but they have massive potential.
“Carbon nanotubes are carbon atoms that are arranged in a particular way, and which give this new material very particular properties, such as the capacity to conduct electricity, or mechanical strengthening in composites,” explains Francis Massin, the managing director of Nanocyl
Mix them into polymers, resins or water and off you go.
Nanocyl’s technical director Michael Claes went into more detail: “We blend this carbon nanotube powder with plastic to form these granules.
“Then by spinning it out we turn it into textiles. These jackets work as sensors, so for example for temperature, or as a gas sensors. Also for the mechanical strength, a bike wheel. We can make fuel pumps out of it.
“Another application, a lot larger, is this barrel, which replaces metal barrels, it’s a plastic barrel which can conduct electricity.”
Nanocyl has been a partner in several European Union initiatives to develop nanotechnology.
They are now starting to commercialise one research project result – a fabric that conducts electricity - that would be integrated into buildings in earthquake-prone areas.
“If I show you this demonstrator, here we have a textile in which you can see these black fibres which are filled with carbon nanotubes,” Claes continued.
“Simply flexing the post here the movement, which could be linked to a fracture, is transformed into a signal which is then detected by the operator.”
Nanotechnology is shaking up the world of manufacturing, but that does not mean it is easy to break into new markets.
“The biggest challenge is that industry in general is very conservative, and so moving from the semi-industrial lab level to the industrial level takes a lot of time and a lot of investment,” said Francis Massin. “You’re looking at an investment in the order of 20 to 50 million euros to really take a new material from laboratory stage to industrial level.”