Researchers in the United States and Japan are claiming breakthroughs in commercializing a new material that may change batteries and fuel cells, as well as many other products.TOKYO, Japan, JP, 2002-01-16 [SolarAccess.com] The microscopic material known as carbon nanotubes is 100 times stronger than steel and only one-fifth the weight, as well as being a superconductor. Nanotechnology is an emerging field that combines chemistry and engineering to develop methods of building things at the level of atoms. Scientists are exploring ways to blend nanotubes with plastics, ceramics and other materials to produce new composites with unprecedented strength/ weight ratios and conductivity. University of Oklahoma chemical engineer Daniel Resasco, uses cobalt, molybdenum and carbon in a high-temperature production process that results in a loose tangle of microscopic tubes with a diameter 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. “It puts us in the forefront of a technology that will have as big an impact as computers and plastics have had,” explains Jeffrey Harwell of the UO College of Engineering. “This could be our silicon.” Until now, the cost of producing nanotubes has ranged from US$500 to $1,000 per gram, but Resasco says his method will cost only $6 to product ($6,000 a kilo). At that price, nanotubes will begin their move out of the lab and into the world of commercial viability, he explains. In Japan, trading houses Mitsubishi and Mitsui are already competing in the mass production of nanotubes at a price they say will be less than $80 a kilo, or 8¢ a gram. Global demand for carbon nanotubes is estimated at $8 billion by 2020. The Mitsui subsidiary, Carbon Nanotech Research Institute, will start manufacturing carbon nanotubes at the annual rate of 120 tons, to be used in cars, flat televisions and fuel cells. It is building a two billion yen plant in the Tokyo suburb of Akishima. Nikkiso, Japan’s largest maker of precision pumps, says its method of nanotube production will reduce the price to 76¢ a gram. Richard Smalley, professor of chemistry and physics at Rice University who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for work leading to development of nanotubes, says about nanotechnology: “this is a very fast-moving business, and it’s going to be a very big business within the next five years.” Smalley’s company Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., based in Houston, manufactures nanotubes at a cost of $500 per gram. Last year, the company churned out 4 and a half pounds of the microscopic product and distributed it to researchers around the world. He says that with each passing year there are more advances in nanotechnology with dramatic implications for the future.