TR: What projects are you and your group working on now?
SMALLEY: The single biggest focus is making nanotubes. That’s what this company initially is about, turning on the spigot so that researchers around the world will have access to the most pristine-quality tubes that we can possibly make in large amounts at low cost. We want to make nanotubes available at small enough cost to let your imagination fly. These tubes come in three types: metals [excellent electrical conductors] and two types of semiconductors. I want to produce them with high enough efficiency that I can deliver a kilogram of a particular tube.TR: So you’re looking to make nanotubes more widely available. Other groups are looking at the nanotubes strictly from the point of view of applications. What are some of the interesting applications they’re working on?
SMALLEY: In the nearest term, it looks like one application will be in [flat-panel] displays. A number of companies already have prototype displays using nanotubes. I won’t be surprised if you see displays using nanotubes on the market within a few years.
Another area that will be quick is as additives in engineering plastics [used in structural or high-tech applications like computer housing]. You can give rise to antistatic behavior at even very, very low levels of nanotubes, and shielding for EMI [electromagnetic interference: such shielding is used to protect laptops and other portable electronics] at very moderate levels. Unlike anything else you add to polymers to make them antistatic or for EMI shielding, this will probably increase the engineering plastics’ toughness and strength. Also, I expect within a few years that you’ll find commercially available nanotube tips on atomic-force microscope probes. Use in nanotech gadgetry in general I expect will really flourish in the next five years or so.
What we would like to see is that the business develops so that there are economic incentives to build a large [manufacturing] process and get the price way down. At this moment, the cost of nanotubes is about $500 a gram. Calculate the numbers. That’s nearly $230,000 a pound. In time this stuff will be made as a bulk commodity closer to $10 a pound or even below that. But you’ll have to build a plant, and the market has to be out there. The rate at which the business develops is heavily dependent on these early markets.
TR: The hope is that as you get more and better materials out there, the applications will open up?
SMALLEY: That’s right. And this next year will be a real watershed because our process will be putting out into the research community a minimum of 10 kilograms. The total production of single-wall nanotubes of any quality up to this time has probably been less than one kilogram.