Displayed inside a glass case at Nanocyl SA's booth at Chinaplas was a large-scale model of the company's product a bunch of white tubes connected at the tips to form a web.
It looks as if it could have been an anonymous model inside a high school science lab, but for Nanocyl, the potential of its product depends entirely on its shape.
A 7–year-old company based in Sambreville, Belgium, Nanocyl deals in nanotubes, a network of carbon rods that, when mixed with plastics, can add electric conductivity to an end product.
A single nanotube is very conductive because of its shape, said Roberto Mongiovi, global business development manager for Nanocyl. It is literally a tube.
Plastics are generally terrible conductors of electricity, which can make them dangerous to use in certain applications.
Using nonconductive materials in consumer electronics, for example, can cause electricity to build up within the product and eventually lead to overheating. These products require that plastics producers mix in a conductive material like that offered by Nanocyl.
In the past, Mongiovi said, it was common to add other carbon materials. The trend has been to add carbon black or carbon fiber, he said. But you have to use quite a bit.
Mongiovi demonstrated by scribbling on a piece of note paper: Carbon black distributes itself in tiny blobs, rather than thin tubes. Since the carbon, when distributed through plastic, must touch at some points to maintain conductivity, blobs are not particularly efficient.
In the past, molders had to create a mix that was up to 20 percent carbon black or carbon fiber. To achieve the same degree of conductivity, a molder need only mix in around 2 percent carbon nanotubes.
This makes us very cost-competitive, Mongiovi said. Other benefits of the low loading numbers include easier processing conditions, low chemical reactivity, better surface quality and the retention of mechanical properties.
As its first target, Nanocyl has turned to the consumer electronics market, where applications include trays for hard-disk drives, integrated circuit tests, burn sockets and other semiconductor packaging. As these products become smaller, protecting them from electrostatic discharge becomes more difficult, Mongiovi said.
There are stringent requirements, both for electrostatic discharge and for cleanliness, he said.
The company is small, but Asia already is an important marketplace for Nanocyl, with 50 percent of its sales going into the region. We have an office in the United States and ... we announced the opening of an office in South Korea, said Monique Lempereur, global commercial executive director at Nanocyl. We believe the financial crisis is an excellent opportunity for carbon nanotubes, because it allows cost reductions in many applications.
Their market, Lempereur said, is doubling every year and Nanocyl is planning to expand its capacity in 2010.
In addition to consumer electronics, Nanocyl offers products in automotive applications, as well as in aeronautics, construction, sports and marine applications.
Biocyl is used on the bottom of boats, explained Mongiovi. The microstructure of carbon nanotubes prevents tiny waterborne organisms from adhering to the surface. When the boat moves, it self-cleans.
The company offers a masterbatch called Plasticyl for companies that do not feel confident enough to mix in the material on their own. It can be a bit tricky, Mongiovi said.
Nanocyl is not alone in recognizing the benefits of nanotubes. A University of Houston professor named Shay Curran is experimenting with a mix of polycarbonate and nanotubes in the circuits of jet fighter planes.
You can put this everywhere, said Mongiovi. It has many possibilities, but we are focusing on one thing at a time.