Nano Start-Up Finds Naturally-Occurring Nanotubes May Expand Use, Cut Costs for Industrial Nano Apps
Nano startup NaturalNano Inc. is hard at work proving that nanotech success may not require exotic multi-million-dollar research labs. Mother Nature, it turns out, may have her own recipe for commercial-grade nano-structures.
Since 2004, NaturalNano scientists have been exploring the merits of naturally occurring halloysite nanotubes (HNTs). The structures, derived from the clays of Utah, are aluminosilicate minerals (composed of aluminum, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen) and were formed in the earth over millions of years from water, heat, and pressure. And, thanks to nature’s genius, it turns out that HNTs have a lot of advantages in common with lab-created carbon nanotubes (CNTs), and—notably—some added advantages over CNTs.
Nano World News spoke with NaturalNano’s President Mr. Michael Riedlinger to learn more about HNTs. And, perhaps more importantly, Riedlinger explains how HNTs could be a game-changer in 2006 — for both Fortune 100 industrial nano-customers, and even for CNT producers.
The buzz may be just beginning, as just before Christmas, in fact, NaturalNano announced they had shipped HNT samples to some leading Fortune 100 firms for evaluation.
Why Industry is Interested in HNTs — Mother Nature’s Nanotubes
In less than 2 years, NaturalNano scientists and executives have identified some 200 potential industrial uses for HNTs, and filed for several patents on the extraction, processing, and productization of these natural nanotube structures.
To understand how HNTs can be so flexible, it’s worth taking a short look at their properties.
HNTs are derived from the clays of Utah, and are a type of aluminosilicate mineral (composed of aluminum, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen). Similar to diamonds, HNTs were formed in the earth over millions of years from water, heat, and pressure. Mother Nature’s lab has imparted HNTs with some key characteristics, NaturalNano’s Riedlinger told NWN.
First, like CNTs, HNTs are long, regular and hollow, which allow both types to store and deliver a variety of materials. HNTs have external diameters ranging from less than 100 nanometers (nm.) up to several microns (or micrometers) and internal diameters ranging from under 20 nm. to 200 nm. or more, Riedlinger said.
But, unlike CNTs, HNTs have the ability to cut costs and improve production use for a wide variety of industrial users. “HNTs are non-conductive in their native state and can be made conductive through our proprietary coating technologies.” NaturalNano’s ability to load different compounds into the hollow openings in HNTs, and/or coat the surface of the tubes with other materials—and in high volumes—is also a differentiator with CNTs. “While this [ability] is possible with CNTs, we understand that this is currently a difficult process. HNTs and CNTs are really very different and each is suited to very different applications.”
And then there’s the ‘ease-of-adoption’ factor NaturalNano looks to bring to its HNT-based solutions.
While many Fortune 100 firms are already using (or at least investigating) nanotech, Riedlinger points to the “many stories about the complexity” of introducing nano into long-standing manufacturing processes. “Our view is we need to provide industries with “drop-in” nanomaterials that can offer competitive advantages — without increasing the manufacturing challenges,” he told NWN. “The Fortune 100 firms we speak to are [already familiar with nano] but are seeking the right value proposition—the right material, at the right economic value ratio, and one that fits with their future product plans.”
The Market Possibilities for HNTs
This combination of HNT characteristics and NaturalNano’s engagement model is helping the company unlock some very intriguing possibilities for the HNT market.
“Preliminary data from our research work indicates that HNTs add desirable improvements, such as improved strength and heat resistance, to widely used plastics,” Riedlinger told NWN. “We have had many meetings with major polymer and plastics organizations that are keenly interested in the potential for using this nano-material to improve the strength-to-weight attributes of existing composite materials and to create altogether new products in the future,” he added.
And, there is more potential to be unlocked in the next 1-2 years, Riedlinger added. Additionally, the inner core of HNTs can allow other materials to be combined in nanocomposites that may lead to big improvements in a wide range of household products, food packaging, and industrial coatings.
The buzz in fact is just setting in among large U.S. manufacturers.
Digging Up the Secrets of HNTs’ Origins — The Root of Low-Cost, Adaptive Nano
The story of how NaturalNano uncovered – and is unlocking – these HNT secrets is worth telling.
“Some of the [HNT-containing] clays from the Utah mines ended up in a tableware company overseas and [workers] they noted differences in quality of the finished pieces,” Riedlinger told NWN. “They put the raw material under a scanning electronic microscope and discovered fine tube-like structures and assumed that the tubes were contributing to the quality of the finished materials. Some time later, these images made their way to us at NaturalNano, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from coming up with ideas about how they might be used.”
The ideas were so fast and furious, in fact, Riedlinger said he felt NaturalNano needed a partner to provide a reality check, and so he brought in researchers from Alfred University’s New York State College of Ceramics, a leader in ceramic technologies. “They helped us identify attributes of these nanotubes and provided data that contributed to our collective work in extracting, classifying, and functionalizing these aluminosilicate nanotubes.”
But is industrial excitement over HNTs real?
Can naturally-occurring materials truly offer an industrial-grade option competitive with manmade CNTs?
Early indications are positive: “The excitement that we are hearing [from manufacturers] comes from HNTs’ ability to add new benefits in a wide range of applications—polymer nanocomposite materials, cosmetics, absorbents and odor-masking materials, and even some drug delivery applications. Many people quickly grasp the possibilities in their industries,” Riedlinger said.