The NanoCarbon Network was founded in May 2013 with resources from the ZIM funding programme of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) in Germany. It consists of numerous companies and various scientific research institutions and is managed by Nanoinitiative Bayern. The network's aim is to implement the results of research on nanocarbon materials into innovative applications and products with participating partners.
The network's objective is to promote the industrial and economic utilization of nanocarbon materials. The NanoCarbon Network pools and thereby utilises partners' existing expertise. It accelerates, accompanies and supports rapid technology transfer from research and development results into commercial products. Close cooperation between all partners, and the active exchange of information, is intended to form a shared technology platform. The aim is to complete value-added chains from the producer to the end-product manufacturer by initiating and supporting joint projects.
The ZIM network focuses on small and medium-sized enterprises that can more rapidly implement the technical potential of nanocarbon materials into marketable products. Various large companies are also involved which are already well-established on the market and have access to the important technologies required. The development processes are accompanied by numerous scientific research institutes with sound expertise in the field of nanocarbons.
The NanoCarbon Network is an open network for the development of innovative nanocarbon products. It is intended to act as a contact point for industry and research partners and to provide all members with sound expertise in the manufacturing, processing, application and disposal of nanocarbons. Through close technological cooperation between partners along various value-added chains and through active exchange of information on current technologies, the plan is to enable partners to establish new applications and products for nanocarbons on the market and to support their commercialisation.
The NanoCarbon Network supports its members in the initiation and establishment of publicly funded projects relating to applications of nanocarbons. The funding possibilities include both individual projects and cooperation projects with industrial and scientific partners – in which partners from abroad can also participate.
By concentrating expertise in the field of nanocarbons, the NanoCarbon Network acts as an outstanding information platform for all questions relating to the use of CNTs in industrial applications. Interested companies have the opportunity to make targeted contact and to jointly develop innovative solution strategies for nanocarbon applications with leading experts from the worlds of industry and science.
Along with fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, the currently known nanocarbon materials also include carbon nanofibres, graphenes and carbon nanohorns, which are all largely derived from carbon's sp2-hybridised graphene structures in graphite.
Graphene is a single carbon layer of graphite. The graphenes that occur in practice are usually thin, single- to multi-layer graphene platelets. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) can be imagined as thin, rolled-up graphene layers. They can be single-walled, as in single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), which are just a few nanometres thick, or multi-walled, as in multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs), which are generally approx. 10–20 nm thick. They can have open or closed ends.
Carbon nanohorns can be understood as very short nanotubes that are closed at one end. Lastly, fullerenes, which were the first to be discovered, are single-layer, ball-shaped molecules consisting entirely of carbon.
In contrast to these thin carbon structures, with a thickness of just a few rows or a single row of molecules, carbon nanofibres consist of a multitude of graphene layers stacked on top of one another, each with a small area in the nanometre range (< 100 µm).
The electronic properties of nanocarbons are very closely linked to the exact structure of the respective nano objects. The electrical conductivity in single-wall carbon nanotubes can be metallic or semiconductive – depending on the structure. At low temperatures, superconducting properties are even achieved. The mechanical properties of CNTs and graphenes are particularly spectacular. For their weight, they have a much higher specific strength than both steel and carbon fibres. Carbon nanohorns can be used to produce very hard, abrasion-resistant surfaces. Because of their jagged surface, carbon nanofibres are often used as catalyst carriers. Studies have shown that friction can be significantly reduced by using graphene.
In particular the current-carrying capacity and thermal conductivity are of interest for applications relating to the electronics industry. It is estimated that nanocarbons' current-carrying capacity is significantly higher than that of copper wires. Furthermore, the thermal conductivity is higher than in diamonds – the best naturally occurring conductor of heat.
Usually, nanocarbons must first be separated and dispersed in the respective medium as homogeneously as possible in order to fully develop their unique properties. Their extremely high surface area means it is only possible to have levels of up to a few percent before the viscosity increases to infinity. On the other hand, even the addition of less than 1% nanocarbon in otherwise non-conductive materials can often achieve electrical conductivity.
The nanocarbons are usually separated using various well-known high-energy dispersion processes, often supported by the use of suitable dispersing agents. Here, care must be taken to ensure that mechanical damage of the nanoparticles, which can rarely be prevented, is kept to a minimum.
The most suitable dispersion technology to use with nanocarbons in each case depends strongly on the viscosity of the medium and the type of nanocarbons concerned, as well as on the amount required. Whereas bead mills, dissolvers and ultrasound probes are largely restricted to lower viscosities and concentrations, higher viscosities and concentrations can be processed using a three-roll mill or high-pressure shear disperser. Nanocarbons can be readily incorporated in very high-viscosity thermoplastics using extruder technology, especially twin-screw extruders, while high-energy milling has proven to be well-suited to metal powders.
In the ideal case, all nanocarbons have a highly non-polar and low-reactivity surface consisting of pure carbon. It is often possible to achieve sufficient compatibility to the matrix by adding a suitable dispersing agent. If a high level of mechanical reinforcement is required, this physical connection is often insufficient, such that functionalised nanocarbons are used in order to also realise maximum mechanical strengths.
In the leisure sector, the first products with CNTs have already been on the market for a long time. The sports equipment manufacturer Völkl, for example, has manufactured tennis rackets with CNTs, and Head sells rackets containing graphenes. Carbon nanotubes can also be found in bicycle handlebars from Easton and golf clubs from Aldila. Furthermore, the Finnish ice-hockey team uses sticks to which CNTs have been added. Other applications from the sports industry include bicycle helmets, skis, surfboards, baseball bats and sports shoes made of plastics containing CNTs.
Some industrial products with CNTs have, however, also been launched successfully. Examples include fuel lines and plastic barrels with an antistatic outer layer which ensures that flammable liquids cannot be ignited by electrostatic discharges.
One important example is the aeronautical industry. In modern aircraft, around 20–50 percent of the load-bearing structure is already manufactured from carbon-fibre reinforced plastic. Since CFRPs of this kind can be further improved with the use of CNTs, and since electrically conductive heated coatings for de-icing are also in the development pipeline, the aeronautical industry offers highly attractive potential uses for nanocarbon materials in the near future.
Another example is sustainable energy generation using wind turbines. By 2030, a large number of offshore plants are to be installed off the coasts of Germany, generating an output of 20,000 to 25,000 megawatts from wind power. The rough weather conditions on the high seas, however, necessitate composite materials in which CNTs, in particular, can develop their full potential for lightweight construction and surface heating in order to prevent the installations from icing up. Their use as an additive in high-performance concrete could, once again, increase the strength of concrete by around 50 percent in the future. This would then be able to contribute to increased stability and elasticity and to offer considerably improved earthquake protection.
The various nanocarbon materials can, for the most part, be obtained from members of the NanoCarbon Network. FutureCarbon as well as Nanocyl are important producers of carbon nanotubes and nanofibres. Eckart manufactures graphene in various grades, and TIE is a supplier of carbon nanohorns. Ready-made dispersions can be obtained from Nanocyl, FutureCarbon, and from Altropol.
Other (international) producers and distributors of nanocarbons include: