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June 27, 2016: EE Times

Carbon Nanotubes: Been There, Done That?

A second wave of CNT consolidation is likely because some key markets are expected to take off faster than others and the rewards are not prone to be spread evenly.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) were once the favorite "new kid on the block." They appeared poised to become a revolutionary material that transformed countless industries and helped us create an elevator to the moon. But this technology subsequently fell off the radar for many as it struggled to make commercial headway. The situation was exacerbated when an even newer kid on the block, graphene, stole away all the attention and money.

Yet despite all this, CNTs are now making a steady but quiet comeback. Multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) have seen their prices fall to as low as $50/kg for un-purified versions in some quarters, which is helping open-up a range of markets. The production capacity was scaled up creating an estimated total capacity in excess of 2500 tpa (tonnes per annum) worldwide. In fact, the IDTechEx Research report -- Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2016-2026 -- forecasts that the CNT market may reach $150M as early as 2021.

Already a growing commercial reality

Carbon nanotubes are already a commercial reality. They are used in conductive plastics and batteries. In conductive plastics, a small loading of CNT additives imparts conductivity to otherwise insulating plastics. The low loading makes it cost effective even if CNTs are more expensive than high-end carbon black on a $/kg basis. Furthermore, the long and thin morphology of CNTs gives better electrical results without affecting the mechanical properties. This means that it is a more-for-same-or-less value proposition helping it penetrate application sectors like fuel lines, industrial pipes, electronic packaging, and so on. In batteries, CNT additives can help reduce the electronic resistance and improve cycle life, both of which are critical in applications involving high discharge rates, thereby explaining why electric vehicles are emerging as the number one target market for carbon nanotube suppliers.

Now, a new of wave of applications is emerging. Good progress is being made with regard to the use of carbon nanotubes in moulded 3D-shaped touch-sensitive surfaces. There is also progress on an electrostatic shielding layer, although the competition still boasts lower cost. Supercapacitors also remain an attractive market where carbon nanotubes can be used as electrode additives in the medium term.

Some applications will, however, remain out of reach for some time, despite repeated news releases and prototype announcements. One example is tires in which CNTs show good results but commercial acceptance is not yet there because the price target is less than $20/kg and there exists a high liability risk for tire manufacturers.

A new round of winners will emerge

The carbon nanotube industry has already seen a mild consolidation period, although there are still some players standing, particularly in China. Most players on the market are now either larger firms with access to cash and/or have already scaled up production and started generating revenue.

Having said this, we believe that a second wave of consolidation is likely. This is because some key markets are expected to take off faster than others and the rewards are not prone to be spread evenly. This means that winners will emerge, capturing an outsized share of the market and using the proceeds to scale up even further with a view to creating a favorable cycle. The early signs of this trend are already here and the difference will tell in the next round of capital expenditure.

More information about carbon nanotubes will be presented at the IDTechEx Show! taking place November 16-17 in Santa Clara, California.

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