The story of carbon nanotubes is perhaps one of the most fundamental in modern day nanotechnology. What has occurred since they hit the headlines many years ago has impacted how investors see the nanotechnology space and has taught the industry many lessons. The effects still resonate today throughout the industry.
The story of carbon nanotubes is a classic progression from hype to downfall. Within the scientific media (and mainstream media in some cases), carbon nanotubes were touted to be the next scientific discovery that would revolutionise many industries, especially those in which material strength was key. Assumptions were also made that nanotubes could be eventually used in extravagant applications such as the space elevator. Unfortunately, it was this hype that was its own downfall.
By its own merits, carbon nanotubes have been successful; especially from an academic perspective. But they falter when compared to their expected potential. A lot of money was invested into carbon nanotubes and the lack of commercial outputs led to a stagnation of investment across many nanotechnology areas. This is still true today.
Even now, investors are less-willing to invest in high potential areas of nanotechnology and materials science, with graphene being hit hard – graphene has experienced a similar hype as carbon nanotubes did and has resulted in investors being wary and staying away from graphene investments, even though it has huge potential. If investors are wary of one potentially ground-breaking material/technology, it is almost certain they will be wary of others in the nanotechnology space.
So, where did it go wrong? Whilst on the face of it, carbon nanotubes possessed some excellent structural properties, researchers struggled to align, disperse and integrate them into the useable formats required for commercial applications.
So, what has happened to cause a potential resurgence?
Whilst their commercial potential has been limited due to recurring issues, a major player in the tech space, namely Samsung, have started using carbon nanotubes in their displays. Whilst the initial research was published a while ago, it came to light recently that they are now using these displays at the commercial level. This has come about because the research team at Samsung have solved the old-age problem of efficient dispersion and alignment of the individual carbon nanotubes. Something which has been too long coming.
This is only one application by one company, but it’s a big multinational company. If they are willing to invest time and money back into carbon nanotube research, then many others may follow suit. This not only has great potential implications for carbon nanotubes, but for the whole of the nanotechnology industry. If carbon nanotubes can come back and be deemed commercially useful after everyone thought that they were dead in the water (from a commercial standpoint), it could increase confidence in the nanotechnology market just enough that investors become willing again to invest in new nanotechnology applications and developments (in addition to furthering carbon nanotube research).
Written by Liam Critchley.