Can carbon nanotube technology save the planet?

Carbon nanotubes are molecular-scale tubes of graphitic carbon with outstanding properties.

Carbon nanotubes are molecular-scale tubes of graphitic carbon with outstanding properties.

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New Russian technology makes the production of single-walled carbon nanotubes almost 100-times cheaper. Experts believe this will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Russia by as much as 180 million tons by 2030.

During his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris on November 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that new technologies for producing carbon nanotubes will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Russia by roughly 160 to 180 million tons by 2030. 

Nanotubes improve the qualities of 70 percent of materials known to mankind; that is, they enhance a material's durability. This helps increase the lifetime of metals, rubber, and other materials by two or three times. And since all sorts of items will last longer, there will be a significant reduction in energy spent for producing new materials, as well as less energy spent to recycle waste.

"Nanotubes not only provide an indirect positive effect in electronics and industry that leads to the reduction of CO2 emissions," remarked Professor Albert Nasibulin of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and who is also a specialist on nanomaterials. "It will also be possible to directly convert CO2 into carbon nanotubes."

What are carbon nanotubes?

Carbon nanotubes are graphenes that can be described as a single, one-atom thick layer of common graphite, a crystalline form of carbon found in pencils. The diameter of a single-walled nanotube is about 1-1.5 nanometer (one-billionth of a meter).

Carbon nanotubes can change the mechanical, chemical and other properties of a metal. For example, if we add minimum concentrations (less than one percent) of nanotubes into the aluminum then the metal can be enhanced to titanium's strength. Carbon nanotubes can be produced both by evaporation and explosion, as well as grown in the laboratory.

New materials made from CO2

A carbon nanotube is essentially a convoluted graphene. It is one of those materials that, according to scientists, will drastically change our life.

Currently, nanotubes are used in airplane lining, microchips, and thin displays. "The possibility of using them in new generation solar panels, as well as in devices for conserving energy, is being discussed," said Nasibulin. "Little additions of such material significantly help increase the resistance and durability of metallic and polymer composites."

The new method of creating nanotubes from CO2 was suggested this year by scientists at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The essence of the technology is that a high-temperature electrochemical reaction helps break down CO2 into carbon nanotubes and oxygen.

Research in the synthesis of nanotubes and their properties is being conducted throughout the world. In Russia, the leaders in this field are the RAS Institute of Catalysis SB, the Kurchatov Institute, Kemerovo State University, the Prometey Institute of Structural Materials, St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and others.

Revenue from the tube

Today, multi-walled nanotubes are produced by CNano (U.S.), Arkema (France), Showa Denko (Japan), and Nanocyl (Belgium). But production of single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are considered of finer quality and are more expensive, until recently were carried out only in laboratories because their cost can exceed $150,000 per kilogram.

Mikhail Predtechensky, an academician from Siberia, was the first scientist to discover technology that can reduce the price of mass-produced single-walled nanotubes by 50 to 100-times, and to $3,000 per kilogram.

Predtechensky co-founded OCSiAl, and in 2013 this company launched the world's largest industrial system for synthesizing single-walled Graphetron 1.0 nanotubes.

In the near future the company plans to establish in Novosibirsk a center for prototyping technologies based on single-layered carbon nanotubes to create rubber, composites, lithium-ion batteries, and many other materials.

"The mass use of nanotubes has the potential to change the face of civilization," said OCSiAl's marketing director, Ksenia Kulgaeva. "Now there is the possibility to create materials of the future, ones that are more effective and more ecological."

Producers in more than 30 countries buy nanotubes made in Novosibirsk, including South Korea, Japan, the U.S., Germany, and Israel. "The nanotubes' qualities are well-known across the world, yet many still perceive them as highly specialized additives, and so we are fighting this stereotype," said Kulgaeva.

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