Making progress towards a materials revolution

A small consultancy agreement facilitated by Cambridge Enterprise in 2012 led to some surprising results – and a major project that could prove world-changing.

Q-Flo, a University of Cambridge spin-out, had been working on novel technology to create continuous and ‘self-assembled’ carbon nanotubes.

‘These carbon nanotubes are one thousandth the width of a human hair,’ says Dr Adam Boies, Reader in the Division of Energy in the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering. ‘In the reactor, they naturally spin together into something that looks like candyfloss and can be produced as very long fibres.’

This form of carbon nanotube has unique electrical, mechanical and thermal properties that several major industries are keen to exploit. Possible applications include improving energy storage in lithium batteries, better electromagnetic shielding for sensitive instruments, novel heating systems that don’t rely on water to transport heat (making the nightmare of burst pipes in the winter a thing of the past), and even replacing copper wiring in electrical circuits.

But the original technology to produce this type of carbon nanotube was highly capital-intensive and didn’t generate commercial quantities. A joint venture, TorTech Nano Fibers, was set up between Q-Flo and Israeli company Plasan Sasan Ltd to tackle the challenge of scaling production.

‘We were originally called in on a small consultancy contract to brainstorm the process and provide some ideas for further work,’ says Boies. ‘We then helped to design and run a series of tests to try and find ways of increasing the output of carbon nanotubes.

It seemed logical to expect that the way the precursors were added and the operating conditions would impact the efficiency of the process. But measuring production levels under various different configurations showed little variation and did not produce the step-change they were hoping for.

This was curious. The group had expected greater differences from changing the parameters, but production of carbon nanotubes was still low, and TorTech agreed to fund further work through Cambridge Enterprise.

‘We set up a small-scale version of the process and started a programme to really understand the technology,’ says Boies. ‘We wanted to find out why we hadn’t been able to increase production.’

The arrangement between TorTech and Cambridge Enterprise meant that a researcher could be embedded in Dr Boies’ group to work on the problem.

‘Our understanding of the reactor was flipped on its head and we published three seminal papers as a result of this project,’ Boies points out. ‘We discovered that what happened early in the process, for instance the way precursors were injected, had little effect – hence the lack of differences in the earlier work. What we found was that the later part of the process was much more important to production rates.’ Although not the original intention, the project led to a PhD for the researcher. 

Now things were looking more promising – and, given the recognised potential of carbon nanotubes, a major research project was on the cards.

The result was the Advanced Nanotube Application and Manufacturing Initiative, project ANAM, which was launched in 2014 under the direction of Dr Boies. ‘We secured £2.8 million in funding from the EPSRC and up to £500,000 from a core group of industrial partners,’ says Boies.

The intention was to support five post-docs for five years, but additional interest has brought more resources. Eight other faculty from the Materials and Engineering Departments in the University of Cambridge are contributing to the ANAM Initiative, plus two faculty from the University of Ulster, essentially doubling the staff time available to the project. The commercial partners include TorTech, multinationals such as Siemens and BAE Systems, and independent company Marshall Aerospace and Defence.

‘There were only four of us at the beginning,’ Boies points out. ‘Now there are around 30 people working on the ANAM Initiative, and we have a much better understanding of the process. Some prototype products are already being developed using the materials, and we’ve just applied for an Innovate UK grant to continue the work.’

Martin Pick, COO of Q-Flo notes that the collaboration between all parties has been first class, accelerating process development and facilitating commercial activity.

As a result, we are now in a strong position with world class manufacturing capability,’ says Pick. ‘We also have a fundamental understanding of our process, allowing us to extended IP protection and plan for the future.  This collaboration has put our business in a very strong position and with continued support from Dr Boies and his group we look forward to developing and exploiting this exciting new family of carbon nanotubebased materials. 

 

Image caption: Carbon nanotube web from a floating catalyst process  Image credit: Engineered Aerosol Materials laboratory

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