When famed physicist Richard Feynman posited in 1959 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, "Why can't we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?" he was envisioning what would become nanotechnology.
At the time, Feynman offered $1,000 to the first person who could reduce the page of a book to 1/25,000 linear scale, essentially readable only by an electron microscope.
Feynman finally was forced to pay up a quarter-century later by a graduate student at Stanford University, Thomas H. Newman, who shrunk the first page of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." But it wasn't until 1991 when the theory of nanotechnology was propelled into existence by Japanese researcher Sumi Iijima, working with NEC Corp., with the discovery of the nanotube—a carbon-based filler that offers exceptional performance improvements in electrical conductivity, strength and other characteristics.
While some in the nanotechnology field believe carbon nanotubes—essentially graphene, nano-scale tubes of single-atom layer thickness or multiple layers wrapped to form a hollow core, comprised of carbon—may someday stand alone as the optimal performance additive in both tire and non-tire elastomers, others see a hybrid of CNT and carbon black as the filler of the future.
August Krupp, director of rubber development at Austin, Texas-based Molecular Rebar Design L.L.C., said CNTs "are another ingredient in the cupboard, allowing formulators and compounders to expand the magic triangle of performance properties."
The appropriately named Molecular Rebar Design, formed in 2009, supplies CNTs to manufacturers of rubber goods and tires, and represents one of the leading companies attempting to commercialize CNTs for this application space.
"Carbon nanotubes in general should be viewed as the next reinforcing filler of choice for many applications," Krupp said. "They can be used to replace carbon black and maybe silica in tires; they can be used as an electrically conductive and reinforcing filler in lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries; and they can work alongside typical fillers like carbon black and graphite."
It is this hybrid approach that interests both Mumbai, India-based Aditya Birla Group, a world leader in carbon black manufacturing, and Canton, Mass.-based Chasm Advanced Materials Inc., a smaller chemical manufacturer that focuses on opportunities in new materials and is more comfortable undertaking high-risk ventures, according to Aditya Birla's Zachary Combs.
"Chasm brings a strong entrepreneurial approach to established industries like ours," said Combs, who serves as Birla Carbon's manager for Materials Innovation Technology. "Birla Carbon's work with Chasm has resulted in the development of carbon black-CNT hybrid materials."
The nature of Birla Carbon's partnership with Chasm, much like Molecular Rebar's distribution partnership with Lyndhurst, N.J.-based Swan Chemical Inc. or Belgium-based Nanocyl's partnership with Uniontown, Ohio-based ChemSpec, is primarily a joint development agreement—although the Birla-Chasm partnership has evolved into an investment.