Q: What notable research is being done in nanocomposites today?
A: There is a lot of work being done in the area of nanocomposites. For instance, my group and colleagues at Georgia Tech are working with collaborators at Florida State University on development and scalable and repeatable manufacturing of multifunctional buckypaper, which is a very unique field of work. There are many other groups, such as those at Rice University who have done a lot of work in synthesis high-performance carbon nanotubes and their nanocomposites. Government research labs like Air Force Research Laboratories, NASA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have also done some pioneering research in nanocomposites. There are many other groups outside of the U.S. conducting excellent R&D in this area, including the University of Cambridge, UK.
In industry, Toyota is one of the pioneers in nanocomposites, and there are other companies that create new nanomaterials. For example, Applied NanoStructured Solutions, LLC (ANS), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, has created a high-volume continuous process to mass produce carbon nanostructures that can be grown at scale on various substrates, including glass and carbon fiber, and formed into materials with superior structural and conductive properties.
Q: What can industry professionals anticipate in the future?
A: I think you’ll see unique multifunctional materials for high-end applications like space and aircraft in the near future. Auto companies would also like to use some of the nanomaterials in the future; they are thinking more about lightweight, multifunctional materials to help them meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Cost has to be low and scalability needs to be good, as we are talking about a large quantity for car production.
Another area of potential applications of nanocomposites is medical and life science. Can we use nanocomposites or nanomaterials with other types of manufacturing, like 3-D printing, to make multifunctional, custom-made devices/structures for implants? We are actually working on something like that in my lab, for printing heart valves that can mimic physiological behavior of human aortic valves using 3-D printing techniques with polymer and carbon nanotubes. Right now it’s for in-vitro [outside the body] applications, but in the future it can be used for something inside the body, like an implant.
Keep an eye open. Many other things are coming!
The market for global polymer nanocomposites should show an annual growth rate of more than 24 percent through 2019, according to a recent report from Research and Markets. But high deployment costs could limit that growth, since the lack of large-scale production capabilities makes nanocomposites expensive to use.