Granite Geek: Weaving nanotubes into fabric took N.H. company to Jupiter

  • This scanning electron microscope picture, about six-millionths of a meter across, shows Miralon, a fabric made of of carbon nanotubes by Merrimack-based Nanocomp Technologies. A human hair is eight times as wide as this picture. Courtesy—Nanocomp Technologies

  • A sheet of Miralon fabric being made in Nanocomp Technology's furnace in Merrimack. Courtesy—Nanocomp Technologies

  • A sheet of Miralon fabric, made by Nanocomp Technologies in Merrimack. Nanocomp Technologies

Monitor staff
Published: 7/12/2016 2:06:08 AM

When you’re a company with a fairly new and unusual product, it helps to have a track record, especially when success occurred in a difficult environment.

Like deep space. And Jupiter.

“This is not a major market – there are not many satellites going to Jupiter,” said Peter Antoinette, CEO and co-founder of Nanocomp Technologies, whose carbon nanotube fabric is helping protect NASA’s Juno spacecraft from electric discharge as it orbits the biggest planet. “But as an underpinning for walking in the door, business-wise, it makes a big difference.”

Nanocomp was born in 2004 as a two-person startup in Lebanon and has been one of the state’s most intriguing high-tech companies since 2006, when it moved to a site not far from Concord Municipal Airport, where I first encountered it. (Its sign remains on Pembroke Road, but two years ago the firm moved all operations south to Merrimack, where it’s easier to hire technical help from Massachusetts.)

Nanocomp, which now has about 70 employees, has a public relations bonanza on its hands following the successful arrival of Juno at Jupiter, because the firm’s Miralon fabric is protecting some of the spacecraft’s sensitive components. It hopes to ride this success into a next phase of expansion, moving beyond defense and aerospace customers into markets as varied as heating elements for cars.

Nanocomp’s secret sauce starts with the ability to create carbon nanotubes – which, as the name implies, are teeny-tiny tubes of carbon atoms created on the scale of a nanometer or billionth of a meter – that are relatively long, meaning 10 millimeters, or roughly one-third of an inch. The process is more akin to chemistry than machining.

“We use alcohol as a fuel, to provide the carbon. We crack water on site to make hydrogen as carrier gas. We add a little iron as a catalyst – it’s effectively high-tech rust – to the alcohol,” Antoinette said.

Carbon nanotubes were a hot commodity a half-dozen years ago when they seemed like a magic material that would let us create everything from real-life superhero suits to elevators into low-Earth orbit. Reality has dampened the hysteria, as it usually does, but nanotubes have taken a place in industry, often as a sort of filler or nanometer-sized aggregate that changes the characteristics of the materials they’re in.

Nanocomp’s commercial success comes with its ability to turn these tubes into woven yarn or non-woven fabrics, via a process that can be described as weaving smoke, because the clouds of carbon-black nanotubes look more like a dark fog than a material. Antoinette says they generate about a metric ton of the material each year, which isn’t huge by industry standards but is well beyond startup levels.

The resulting materials, including the sheets the company calls Miralon, have the strength and lightness of carbon fiber materials but are flexible (“you can tie them in knots”) and include some special nanotube properties, such as the ability to absorb microwave or radar signals and, most notably, electrical conductivity.

Nanocomp’s main customers so far have been aerospace defense contractors and NASA, markets where cutting an ounce here and an ounce there is worth its weight in gold, so to speak.

The Juno contract involves nanotube sheets that protect the spacecraft’s engine and attitude control thrusters from being overwhelmed by electrostatic discharge as the craft passes through Jupiter’s vast magnetic belts, which are much stronger than the radiation around Earth that produces the Northern Lights. The impressive part is that the spacecraft was launched five years ago, so its success entering orbit shows that the fabric has lasted – a helpful selling point.

Protecting the spacecraft components would normally be done with metal structures, but carbon nanotube sheets were not only easier to fit into the tiny puzzle box that is a spacecraft’s innards, but performed better, Antoinette said.

That’s the key to Nanocomp’s hopes to keep growing: not just replacing products (because carbon nanotubes are usually more expensive), but outdoing them.

Antoinette pointed to Nanocomp’s “sheet material as a replacement for aluminum honeycomb. It’s lighter and it has a better coefficient of thermal expansion,” meaning that it deals better with the propensity of different materials to expand or contract at different rates in the extreme temperatures of space.

“It can be plus-250 degrees on one side, minus-250 degrees on the other side. That’s a real challenge when you have metals mixing with composites,” Antoinette said.

Which brings us to a down-to-earth possibility that may reflect Nanocomp’s biggest hope: automobile heaters.

As a wire-like material, carbon nanotubes can turn electricity into far-infrared radiation – i.e., heat. Antoinette said they can be become extra flexible and extra efficient replacements for heating wires in car seats or perhaps other parts of the automotive cabin. This would be of particular interest in electric cars, because resistance heating (running electricity through an inefficient wire so that heats up) is the main reason that mileage falls in winter for battery-powered vehicles.

“This would be able to warm you with much less power than resistance heating – reduce the range-killing effect,” he said.

Being in electric cars – hey, that’s almost as cool as spacecraft orbiting Jupiter!

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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