Nanomaterials that will change world
The company was founded in 2009 by Yury Koropachinskiy, Oleg Kirillov, Mikhail Predtechenskiy and Yury Zelvenskiy to implement SWCNT synthesis technology based on the scientific developments of M.Predtechenskiy. The first important milestone in our history was the launch in 2013 of a pilot facility for the synthesis of single wall carbon nanotubes named Graphetron 1.0 with a capacity of 10 tons per year located in Nanomodified Materials Centre at the Technopark of Novosibirsk Akademgorodok. In 2015, we completed the development of industrial synthesis technology, launched a standardized production process and obtained the first ton of TUBALL nanotubes. In early 2016 in Novosibirsk, construction of a new synthesis plant with a production capacity of 50 tons began.
Today, our share accounts for 90% of the world production of SWCNT. OCSiAl employs more than 350 people, including more than 20 researchers with academic degrees. Scientific research is supervised by Mikhail Predtechenskiy, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. We cooperate with approximately 2000 companies, more than 800 of which are currently testing our products, and about 350 are regular customers. The production and the R&D centre are located in Russia. We have regional offices in Hong Kong, China, India, Korea, Luxembourg and the USA, as well as representative offices in Israel and Japan, which work with foreign customers.
RUSNANO is one of the shareholders and our relations are not limited to formal interaction. We actively cooperate in the implementation of projects with major Russian companies. RUSNANO is not only a shareholder, but also our partner, which plays a key role in establishing contacts with state bodies and enterprises, and developing products in Russia.
What are the core competencies and know-how of OCSiAl?
Our competences and know-how can be divided into three groups: nanotube synthesis, creation of concentrates and production of final products. I will explain the importance of the second one. The fact is that nanotubes, when introduced into a substance as an additive, tend to agglomerate under the action of van der Waals forces, so they need not only be distributed but also kept in a stable state. Customers need them in a dispersed form, ready to be introduced into the final product.
Until 2015, we mainly deal with synthesis problems, and at present we are the only ones in the world who have mastered SWCNT's industrial production technology. After the launch of the synthesis, the emphasis was shifted to the development of concentrates that facilitate the introduction of nanotubes into the matrix of the material. On the basis of the Novosibirsk R&D centre there are five laboratories, the task of which is to create SWCNT carriers that can be used in standard industrial production technologies. In 2016, one of the key achievements of the company was the development of TUBALL MATRIX, a line of concentrates based on single wall carbon nanotubes, which do not require a change in technology and additional equipment for their introduction into the composition of materials. Studies and tests conducted by our customers confirmed that we have achieved the best results in obtaining stable dispersions of nanotubes.
The third group of know-how concerns the production of final products, for example, for energy storage and some other areas in which our partners are interested.
What are the advantages of TUBALL nanotubes compared to other additives?
SWCNTs have a unique set of properties: electrical conductivity at the copper level with significantly less mass, strength higher than steel, a huge relative surface area, high thermal conductivity, chemical resistance and heat resistance. When SWCNT can be incorporated into a material and distributed evenly in its structure, we substantially improve all of the above properties of such material.
Of course, today there are many additives to improve certain properties of the material. For example, in order to increase the electrical conductivity of the polymer, it is possible to introduce technical carbon into its composition, but this inevitably worsens the physical-mechanical properties of the material. TUBALL allow to improve a complex of properties of a material with a minimum change in its structure and composition. For example, to achieve good antistatic properties of the polymer, it is sufficient to add about 0.01% by weight of TUBALL.
Our nanotubes have a diameter of several atoms and a micron length. In the polymer matrix, they create a three-dimensional lattice that modifies its properties. No other additives can achieve such results. For example, the required concentrations of multi-wall carbon nanotubes are an order of magnitude larger in comparison with TUBALL, which leads to an inevitable change in the color of the material. Only TUBALL nanotubes make it possible to obtain, for example, a colored electrically conductive silicone.
The efficiency of our nanotubes, even in small concentrations, makes them economically viable. TUBALL is the cheapest solution in many cases, for example for obtaining antistatic floors.
What are the applications of TUBALL?
According to our estimates, TUBALL is able to change 70% of materials used in industry and everyday life. These include, for example, energy storage, ceramics, composite materials, rubber, paints and adhesives. At present, the question is not where TUBALL can be applied in principle, but in what it is worthwhile to concentrate efforts, since it is impossible to embrace the immensity. As I mentioned, we have created five laboratories that develop new solutions in the following areas:
• thermosets, application of nanotubes in epoxy, polyester, formaldehyde and other resins to create new generation of composite materials;
• creation of thermoplastics with improved properties using secondary extrusion;
• development of new elastomers, including car tire materials;
• improvement of paints, varnishes and other materials for decorative and functional coatings;
• energy storage.
How do you assess the Russian market for TUBALL?
In Russia, the main segments for us are the production of lead-acid batteries (a yield of about 32 thousand tons), composite materials (a yield of about 500 thousand tons), rubber products and plastics. In the lead-acid battery segment, we expect to increase our share to 30%, that is, every third battery will be produced using TUBALL. In the industry of composites and in the production of rubber products, our goal is 10% of the market If these plans are implemented, by the year 2025 the total consumption of TUBALL in only the listed industries and only in Russia will be about 145 tons per year.
Is this achievable based on the current growth dynamics of SWCNT production?
Judge for yourself: in 2014 we synthesized 88 kg of nanotubes, which amounted to about 22% of the world production of SWCNT, in 2015 with a volume of 1.25 tons, we occupied 80% of the market, in 2016 with 3.5 tons – 90% of the market, and in 2017 we have already sold 5 tons of nanotubes. If this dynamic continues, then your question can be answered positively. Counting on the growth of the market, we are building a new synthesis facility with a capacity of 50 tons per year and we are already considering the construction of a 250-ton plant in Europe.
What projects for the use of TUBALL in the industry are implemented in Russia and abroad?
In the Russian market, we are now conducting about 280 projects, of which about 130 companies are actively testing our additives and 40 regularly buy TUBALL. As for the world market, I will give two facts: more than half of the world's automobile tire manufacturers are our partners, and the largest consumers of TUBALL, which provide more than half of sales, are companies producing lithium-ion batteries.
What solutions are offered to manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries?
We produce a conductive additive for battery electrode slurries and a foil for electrodes coated with nanotubes. A conductive additive is necessary in order to trigger a reversible chemical reaction when using a battery. Until recently, such additives were made on the basis of carbon black, but if the latter has a surface area of 60–80 m2/g, then for SWCNT it reaches 1000 m2/g. Due to the replacement of carbon black with nanotubes and the use of our foil for electrodes, it is possible to significantly increase the power and durability of the battery.
What are the prospects for using TUBALL in the production of composites?
At present, composites producers account for up to 30% of our sales in the world and up to 60–70% in Russia. Last year, the main emphasis in the development of additives was on increasing the electrical conductivity of composite materials, now the priority task is to increase the strength. We already know how to increase the strength of composites by 15–35% with the introduction of hundredths of a percent of nanotubes, the next step is the improvement of available concentrates, so that the strength gain reaches 80–100%. There are prerequisites that this task will be solved in the next year.
What services does OCSiAl offer to customers?
We provide a free sample of material for tests, develop recommendations for the implementation of TUBALL in the production process and provide technological support on the customer's site by the forces of the product development department. Of course, customers receive all the necessary documentation, including safety certificates, technological instructions, etc.
Is it possible to improve the quality and reduce the cost of TUBALL?
We are already producing nanotubes, the quality of which is much higher than the average for the market. The purity of TUBALL is more than 80%, which is enough for most applications. For other products, we offer nanotubes of different purity – up to 99% – depending on the requirements of the industry.
The reduction in the cost of TUBALL is currently irrelevant, because, according to forecasts, next year we can face a deficit of material and our production capacity will not enough to meet the growing demand. Accordingly, the question of reducing the price is not worth it. In the long term, the price of nanotubes will drop with the launch of new plants.
What are the plans for the company's development?
First, we are faced with the task of increasing the volume of synthesis, which will be solved with the launch of a new 50-ton unit. Secondly, for the development of new concentrates it is necessary to expand the laboratory. As for the qualitative improvement of products, now the emphasis is on the study of the effect of nanotubes on the strength of materials in various media. It is with this area that we connect the next breakthrough in the field of improving the properties of materials with the help of TUBALL.
How strong is the leadership of OCSiAl in the SWCNT market?
We created a significant enough gap from competitors, and so far I do not see the prerequisites for its reduction. Even if someone develops a synthesis technology that will be comparable to ours, he will have to spend several years mastering the production of concentrates and bringing products to the market in conditions of lower prices. At the same time, we do not stand still, we continue to develop and improve our technologies and products. I think that in the coming years OCSiAl will maintain the leadership in the market.
Interview: Dmitry Gudilin
Photo on the cover provided by OCSiAl