By John Carroll
Small Times Correspondent
DALLAS, March 8, 2002 — The nanomaterials industry will develop into a $340 billion market in the next 10 years, but some of the field’s leaders say they’re more inspired by the cash they expect to make with new products in the next 12 to 36 months.
The U.S. market for lens coatings is currently $130 million a year, said Dennis Wilson, chief executive of Austin, Texas-based Nanotechnologies Inc. That’s an easy near-term target for a company like his, which makes optically invisible nanoparticles. Wilson was one of three players in the nanomaterials field to take center stage on Thursday at the Nanoventures 2002 conference in Dallas, each focusing on the most likely nanotech products to command a market in the near term.
“Nanoalumina is harder than silica,” Wilson said, and it can also help pave the way to a new generation of paper-thin lenses. But there’s also money to be made over the next three years for hard-coating electronic displays and toughening plastic windshields so they can be manufactured at half the weight required today. Nanopowders also burn faster, creating more powerful ammunitions and rocket fuel, attractive to big-budget operations in defense and aerospace.
Wilson took the podium shortly after Mihail Roco, chairman of the National Science and Technology Council’s subcommittee on nanoscale science. Roco predicted that nanotechnology will grow to a $1 trillion business in the next 10 to 15 years, with nanomaterials playing a prominent role.
But the company commanders who followed the scientist kept their eyes focused very much on the near-term prospects of revenue generation and product creation.
Dan Colbert, vice president of Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. (CNI), said his company is opening a new facility that will churn out anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds of single-wall carbon nanotubes a day — a big leap from the 35 grams put out by the nanotechnology lab at Rice University.
Single-wall carbon nanotubes, which are being touted for high strength and high levels of conductivity, currently fetch about $500 a gram. And Colbert said the company can’t produce them fast enough. “That price is going to drop” as production gears up, he said. But CNI wants to see that happen, expecting to scale up production as demand rises and the price falls.
“We have the only scalable process for producing these materials,” Colbert said. “The price will come way down. We need to get our production geared up,” he added, pointing to a thick field of buyers in a crowded field of producers of batteries, fuel cells and lighting products. Flat panel displays using carbon nanotubes are “18 months from hitting the stores. It’s in prototype form now. It’s well on the way.”
For a crowd heavily interested in market potentials, the talk at Nanoventures was very much focused on making money.
It’s always easy to fall in love with the science of nanotechnology, said Al Schuele with Sevin Rosen Funds. But, he added, “I have to wake up to the fact that returns are important.” The challenge in nanotechnology is to map out new technology where there are existing solutions. “The fact that materials can be functionalized offer some best, first applications,” he said, “because there are no existing solutions. Incumbent technology will defend their markets, finding ways to get faster, smaller, cheaper.”
Perhaps nanomaterial companies are in the best position to turn a profit, agreed Terry Lowe, the former chief executive and current chairman of Santa Fe, N.M.-based Metallicum LLC. In a gold rush, he said, “you’re going to make money selling picks and shovels.” Nanomaterial makers, he said, fit that category perfectly.