Carbon nanotubes are big business. In the 30 years since the first carbon nanotube (CNT) was created in 1991, they are now used in products all around us and have formed a growing industry predicted to be worth $125 billion by 2024. But with such a large number for such a small thing, how do you price carbon nanotubes?
Even in the early days of the commercialisation of carbon nanotubes, it was clear that price was key to the industry.
As Forbes magazine wrote in 2001, “Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc [one of the earliest start ups for the commercial production of CNT] projects that as buckytube [nanotube] prices tumble, a wider-ranging set of markets totalling $100 billion a year will open up. Get the price of nanotubes down to $15,000 a pound [about $30,000 a kg], and a yearly supply of one ton would be able to support the manufacture of several billion dollars' worth of flat-panel displays for PCs and television sets. Knock down the price to about $10,000, and buckytubes become ingredients for making stealthy, radar-absorbing aircraft skin and novel microwave antennas.
As prices go lower nanotubes would become far more pervasive. At $200 a pound, they could find everyday use as additives to plastics to create lightweight materials for shielding laptop computers, cell phones, pagers, and other small, portable electronic devices from electromagnetic interference. At that price buckytubes would also begin making sense for use in batteries. Make the stuff as cheap as wood, and you could start making fabrics, beams, and large structural members.”
Clearly, it was necessary to make the manufacture of CNTs easy enough and cheap enough for their wide spread use. In 2001, the industry was valued at $1.4 million, with almost all production aimed at the research market.
Type of Nanotube
Vital to evaluating price is knowing the type of nanotube concerned. The most common varieties are single walled and multi walled carbon nanotubes
However, as the industry grows and research progresses, a vast variety of shapes and different structures is being developed.
The configuration of the wall can also affect its properties and its price.
Quality is Key
As a ball-park guide, it seems that prices have fallen by about 40% since the beginning of the century. However, much of this drop is because many producers have focused on a lower quality product (as required by their customers). With such wide-spread applications, there is a healthy market for low-end nanotubes, as opposed to the research quality produced in the industry’s early days.
Like most products, price is directly related to quality, and high-end, flawless nanotubes can fetch top-dollar.
As Joël Meeks-Matouś, founder of TMM Disruptive Advanced Materials and industry expert, notes, “The cost of exquisite and well-manufactured functional SWNTs are still over 15 times above gold, but it's down by about half since 1997. However, if you're only going back to 2007, there has been no significant change in price for the highest purity available.”
In particular, Meeks-Matouś quotes that, “Carbon Solutions Inc. sells their best SWNT tubes (functionalized 90%+ purity) for $1/mg, which is essentially $1000 per gram. NanoIntegris also sells their best SWNTs (99%+ purity) for close to $1000.”
Supply vs Demand
Naturally the biggest driver of price is the level of supply against demand. As the use of CNT spreads and the number of potential applications grows, so demand increases. At present, it is difficult for investment in the industry to keep pace with growing demand. This is despite a number of larger production units aimed at large-scale, industrial production.
For example, the Japanese-based Showa-Denko and C-Nano of China both have facilities reportedly capable of 500 tons annual production. To put this quantity into perspective, each company maintains sizable portions of their domestic markets, at around 20% and 10% respectively.
Outside of Asia, as of 2017, Arkema in France and SWeNTin America were producing over 1 ton annually.
Other companies worth noting due to their output and production quality include, NoPo Nanotechnologies of India and perhaps Europe’s leading brand of CNTs OCSiAl, which is based in Luxembourg.
In such a new industry, there are numerous start-ups manoeuvring for market position, so exact data on production and price is difficult to ascertain. However, it is worth noting that further prices can be found at CheapTubesand AdNanoTubes.
As mentioned earlier, quality is key.
The industry needs some consistency in price, as this would allow for planned investment and development, however, with such a new product with growing number of uses, price instability should be expected.
Further impacting future prices are the public health scares that can occasionally be found in the media. While there is no proven science that nanotubes are a serious risk to health, public perception of any product will influence its value.
The consequences of future legislation (frequently pressured by public opinion) could also play a role in dictating prices. While most governments are reacting very positively towards the carbon nanotube industry, for example the EU Commission’s inclusion of nanotechnology products inside the REACH chemical framework, lawmakers represent another unknown factor in CNT pricing.
Currently, carbon nanotubes represent a high value product with a growing demand. A situation that is an ideal opportunity for investment. Such a juvenile product that many are still unaware is likely to fluctuate in value over the coming decades. However, there is a general belief across the industry that carbon nanotubes are an indispensable raw material of tomorrow.
Trying to explain the value of the World Wide Web in 1991 would have left many uncertain as to its value. But today’s investment into carbon nanotube production, is like yesterday’s Internet, and it’s tough to put a price on that.
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Photo credit: ResearchGate, Phys.org, CarbonLab, ResearchGate, DailyJournal, Bikeradar, Technologyworks