By Cheryl Hall | Staff Writer
The Dallas Morning News
RICHARDSON — Ray Baughman and Kanzan “KZ” Inoue envision humanoid robots with Terminator strength, an ultralight ladder stretching into space and cars that weigh only slightly more than the people inside them.
OK, so don’t expect these mind-boggling innovations anytime soon.
But these local nanotechnology masterminds say we’re about to see a proliferation of products that are lighter, stronger and more versatile than anything possible today, thanks to a partnership between the University of Texas at Dallas and the U.S. subsidiary of Tokyo-based Lintec Group.
Nanotubes, which look like tiny tubes under a microscope, are powder particles 1,000 times finer than a human hair and stronger per pound than steel. They’re transparent and have thermal, acoustic and electrical properties.
They’re already being mixed into polymer to strengthen and lighten products such as bicycle frames and tennis racquets. But until now, their use has been almost exclusively limited to powder form.
UTD’s MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute discovered a way to make sheets of nanotubes that are strong, lightweight and transparent, and have superconducting capabilities, opening up a realm of previously impossible products.
“Our lifestyle changed when humans discovered the combined strength of concrete and steel,” Inoue says. “Then, a half century ago, humans discovered semiconductors. The next era is going to be carbon nanotube. I’m sure of that.”
Stretching the limits
Baughman, 72, director of UTD’s NanoTech Institute, and Inoue, 43, managing director of the Lintec NanoScience & Technology Center, started out as university research colleagues. Now they’re working in tandem to take UTD’s revolutionary process into the marketplace.
Lintec is a Japanese adhesives giant sometimes called the 3M of Japan. Its subsidiary, Lintec of America Inc., built a research and production facility 5 miles southeast of the UTD campus in Richardson to manufacture the nanofibers and fabric.
Lintec holds the exclusive worldwide rights to develop, use, market and sell these carbon nanotube materials, as well as license the patented production process to other manufacturers. UTD will receive royalties from Lintec’s sales.
Although the specific terms are confidential, Baughman says, “Lintec’s success will result in considerable money flowing into UTD.”
The market is any company that wants to stretch the limits of current raw materials.Think lighter cars and airplanes, transparent film that can conduct electricity, body armor and wearable electronics. Some of the possibilities are stepping out of sci-fi and into reality, such as intelligent clothing that can harvest body heat to make battery packs.
Biomedical applications such as tissue engineering, wound healing and biosensors could also be in the offing.
A nanosheet looks like a spider web that floats when captured by air currents. It can be used as a one-sheet coating or stacked by the hundreds. It can be woven, twisted or knotted to make stronger fabric, yarn, ribbons and adhesives.
Carbon nanotubes are touted as being stronger pound per pound than structural steel. But to put that in perspective, 4 ounces of nanotube sheets would cover an acre.
An overarching U.S. patent for UTD’s nanotech breakthrough was issued last month.
Baughman talks excitedly about how this will change the course of humankind. And he means it.
“I develop beautiful technology, but I want to see it made into products,” says Baughman, who worked in private industry for 31 years. “What makes me particularly happy with this particular technology is its wonderful scope in the products that it can enable.”
Lintec Group has customers in aerospace, automotive, medical, electronic, military and consumer products sectors. Its top executives in Japan have been working with Baughman and funding the NanoTech Institute’s research for nine years.
In 2011, at Baughman’s suggestion, Lintec hired Inoue to run feasibility studies to see whether the nanofibers could be commercialized. In 2013, Inoue’s bosses in Tokyo gave him the go-ahead to build the Lintec Nano-Science Center, which began limited sample production a year ago.
Once the plant is fully operational in 2016, Inoue expects to it to be churning out more than a half-million square feet of its trademarked cSilk.
“As for the number of killer applications, I have no idea,” he says. “But I would expect there to be more than more than 10 unique and potentially industry-changing applications in a relatively short period.”
Lintec also helped UTD secure high-powered, broad-based, worldwide intellectual property protection.
In November, Lintec of America secured the exclusive worldwide licensing rights through UTD’s Office of Technology Commercialization.
The agreement, the terms of which are confidential, has been kept under wraps while Lintec increased sample production at its 14,000-square-foot facility east of North Central Expressway off Arapaho Road.
Later this month, UTD, Lintec of America and Richardson officials will host a gala at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science to celebrate the strategic partnership.
UTD President David Daniel says the partnership is “Exhibit A” in what the university hopes to accomplish.
“You hear about companies starting in someone’s garage,” says Daniel, who has made moving UTD into the top tier of U.S. research universities his top priority. “Our garage is here on campus, where students and faculty can start their companies and where companies can come and work closely with our faculty and students to develop technologies and businesses.”
House of Imagination
Some sci-fi stuff is already working its way out of Ray’s House of Imagination.
Baughman and his team at the NanoTech Institute are working on lightweight speakers for the U.S. Navy that will send clear warnings over the ocean to vessels more than a mile away. “Things like: ‘Stand off or we’ll blow you out of the water,’” Baughman says.
As for intelligent fabrics: “We’ve made biofuel textiles that can harvest glucose from the body and convert it to electricity,” Baughman says.
“We published a paper recently about depositing superconducting magnesium diboride into the carbon nanotube yarns,” Baughman says, as if I could possibly understand what this means. He then translates, “We’ll be able to make superconductors.
“One early opportunity is transparent windows made of carbon nanotube sheets,” Baughman says. “That’s an enormous market for cellphones and computer screens.”
OK, I get that.
Marisa Haines, who heads strategic partnerships at Lintec of America, is sending out samples to Lintec’s customers and to defense contractors and the military in the United States.
Custom samples are expensive to make, Haines says. So at this juncture, she’s hard-pressed to say how much the sheets, yarns and adhesives will cost once the nanoproducts move into mass production.
But she foresees a point where, for about $50, a manufacturer of a 50-inch high-definition TV could apply a nearly invisible loudspeaker made of cSilk that would match the sound quality and intensity of a top-of-the-line sound system
That’s why Lintec customers are so excited, she says.
“We did a small teaser in Japan saying, ‘We’re going to be investing in this technology in America, and here’s what it does.’ We started giving confidential samples to them,” Haines says.
“The next two to three years is the sweet spot for us,” she says. “We’re looking at some very innovative applications in the automotive segment. Five years out, we see applications in human biomedical sensors.
“Those humanoid robots that Ray and KZ dream about? Who knows?”
Follow Cheryl Hall on Twitter at @CherylHall_DMN.
Title: Director, Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at UTD
Past career: 31 years in private industry
Education: Undergraduate degree in physics, Carnegie Mellon University, 1964; Ph.D, material sciences, Harvard University 1971
Patent: 71 U.S. patents issued, 10 pending
Personal: Married to Karen for 25 years; they have five children and seven grandchildren.
Hobbies: Collecting Texas sayings
Kanzan “KZ” Inoue
Title: Managing director, Lintec Nano-Science & Technology Center
Born: Hiroshima, Japan
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics, Indiana University at Bloomington, 1999; master’s of science and Ph.D. in space science in 2001 and Ph.D. in solid-state physics in 2005 from the University of Texas at Dallas
Personal: Married to colleague Raquel Ovalle-Robles, Lintec Nano-Science & Technology Center’s chief research and intellectual properties strategist, for 10 years. They have sons ages 4 and 2.
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