Plans were announced today for the first large-scale production of carbon clusters known as fullerenes, discovered in 1985 but never before available in commercial quantities.
Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation said they will make fullerenes available in quantity beginning in early 2002 under a new joint venture to be known as Frontier Carbon Corporation. Mass production, anticipated to reach 1,500 tons a year by 2004, will permit fullerenes to be bought at prices 10 to 100 times lower than those currently prevailing.
Until now, availability and cost have been major obstacles to the industrial use of fullerenes, the unique properties and potential applications of which have long been known. Nearly 2,000 patents already exist for a broad range of pharmaceutical, electronic and other commercial applications, including anticancer and anti-HIV therapies, drugs for neurodegenerative diseases, drug delivery systems, and cosmetic preparations that retard the aging of skin.
Industrial applications awaiting the availability of low-cost fullerenes include superconductive materials, electrochemical systems, polymer and metal nano-composites, electrolyte separation membranes for fuel cells, gas storage and separation membranes, longer cell-life lithium ion batteries, highly functionalised coatings and ultra-fine crystalline artificial diamonds for drilling and industrial polishing.
This unprecedented mass production process will use the basic material patent of fullerenes owned by Fullerenes International Corporation*, flame-based technology developed and patented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), combined with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation's patented process systems engineering technologies and fullerenes separation processes.
“This is a significant milestone for the development of nanotechnology and science,” said Mikio Sasaki, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation. “Mass production of fullerenes resulting in a significant cost reduction will enable hundreds of existing patent applications to bloom in the near future.” Sasaki has been directly overseeing the fullerenes business of Mitsubishi Corporation since 1993.
“This is truly an historic step, with worldwide implications,” commented Dr. George Stephanopoulos, Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been a technical adviser to Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation and last year was named the company's Chief Technology Officer.
“Essentially, these two companies, through their joint venture, are making this enormously promising new material available in quantity and at low cost for the very first time. This will be immediately beneficial to a number of major industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, electronics, energy and materials-oriented companies.”
“Just as the discovery of fullerenes opened up a new field of chemistry, the applications that will now be made possible open up endless opportunities for new products, new processes and new medical therapies, including developments in such critical areas as cancer and AIDS,” noted Dr. Stephanopoulos.
Research on potential applications for fullerene carbon clusters began at Mitsubishi Corporation in 1993. Mr. Sasaki said, “I distinctly remember the first time a member of my staff presented me with fullerenes. It struck me that fullerenes could be a revolutionary material with enormous potential.”
Mitsubishi Corporation has marketed fullerenes and initiated joint research on the use of fullerenes with several manufactures over the years. In 1999, Mitsubishi Corporation established FIC to acquire and manage the patents for the development and commercialisation of fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, including the MIT patent (through Nano-C LLC, the exclusive licensee of the MIT patent) for its flame-based technology.
The new joint venture with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation reflects a convergence of the business strategies of the two companies, both upstream (patent position and commercial-scale production) and downstream (development and commercialisation of fullerene-based applications). It will combine the scientific and production technology and marketing capabilities of both companies.
The joint venture also represents the first major investment by Nanotech Partners, the world's first nanotechnology investment fund specialising in fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. The investment was first announced by Mitsubishi Corporation at the International Fullerene Workshop last February in Tokyo.
Fullerene carbon clusters - in which carbon atoms are arranged in closed shells - attracted major attention in the scientific community when they were discovered by British and American researchers in 1985. They received wider public attention in 1996 when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the three researchers, Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley of Rice University (US) and Sir Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex (UK).