Jérôme Pollak, Business Development Director at Tekna Plasma Systems, spoke to AZoNano about commercializing boron nitride nanotubes for advanced materials applications.
Could you provide our readers with a brief overview of the history of Tekna Plasma Systems and explain how the company has grown since it was founded in 1990?
For 25 years, Tekna has been developing and commercializing both equipment and processes based on its induction plasma proprietary technology. Our induction plasma technology is especially well adapted to the production of advanced materials and the powders necessary for new innovative emerging products and manufacturing technologies.
Tekna supplies full-scale productions of a variety of Nano powders and micron-sized spherical powders meeting all the requirements of the most demanding industries. Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT) represent the brand new family of materials at Tekna.
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Introduction to TEKNA’s products and services
Could you summarize to our readers the details from the press release you published earlier this year (May 2015) which announced collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC)?
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) developed, on a Tekna plasma system, a process to produce Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNTs). BNNTs are a material with the potential to create a big turning point in the market. Since last spring, Tekna has been in an exclusive 20-year agreement with the NRC to allow the firm to manufacture Boron Nitride Nanotubes at full-scale production.
BNNTs are an extraordinary material with unique properties that will revolutionise engineered materials across a wide range of applications including in the defence and security, aerospace, biomedical and automotive sectors. BNNTs have a structure very similar to the better known carbon nanotubes. They share the extraordinary mechanical properties of Carbon Nanotubes but have many different advantages.
How does the structure and properties of BNNTs differ from Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs)?
The structure of Boron Nitride Nanotubes is a close analog of the Carbon Nanotubes (CNT). Both CNTs and BNNTs are considered as the strongest light-weight nanomaterials and are very good thermal conductors.
Although, compared to CNTs, BNNTs have a greater thermal stability, a better resistance to oxidation and a wider band gap (~5.5 eV). This makes them the best candidate for many fields in which CNTs are currently used for lack of a better alternative. I expect BNNTs to be used in transparent bulk composites, high-temperature materials (including metal matrix composites) and radiation shielding.
Comparison between the main properties of BNNTs and CNTs (Source: NRC)
What are the main application areas in which BNNTs can be used?
The applications involving BNNTs are still in their very beginning, essentially because of the limited availability of this material until 2015. With the arrival on the market of large supplies of BNNT from Tekna, the scientific community will be able to undertake more in-depth studies of the unique properties of BNNTs which will accelerate the development of new applications.
Many applications can already be envisioned for Tekna’s BNNT powder as it is a multifunctional and high quality material. I can tell you that, currently, the combination of high stiffness and high transparency is being exploited in the development of BNNT-reinforced glass composites.
Also, the high stiffness of BNNT, along with its excellent chemical stability, will make this material an ideal reinforcement in polymers, ceramics and metals.
Besides, many applications where heat dissipation is critical are desperately in need of materials with a very good thermal conductivity. Tekna’s BNNTs are the best allies to improve not only the thermal conductivity but also maintaining a clear colour, if needed, thanks to their high transparency.
Other intrinsic properties of BNNTs are likely to promote interest for the integration of BNNTs into new applications. BNNTs have a good radiation shielding ability, a very high electrical resistance and an excellent piezoelectricity.
TEM image of Tekna's BNNT-R product
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How does Tekna’s BNNT synthesis process differ from methods used by other companies?
BNNTs were first synthesized in 1995. Since then, several other processes have been explored such as the arc-jet plasma method, ball milling-annealing, laser ablation pyrolysis and chemical vapour deposition.
Unfortunately, these processes share a major limitation: their low yield. Such methods result in a low BNNT production which is typically less than 1 gram per hour. This fault is sometimes coupled with the inability to make small diameters (< 10 nm).
As a result, the availability of large quantities of high quality BNNTs for applications development using these processes is still a significant challenge.
Fortunately, Tekna’s inductively coupled plasma (ICP) technology has successfully overcome this challenge. The combination of Tekna’s ICP expertise and its partnership with the NRC opened the door to a brand new range of systems capable of producing highly pure BNNTs in significant quantities. Tekna’s system productivity reaches up to 2 orders of magnitude higher than any of the current methods.
What are the advantages of using Tekna’s unique approach in terms of quantity and price for the commercial market?
The productivity and cost efficiency of Tekna’s ICP technology allow for the first time, the supply of kilograms of Boron Nitride Nanotubes, produced at a much lower production cost.
Could you outline the composition of the BNNTs Tekna synthesizes?
The main interesting characteristics include the tube diameter, about 5 nm, and purity (> 50 %). Most nanotubes contain 3 to 5 walls and are assembled in bundles of a few nanotubes.
TEM image of Tekna's BNNT-R product
How do you see the BNNT industry progressing over the next five years?
As large quantities are now available, we saw the launch of several R&D programs based on Tekna’s BNNT, and as much higher quantities will be reached in the next 5 years, we can only imagine what the impact could be in the sciences and industry fields.
Where can our readers find out more information about Tekna and your BNNTs?
You can find information about Tekna and BNNT on Tekna’s website and on our BNNT-dedicated page.
About Jérôme Pollak
Jérôme Pollak was born in Grenoble, France in 1979. He received the B.Sc. degree in physics from the Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble. He moved to Québec (Canada) in 2002 to work for the company Air Liquide in the design of plasma sources for the detoxification of greenhouse gases.
He continued his studies in Montreal, where he received an M.Sc. and then a Ph.D. degree in plasma physics from the Université de Montréal in 2008. His M.Sc. thesis was on the design and modelling of field applicators to sustain plasma with RF and microwave fields. While his Ph.D. thesis concerned the plasma sterilization of thermosensitive medical devices such as catheters. He was further involved in the characterization and modelling of cold plasma effects on microorganisms and polymers.
After his Ph.D., he worked for 3 years for Morgan Schaffer in Montreal on the development of gas chromatographic systems using plasma detectors.
Since 2010, he has worked at Tekna Plasma Systems in Sherbrooke (QC, Canada) as an R&D coordinator, then as product and service manager and now as business development director for America. He has been in charge of various R&D projects and business development activities implying micro-sized powder treatment and nanoparticle synthesis by high temperature plasma.
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