InnovationsTechnology
October 7, 2015

The NRC just beat out NASA in a tech race

Written by Jason McNaught

It took approximately 18 years for carbon fibre to go from lab experiment to the commercial market, and at that point, if you weren’t building a spacecraft for NASA or making fighter jets for the U.S. Military, it wasn’t part of your everyday life. That came years later, when some brilliant mind figured out how manufacture it by the ton.

You’ve probably never stared at the pricey carbon road bike in your garage, rubbed your chin and thought, “I wonder what’ll come next?” That’s ok. You don’t have to. There’s a guy in a lab right now wearing safety glasses, a long white coat and little blue booties doing that for you.

Christopher Kingston is tall, athletic and smart. As a research officer in the Emerging Technologies Division at the National Research Council (NRC), he can often be found labouring over a giant stainless steel machine in the basement of an older building in Ottawa’s East End. There at the end of white hallway where every door has a red lightbulb screwed-in right above it, Kingston toils away in a lab the size of an average living room, creating masterpieces in a microscopic world.

Kingston`s partner, Benoit Simard, is an older gentleman with short-grey hair, a ready smile and a disarming personality. Both work in the Security Materials Program at NRC, where they use nanomaterials to make advanced composites for defence and military applications like improved armour for vehicles and people.

Nanomaterials, for the uninitiated, are defined by Stanford as “materials with at least one external dimension in the size range from approximately 1-100 nanometers.” One nanometer, as a unit of measurement, is one-billionth of a metre. A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick, and a human hair is 80,000 – 100,000 nanometers wide.

It’s tough to tell, at least from looking around the lab, what actually happens here. The place is spotless. And the two story-machine, which looks kind of like a cross between an oversize funnel and a prop from Back to the Future, gives nothing away.

Kingston produces a small sample of carbon-based nanomaterials in a clear plastic case in preparation for an explanation which he knows will be tough for a journalist with an arts background and no high-school chemistry credits. It looks like black baby powder or a collection of soot from a well-used woodstove.

Over time, he explains, scientists have become adept at engineering nanomaterials to improve their strength, reactivity and electrical properties. At NRC, Kingston and Simard work mainly with carbon and boron nitride nanomaterials, which they further process into exceptionally strong, cylindrical structures called nanotubes.

While nanotubes may not make the front page of the New York Times on a regular basis, they play a pretty big part in our everyday life, and have for quite some time. Unorganized carbon “bulk” nanotubes, for example, are regularly used in a variety of applications for sports, medicine and industrial manufacturing.

For Kingston and Simard, carbon nanotubes are old hat. Been there. Done that. But Boron Nitride? They’re like 12-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Kingston says that boron nitride nanotubes, or BNNTs, as the cool kids call them, have “fantastic mechanical properties.” In fact, he claims, they are “almost hundreds of times better” than any standard engineering material already in use. “Steel, aluminum, polymers – the strength-to-weight properties are almost through the roof,” he says, emphatically.

There’s another benefit too, one that Kingston thinks will appeal to the defence industry. Anyone who is familiar with carbon knows that everything it is made with comes out black. BNNTs, on the other hand, have many of the same mechanical properties as carbon nanotubes, but can be placed into transparent composites, improving their hardness, toughness and fracture resistance. “With boron nitride nanotubes, you can make better, lighter, higher-performance transparent materials for armoured vehicles,” Kingston says. “Now you can have high visibility in vehicles that offer just as much protection.”

He lists off some other attributes; boron nitride nanotubes are also very light and have excellent thermal properties[CTK1] . “If you can harness all of these properties in different ways,” Kingston explains, “then the opportunities for composite materials are almost…” he pauses. “Well, almost any industry could benefit, but of course, defence is a key market for a lot of these advanced materials.”

Before catching BNNT fever like Kingston and Simard, here’s the bad news: BNNTs have been known for decades, and lots of people around the world are studying them, however, “in practice,” Kingston says, “it is hard to make them in high quality at high quantities so that we can do macroscopic things with them.”

By “macroscopic” Kingston means practical. He hasn’t been able to do anything practical with them. Nor can anyone else. In fact, BNNTs are so hard to make, they’re worth an absolute fortune. A quick Google search reveals that a 500 milligram clear plastic container of Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT P1-Beta) retails for $500 USD. Five hundred milligrams of gold at today’s price, as a comparison, would cost roughly $15. At $1 per milligram, a cube of sugar would cost $4,000.

In theory, BNNTs could change the world. In practice, they’re useless. At least, until now.

Kington’s attention turns to the magnificent silver contraption idly dominating three-quarters of the lab. “What we have developed here,” he explains, “is a process based on plasma. We chose this because, historically, some of the lab-scale methods we used to make nanotubes used things like lasers and plasma discharges to produce gram quantities of these,” he says, pointing to a poster displaying magnified pictures of nanotubes on the wall. “This,” he says while turning back to the machine, “is just an industrial analog to those types of technologies.”

Simply put, Kingston and Simard took a small machine that produces small amounts of BNNTs and used similar technology to build a large machine capable of producing larger amounts of BNNTs. “This is basic plasma technology that’s used in industry for lots of materials processing, materials transformation and waste processing.” He says, matter-of-factly.

The words “basic” and “plasma technology” aren’t typically used in the same sentence; in fact, the gravity of the accomplishment is temporarily lost due to Kingston’s unflinching modesty.

He continues, trying to hit the point home: “The key for NRC is that we have this reactor in-house, and through our own operations we now have access to large quantities of these materials. We are now able to produce [BNNTs] at a factor of about 200 times more than what anybody else has previously demonstrated.”

Obviously, this is a major achievement. But something is missing. The nanotubes on the poster look like thin, grey rolled-up pieces of dryer lint. It’s hard to imagine how BNNTs, even if there was literally tons of it lying around, could be stronger than steel. From what they’ve shown so far, Kingston and Simard have turned powder into small pieces dryer lint.

The answer is composites. “The excitement around having access to boron nitride nanotubes at kilogram plus scales,” Kingston says, “has allowed us to look at advanced composites made from those.” Now that the NRC has access to BNNTs, Kingston and Simard will use in-house expertise — chemists, polymer experts, metals experts and composites people — to build larger prototypes of composite materials.

That makes sense, but why not – with BNNTs going for $500USD per half-gram – just start selling them in raw form?

Simard, who’s left it largely to Kingston up until now to explain their accomplishment in painstakingly elementary terms, steps in to provide the answer. “Manufacturing nanomaterials is a product, but it is in the added value products that you have a greater chance of having an impact on the manufacturing side.” So, instead of flooding the market with their new, mass-produced BNNTs, the NRC wants to take it to the next level. Cha-ching.[CTK2]

“This material is hard to work with,” Simard says. “It’s beautiful, it’s strong, but in order to harness its properties we need to be able to tailor the service. We need to do chemistry on it so that it can be integrated into other types of materials,” he explains. “Metal, ceramic, thermoplastic, thermosets like epoxies — this chemistry part is quite demanding in terms of effort, but of course, if you succeed, then you have advanced in the value stream.”

Simard’s enthusiasm for his work is inspiring. If NRC is successful in creating new and improved composites using BNNTs, it can then license those products, like enhanced resin or ceramics. After that, it can start making specific components out of these materials, jumping further along into the value stream. In a nutshell, there’s plenty more money to be made in the future as opposed to selling out right now. “With boron nitride nanotubes, the cost is significantly expensive, but in a short while, maybe ten years, it’s just going to be a commodity,” Benoit says.

Although Kingston and Benoit have their eyes firmly fixed on the future of BNNTs, getting to this point is a significant achievement. Labs all over the world have tried to mass produce BNNTs; NRC was the first. “Our latest development in the manufacturing of boron nitride nanotubes,” Benoit says, “is certainly of great interest to NASA for instance, which we visited, and they are quite keen in knowing a little more.”

That puts things into perspective. Here, in this basement, these two guys beat out the best minds at NASA – the epitome of technology and innovation with a three trillion dollar budget – in the race to manufacture large quantities of BNNTs.

“We won the race…” Benoit says with a smile, “…which is quite neat.” It’s a perfectly Canadian response to a perfectly Canadian invention. If that was it – if Kingston and Simard stopped what they were doing today and never turned that machine on again – they would have already made a huge contribution to the advancement of technology, not just here in Canada, but on a global scale.

The good news is, they have no intention of stopping there. In fifteen or twenty years, whether you’re marvelling at a two-pound road bike or trying to figure out how the windshield of your armoured vehicle sustained that many direct hits in a firefight… chances are you won’t think of Kingston and Simard. But they’ll have played a part in that.

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