Carbon nanotubes were created in the 1990s, and thanks to their strength and ability to conduct electricity, have a multimillion dollar market. About a year ago, the National Research Council Canada started to expand its production of nanotubes made from lightweight boron nitride, also known as BNNTs, and it was projected that BNNTs would be used as an additive manufacturing material just as much as carbon nanotubes within the decade. That day may be arriving sooner than expected, as researchers at the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) at Australia’s Deakin University are reporting that they are the first ever to successfully 3D print a BNNT/titanium composite.
The BNNT 3D printing breakthrough comes from an IFM collaboration between the additive manufacturing team, led by Dr. Daniel Fabijanic and Alfred Deakin Professor Ying (Ian) Chen’s Nanotechnology team.
Professor Chen explained, “Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNTs) are an advanced new nanomaterial with many unique properties. They are ultralight, super strong and incredibly resistant to heat. However, in the 20 years since the material’s discovery, it has only been possible to produce in small amounts. This has seriously limited its practical use in product development. Our novel and scalable manufacturing process can effectively eliminate this production bottleneck and unleash the real power of BNNTs into the marketplace.”
Being able to 3D print large quantities of BNNTs, which have some very unique qualities, could significantly impact multiple industries, from aerospace, defense, and energy to automotive and health. The structure, thermal conductivity, and mechanical properties are all similar to that of its carbon nanotube cousins, but withstand high temperatures up to 800°C, which is double what carbon nanotubes can handle. This quality is what makes BNNTs so attractive as a 3D printing material: this high heat tolerance means that BNNTs can survive the extreme temperatures that are involved when melting and liquefying powders during metal matrix composite 3D printing.
BNNTs can be dyed different colors, and also designed into transparent materials, neither of which carbon nanotubes are capable of. They can also generate electrical current under mechanical stress, have greater electrical insulation and chemical stability properties, and can shield against ultraviolet and neutron radiation.
Professor Chen said, “When integrated into composite materials and systems, BNNTs enable entirely new classes of material performance across many industrial applications.”
Some possible applications and uses include:
- energy storage: batteries, hydrogen storage devices, supercapacitors
- defense and automotive sectors: ceramic, metallic, and polymer composites and transparent materials
- semiconductor industry: thermally conductive and electrically insulating material
- construction sector: fire retardant construction materials
- aerospace and energy sectors: sensors and structural or multifunctional applications
- medical sector: cancer and cellular regeneration therapies
Only in recent years have the potential commercial benefits of BNNTs really started to attract attention. Professor Chen said that there are only three global organizations that claim the ability to produce them, at scale, in large volume. But normal BNNT production is expensive, and energy intensive, which will not be a sustainable long-term method for large-scale industrial manufacturing.
“In contrast, the Deakin BNNT technology promises to offer the highest production rate as well as being more energy efficient and industry friendly, as it is based on current industry equipment. It has been demonstrated at laboratory scale at Deakin and has been running as needed to produce enough BNNTs for both internal and external research purposes, including several different products such as BN nanotube films, coatings and buckypapers, which are not available elsewhere,” Professor Chen said. “BN buckypapers could be used in aircraft as a radiation shielding layer, as filters for removing contaminants from water, and to make lightweight and stronger vehicles and aircraft.”
Deakin University’s BNNT production technology, which researchers recently patented, is ready to be scaled up to meet demand. The university has plans to construct a commercial pilot plant in order to produce BNNTs in kilogram quantities. The plant will be built at Deakin’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus. The IFM’s groundbreaking nanotechnology research was included in Deakin University’s display at last week’s Australian International Airshow and Aerospace and Defence Exposition. Discuss in the BNNT forum at 3DPB.com.[Source/Images: Deakin University]