Monday, January 03, 2005

A future filled with fullerenes?

Mitsubishi: Out Front in Nanotech (By Stephen Herrera, Technology Review)

    buckyballFullerenes, those soccer ball–shaped carbon molecules also known as “buckyballs,” have generated outsized expectations ever since their discovery in 1985. Scientists think they could eventually be used in chemical sensors, fuel cells, drug delivery, cancer medicines, and smart materials. Yet while commercial demand for fullerenes is gradually emerging, so are fears that these molecules, which measure only a few billionths of a meter across, pose serious health and environmental hazards.

    To some, however, fullerenes’ potential is too great to ignore. Mitsubishi Corporation, which holds a number of key patents and licenses on fullerenes, began laying the groundwork for their commercialization in 1993, and company executives say they realized from the beginning that they would need to do voluntarily what many companies won’t do until forced: consider the concerns of stakeholders in academia, government, the environmental community, and the public.

    In 2001, Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical, one of its sister firms in the Mitsubishi group, created Frontier Carbon to manufacture fullerenes. Today Frontier produces only a small amount of fullerenes for its 350 Japanese customers. But already it can make 40 metric tons of fullerenes a year and will eventually expand that capacity to 1,500 metric tons per year. No other producer comes close to these volumes. In fact, nanotechnology industry observers say the two Mitsubishis are taking a big risk by powering up fullerene capacity before there’s a market. They are, in one nanotechnology pundit’s words, “putting the cart, the barn, and the farm before the horse.” More here

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