A Bengaluru startup’s small step to Mars could be a big leap for nanomaterials

Jayadevan PK January 10, 2019

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Bengaluru, the city home to India’s space research organisation, he dreamt of going to space one day. Now he wants to be the first human on Mars.

One would expect him to train to be an astronaut or dismiss the idea altogether. But that’s not how he plans to get to the red planet.

Meet Gadhadar Reddy, a nano-technologist from Bengaluru, who might just get to live his dream someday in the near future thanks to a new material his company is manufacturing.

“Everything from my childhood was centred around going to space and I worked backwards from there” Reddy, 31, tells me on a Friday afternoon at his office in Electronic City, a few hundred meters from the sprawling campus of India’s storied technology services firm Infosys.

In December, Reddy received an e-mail which said that Pythom Space, a project he’s been involved with, has been chosen by the US’s DARPA to participate in the Launch Challenge — an ambitious program which aims to cut launch preparations from a few months to days.

That makes Pythom Space, founded by Tina Sjogren and Tom Sjogren, one of the 18 teams that have qualified for the launch challenge with a purse of tens of millions of dollars. The Sjogrens are adventurers who have completed the three poles challenge and see the space as the next frontier.

And Reddy’s contribution? A nanomaterial – more specifically, Carbon nanotubes – that could well be the material of the future as the race to space heats up with many private players including the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin setting new records. The rockets used by Pythom Space will be among the first in the world to use carbon nanotube-based composites as a structural material.

Gadhadar Reddy, the co-founder of NoPo Nanotechnologies with carbon nanotubes manufactured at the facility in Electronic City, Bengaluru. Photo: Jayadevan PK| FactorDaily

To be sure, there are many companies that manufacture carbon nanotubes. A simple Google search to buy carbon nanotubes throws up many results. Companies such as Russia based OCSIAL, Canada based Raymor and Japan’s Meijo eDIPS manufacture carbon nanotubes, a Yourstory article on NoPo points out. But what makes NoPo Nanotechnologies special is that they’ve mastered the art of manufacturing carbon nanotubes of a high degree of purity at relatively lower costs. For instance, on of NoPo’s competitors, called Chasm Technologies, sells a gram of single-wall nanotubes at about 1.28 lakh. NoPo claims it sells the nanotubes for a tenth of the price.

“It’s amazing for a startup from Electronic City to be doing this,” says Sharat Satyanarayana, a management consultant who has worked with corporations like Target Inc on innovation projects. Satyanarayana who has followed Nopo Technologies for many months now believes that the company is at the cusp of a major breakthrough in making materials based on carbon nanotubes. “It will open up whole new markets,” he says.

Nanomaterials are materials which are made of units whose size is between 1 to 1000 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide. Nanoscale materials have unique properties that make them useful in a variety of applications that couldn’t have been possible with traditional materials like Steel or alloys.

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The biggest hurdle to easier space travel, Reddy figured early in his life, is the weight of the rocket and the payload. For example, the GSLV MK-III, India’s most advanced launch vehicle which can carry four tonnes of payload to the geostationary transfer orbit and 10-tonnes to the lower earth orbit, costs about $60 million to launch. The heavier the payload, the costlier it gets. So Reddy set out on a quest to find a lightweight material that could help bring the weight down. He zeroed in on carbon nanotubes, a molecule first talked about in the early 90s.

Carbon nanotubes, which could be theoretically 100 times stronger than steel and 10 times lighter than it, never lived up to the initial promise of being the material of the future because it was hard to reproduce outside of a lab with existing methods. Even in a laboratory, it was incredibly difficult to reproduce nanotubes of the same consistency to be of any use.

“Each time properties of the nanotube such as diameter would change that that made it useless in applications,” explains Reddy. So for most parts, low-grade carbon nanotubes are used as additives to materials.

At his lab, Reddy has found a way to make carbon nanotubes in meaningful quantities with a degree of consistency that makes it suitable for various applications including building parts of a rocket. But how did the company, mostly run on a round of funding in 2007 from friends and family and one-off grants, get there?

A HiPCO reactor developed at NoPo Nanotechnologies. The reactor runs at a high temperature (about 1000 degree Celsius) and pressure (about 100 atmospheres). Photo: Jayadevan PK|FactorDailiy

After his graduation in 2009, Reddy went to Louisiana Tech. He then sought out connections at Rice University, where at one point Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley taught Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy. Smalley was one of the inventors of a process called HiPCO, using which large quantities of Carbon Nanotubes could be manufactured.

Smalley had passed away in 2005 so Reddy found one of Smalley’s students, Robert Kelley Bradley, who had authored a paper titled “large scale production of single-walled carbon nanotubes” in 2000. The paper detailed a process called HiPCO, short for high-pressure carbon monoxide method, to make large quantities of single-walled carbon nanotubes, a variety of carbon nanotubes more suitable for making materials.

The HiPCO process uses a chemical reaction with Metal Carbonyls as a catalyst at about 1000 degree celsius and a high pressure of 100 atmospheres. The process was born in Smalley’s lab as a result of experiments carried out by Dr Nikolaev Pasha who was a student at the time. Bradley carried on the work to build a HiPCO reactor as part of his thesis which was published in the year 2000.

There are over half a dozen methods to produce carbon nanotubes. But the HiPCO method is more efficient, Bradley argued in his paper, because it can continuously run without interruptions and also requires lower post-production efforts to improve purity.

With Bradley, the co-inventor of the HiPCO reactor as a co-founder, NoPo Nanotechnologies was in business in 2011. Over the years, Reddy and Bradley perfected the HiPCO process using reactors built in-house. The company now supplies high-grade single-walled carbon nanotubes to universities and research institutions.

In 2017, they sold nearly $100,000 worth of carbon nanotubes. But Reddy believes that in the next 4 years, he could be doing business upwards of $100 million. Using large quantities of single-walled carbon nanotubes, the company hopes to make a composite material that can be used in extreme conditions making it suitable for space applications.

Carbon nanotubes produced at Nopo Nanotechnologies are handled within an enclosure to avoid contact with the skin. Photo: Jayadevan PK|FactorDailiy

“Nanotube composites will have many applications and that’s our market,” says Reddy.

To be sure, each gram of single-wall carbon nanotube takes 3-4 hours to produce. So it won’t be easy to scale the manufacturing process. Anticipating the problem, Reddy has been investing in improving the reactors.

The company has not only been improving the efficiency of existing reactors but also creating cheaper reactors. The idea is to borrow a technique called horizontal scale-up from the semiconductor industry where instead of increasing the size of the reactor, you clone the same reactor many times over. It used to cost about a million dollars back in the day to make these reactors in Smalley’s labs but the company has managed to bring the cost of a reactor down to $20,000, Reddy says.

“We are in advanced stages of prototyping the composite. So by the end of March, we’ll have the material out there,” says Reddy, pointing to the fact that Carbon nanotubes from the HiPCO process has been studied in nearly 30,000 research papers and it is the most promising material out there. “There’s literature that studies almost every aspect of the material so if there’s one thing you want to bet on it is this,” he says.

There’s more reason to be optimistic. The market for nanomaterials is growing. “Nanotechnologies have long been overhyped but they are finally coming of age. They will grow in use exponentially once they advance a little further,” says Vivek Wadhwa, Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering.

The carbon nanotubes market is estimated to grow from $4.55 billion in 2018 to $9.84 billion by 2023, at a compounded annual growth rate of 16.7%. “The applications will be far beyond space, we will be using nanomaterials in everything,” Wadhwa told FactorDaily.

In the Darpa Launch Challenge, Reddy hopes to replace a traditionally used Carbon-based composite with his Carbon nanotube composite to make payload fairings. The outcome will prove if NoPo – the name comes from “Not Possible” – will really enter the realm of possibilities.


               

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