Silicon nitride nanofibres
CRL Energy, in colaboration with Victoria University of Wellington, has discovered and developed a new method of producing the high-value nanofibres. The method uses low cost
feedstocks such as coal, sand, and nitrogen from the air. Instead of exporting raw materials, the technology offers the prospect of exporting high technology materials two or three orders of magnitude more valuable than the coal and sand they are made from.
Dr Troy Dougherty, supervised by the late Dr Tony Clemens, Chief Scientist at CRL Energy, and Prof John Spencer, Head of Victoria University’s
and Physical Sciences, initially discovered the production method while on a GIF grant from FRST. After completing his PhD at the
he was employed by CRL Energy to work with
to further develop the process.
The manufacturing process developed can produce silicon nitride nanofibres at a cost an order of magnitude less that the current price of silicon nitride nanofibres and other nanofibres such as carbon nanotubes. The nanofibres production process has now been scaled up with the construction by CRL Energy of a Proof of Concept Plant capable of producing kilogramme quantities.
Silicon nitride is known for its fantastic material properties, it combines high-strength, toughness, and stiffness with excellent thermal properties. Silicon nitride nanofibres can withstand punishing high temperature manufacturing conditions and deliver excellent reinforcing properties in hi-tech composite materials. By lowering the manufacturing cost, nanofibres will be able to be supplied in large quantities, opening up new market opportunities such as polymer composites, metal composites, ceramic composites, nanofluids, and nanocoatings. Nanofibre composites are expected to be many times stronger than current materials.
This technological breakthrough, with patents pending in the
, will provide exciting new opportunities for many industries in
and overseas. The Ministry of Science + Innovation has endorsed the new technology by investing substantial TechNZ funds into developing and optimising the process.
A spin off company, Nuenz Ltd, backed by a
private investor and led by CEO John Errington will now take the technology to commercial scale. Nuenz is already operating the proof of concept plant on the CRL site, and work is starting to develop a range of applications for the nanofibres in collaboration with local and international companies.
CRL Energy CEO Dr Rob Whitney says successfully taking the technology to commercial scale will mean that New Zealand science, New Zealand raw materials, and New Zealand capital have combined to produce a world class industry based in New Zealand and worth millions, if not billions of dollars to New Zealand . “In addition, our early adopter companies will have the opportunity to gain a global competitive advantage from the technology. These companies are likely to be New Zealand SMEs.”
In October 2011, CRL Energy was selected as an overall finalist in the New Zealand Innovators’ Awards 2011 (Emerging Innovator Award) for the development of silicon nitride nanofibres.
Electron Micrograph of Silicone Nitride Nanofibres. Image by Dr Troy Dougherty, Nuenz CRL Energy.