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Vivek Nair may already be a serial innovator and entrepreneur at 23, but his involvement with carbon nanotubes started entirely by accident, when he stumbled upon the subject at a seminar. Today, it’s a career choice even as he continues his education (he’s currently studying for a double doctorate at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University as well as at the Institute of Sports Research).
Carbon nanotubes (CNT) are unique, light carbon molecules that have extraordinary strength and are excellent heat conductors, making them crucial to cutting-edge developments in nanotechnology, electronics, optics and architecture. A host of innovations that were earlier impossible have become credible thanks to the development of these nanotubes. CNT can also be used in future medical developments, like the creation of artificial muscles as well as in developing superconductors and even in the proposed creation of a space elevator to replace rocket launchers. If there is one impediment to adopting CNT, it is the cost — they can sell at anywhere up to $400 a gram, making mass or large-scale adoption unviable. Until now.
Oddly, Nair wasn’t originally interested in CNT as an end — they were merely a means to experiment within some projects he had in mind, while studying bioengineering. When he tried to buy nanotubes online, he was stun-ned to find that they could cost anywhere between $200-400. What followed was a phase of experimentation that led to a new way of creating CNT. While conventional methods involve laser vapourising, using an external catalyst like cobalt or nickel, Nair created a technique for producing CNT out of the high volume of carbon emitted from factories. Christened Flue- Tubes, his patent-pending equipment has two advantages over other methods of CNT production: 1. it uses industrial emissions to create the nanotubes, reducing the percentage of emissions for a factory by up to 50 percent; 2. It does so at a fraction of the cost. “Our cost of production is about $1/gm, which is fantastic given that use of nanotubes is inhibited by their cost,” he says.
The FlueTube applies transformative chemistry — a catalytic substrate is exposed to the flow of flue gas or flame coming out of a furnace to tap and produce CNT by a carbon vapour deposition process. What it means, effectively, is that a pollutant becomes raw material. The environmental aspect of his work is not incidental but core to the whole process. “We have partnered with rice mills in Tamil Nadu andGujaratto use their emissions for production. Adoption is likely to be much higher because of the dual benefit of low cost and use of environmental waste as raw material,” says Nair.
Vivek Nair may already be a serial innovator and entrepreneur at 23, but his involvement with carbon nanotubes started entirely by accident, when he stumbled upon the subject at a seminar. Today, it’s a career choice even as he continues his education (he’s currently studying for a double doctorate at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological Universityas well as at the Institute of Sports Research). He also founded Damascus Fortune, a start-up that has a host of patents pending for their proprietary FlueTube technology, as well as developing new technologies with partners in the auto industry, among others.
With a dedicated team that is working on bringing the FlueTube process to the market, Nair knows that he’s sitting on the cusp of big things. “If we want to combat global warming, we need to restrict carbon emissions — so a technology that makes productive use of it is critical.” The world already seems to know it. Nair was recently included on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, apart from winning a host of innovation awards, from being part of MIT’s TR35 (20 top innovators under 35 for 2012) to TechTop 2010 and the Staples/Ashoka Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition at Techonomy 2011.
The Way Forward
Under development is a prototype for a new form of catalytic converter that would make it possible to create CNT from vehicle emissions. “Automobile companies are showing interest in partnering with us,” he says. Once again, it’s the environmental aspect, rather than the development possibilities of CNT, that seem to thrill him most. “We are aiming to have a massive environmental impact with our work,” he says. “That’s the biggest deal of all!”
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[The article has been reblogged ]