Interview with Steve Wilcenski, Co-Founder & CEO At BNNano

Nanotechnology was founded over 50 years ago, how has Nanotechnology evolved since it was first discovered?

The biggest evolution is that there are now everyday products that contain nanomaterials and nanotechnology. When nanotechnology was first discovered and discussed it was a novelty to be used in the laboratory and it took many years for this to be integrated into products.

We think there is still a long way to go and that much of what is talked about with nanotechnology is still far from being commercialized but we are rapidly approaching a time when we will need nanomaterials and nanotechnology to enable many of the products and technologies that we desire for the 21st century.

BNNano produce Boron Nitride NanoBarbTM, a unique and enhanced boron nitride nanotube, please explain what this is and the benefits?

When we founded BNNano our goals were to not only develop a unique nanomaterial but to also manufacture an “Engineering Material” that would be low cost, high quality and easy to use.

It has been our experience, working with nanomaterials, that there have been significant challenges in working with and incorporating nanomaterials into other materials and products. If we look at some of the issues associated with using Carbon Nanotubes there are a few that can be identified as major challenges:

  1. CNT’s tend to clump together
  2. Functionalization of CNT’s often damages the nanotube
  3. Low temperature stability
  4. Cost
  5. Quality

We started by imagining a nanotube as a common product we interact with all the time, a drinking straw. This was the starting point of our development process and gave us the chance to identify and visualize solutions for the common problems. A drinking straw is long and thin, with a high aspect ratio, smooth and hollow. If it cracks or gets a hole in it, the usefulness is greatly reduced.

Materials that are smooth and long, like nanotubes, like to stick together. This causes agglomerates or clumps, which are essentially material defects. The agglomerates not only make the material difficult to use but can also degrade the host material’s properties. 

We saw the need to reduce the smoothness in our material.

Another challenge caused by being smooth, is that the nanotubes can slip out of or not lock into the material they are added to. Think of a drinking straw and a clump of Play-Doh, you can easily push a straw into and out of the Play-Doh. We knew we had to ELIMINATE the smooth.

Another problem with nanotubes is that in many cases the nanotube’s surface must be modified in order to mix them into a host material. When nanotubes are functionalized, the surface reactions can scavenge a few atoms, this creates defects, much like a crack or hole in the drinking straw, making the nanotube less useful. We needed to reduce the need for functionalization or at least have atoms that could be sacrificed.

Now that we had a good set of design criteria for our enhanced nanotubes, we thought, what common real-world material or product could we learn from and potentially mimic? Rebar came to mind. Rebar is a high aspect ratio, tube shaped material, with texture on the outer surface to lock into the cement and it is designed to reinforce a host material.

We focused on developing a material like rebar and to do this we needed to change the surface of the nanotube. To texture the surface of our boron nitride nanotubes, we leveraged our experiences in thin film and crystal growth. We thought that if we could grow crystals on the outside of the nanotube, we could texture the surface.  h-BN crystals would be the perfect choice for a material, it would chemical matched. When we visualized this, it looked like rock candy, and it had the potential to achieve all of our objectives. So, we set out to make this rebar, rock candy nanotube and that is how we came up with the NanoBarb™.

The NanoBarb™ is an engineering material that does amazing things.

  1. It’s easy to see how the modified surface locks into the host material. This anchor will not slip out of the Play-Doh.
  2. The modified surface is no longer flat and smooth, so the tendency to stick together and agglomerate is greatly reduced, the touch points are so few that the chance for stiction is almost eliminated.
  3. The modified surface also changes the surface chemistry enough to allow mixture into historically challenging chemistries without functionalization
  4. When we need to functionalize, the h-BN crystals provide enough sacrificial atoms that the atom of the nanotubes are not scavenged, and the integrity of the nanotube stays fully intact.
  5. The h-BN provides another mechanism for mechanical improvements, they can crack and break from the surface of the nanotube providing a stress relief that does not damage the nanotube

With the NanoBarb™ we achieved our goals to modify the nanotube to eliminate the smooth, reduce the need for functionalization, and provide sacrificial atoms, all done at a low cost that produces sufficient volumes and is easy to expand. We have a material that is an Engineering Material and easier to use.

Aside from being the only company commercially viable for the manufacturing process of Boron Nitride Nanotubes, what are BNNano’s other USP’s?

Our current product offerings are:

  1. Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ Powders
  2. Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ Master Alloys
    1. Aluminum Master Alloy
    1. Copper Master Alloy
  3. Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ Filaments or 3D Printing
    1. Polycarbonate
  4. Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ Coolants

Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ Water Filtration Products

BNNano technology is used widely across lots of different applications like fire prevention, composites, energy etc, how is it so versatile?

The versatility comes from the properties of Boron Nitride Nanotubes. This is a super material that has remarkably properties.

For example, Boron Nitride Nanotubes are stable at temperatures above 850C, so this material can be added to a vast range of materials from liquids and polymer to some molten metals.

It is remarkably thermally conductive but has a low heat capacity, while being electrically insulative. This rare combination enables many applications from fire preventive coatings to next generation thermal management materials.

Because the nanotubes contain boron there is also the ability to absorb neutron radiation.

Another key to versatility is that Boron Nitride is a material that is very stable nearly inert. it typically does not react or interact with other materials, so it is an ideal additive.

Boron Nitride Nanotubes enhance materials by improving mechanical properties, thermal properties or both. 

Can you tell us if you are working on new and exciting nano technology innovations? If so, what are they?

We are continually working on improving our materials and products and we have been able to continually improve our quality and reduce our costs. Our goal is to make our Boron Nitride Nanotubes at a cost and quality level that will allow any industry to benefit from nanomaterials.

We have some new and exciting products that take advantage of the enhancements that nanomaterials bring and we will be showing many of these products at the show.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected BNNano?

We certainly lost revenues when the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 were in place. However, we were able to take advantage of the time by developing additional intellectual property, developing some new products, and continuing to improve the quality of our NanoBarb™ materials.

Nanotechnology when properly applied, has the potential to use less energy, in a world where sustainability is a hot topic right now, what is BNNano doing to contribute to lower carbon emissions?

One of the most exciting products we have is our NanoBarb™ Aluminium Master Alloy. We have been able to demonstrate that by adding a very small amount of our material to Aluminium alloys we can essentially double the strength of the alloy. With a 2x improvement in the mechanical properties you could use far less aluminium. By using less aluminium there would be a significant reduction in energy usage because less aluminium will be consumed. Much of the aluminium in the world is produced in coal fired manufacturing plants so you would not use less of a natural resource, but you would also be reducing carbon emissions.

BNNano is also dedicated to manufacturing our NanoBarbs™ in a process that is as Green as possible. Our process uses very little energy and produces almost zero waste.

What are you hoping to showcase to the attendees at The Nanotechnology Show?

We are planning to clearly demonstrate the advantages that our NanoBarbs™ have over a traditional nanotube. This unique morphology allows our material to be used in ways that have not been seen before in similar nanomaterial and will help to enable disruptive products and technologies.

We will also be showcasing our new products. In addition to our Boron Nitride NanoBarb™ raw material, we will also be showing our NanoBarb™ Master Alloys, our NanoBarb™ Filaments for 3D Printing, our NanoBarb™ coolants, water filtration products and give some hints about what is coming next.

Visit BNNano on booth 408.