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Remember the space elevator idea? It involved a science-fiction-style human construction made out of carbon nanotubes, leading to a space station in geosynchronous orbit and allowing us to launch satellites or do research of an orbital nature much faster and cheaper than with the rockets and space shuttles used today.
There hasn't been much talk about that elevator in recent years, but that might change. Carbon nanotubes are growing up and moving from research labs to real-world business. This week, pharmaceutical giant Bayer opened a manufacturing plant that can churn out 200 tons of nanotubes a year. According to Bayer, it's the world's largest nanotube factory in an industry that the company boldly proclaims will hit $2 billion in sales within 10 years.
Personally, I believe Bayer is playing lowball. The tubes are light but still extremely strong, can act as electrical conductors or semiconductors, and even come with unique optical properties. Potential uses for nanotubes include structural engineering marvels like the space elevator, and hyper-efficient display screens that would put the finest OLEDs from Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL ) to shame. If the Bayer plant is the starting gun for large-scale manufacturing investments, this market should hit $2 billion long before the next decade.
Bayer is known for medical research, but also runs a couple of sizable materials divisions. The particular type of nanotubes to be made in this new facility are intended for hard, antistatic, and non-stick coatings for ship hulls and sporting equipment, among other things. However, nanotubes could also deliver benefits to such disparate areas as medicine -- Bayer trumpets their effectiveness in areas such as diagnosis and therapy. Elan (NYSE: ELN ) has a nanoscale drug delivery system, for example, though it doesn't actually use tubes.
Though nanotubes have always existed, revelations about their use in industrial processes are pretty recent, and manufacturing them is still difficult and expensive, not to mention rare. However, the researchers in the field include giants like IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , besides legions of tiny independents.
That elevator might still be decades off, but carbon nanotubes are getting ready for prime time. Is this the magic moment for nanotechnology venture capital firm Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY ) ? The VC invests in private companies such as Nantero, which recently tested a carbon nanotube-based memory device jointly with Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) .
I think this could be Harris & Harris's time. Share your own thoughts, big or small, in the comment box below.