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Al Eisele Headshot

A New Silicon Valley on the Oklahoma Prairie?

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Norman, Oklahoma -- You've heard of California's Silicon Valley. Now get ready for Oklahoma's Carbon Prairie.

It's here, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, that could be the home of one of the cutting edge technologies of the 21st century. It's called single-wall carbon nanotubes, and it has the potential of replacing environmentally damaging plastics, making faster semiconductor chips, producing lightweight materials stronger than steel, and even reducing the toxicity of chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

I wouldn't know a single-wall carbon nanotube if it bit me, but I learned a lot about them last month when Andy Rieger, editor of the Norman Transcript newspaper, accompanied me to the dedication of the new headquarters and manufacturing facility of SWeNT, the acronym for SouthWest NanoTechnologies Inc.

Single-wall carbon nanotubes, I discovered, are seamless hollow cylinders of carbon approximately a billionth of a meter in diameter that exhibit extraordinary optical and electronic properties, tremendous strength and flexibility, and high thermal and chemical stability.

SWeNT is a spinoff from research conducted at the University of Oklahoma. The company, founded in 2001, claims to have developed a first-of-its-kind manufacturing process to make single-wall carbon nanotubes in large-scale quantities that are commercially viable. Since moving into its 18,000-square-foot facility on outskirts of Norman in June, SWeNT has "increased production capacity for high-quality single-wall carbon nanotubes by 100-fold at one-tenth the cost," according to CEO David Arthur.

That's critically important because until now, nobody has been able to make the nanotubes in sufficient numbers and at an affordable price. The potential applications of these exotic molecular structures are almost limitless, explained Daniel Resasco, a professor of chemical engineering at OU who is the company's founder and chief scientist.

According to Resasco, a native of Argentine, these applications could have a major impact on industries ranging from computers to airliner construction to health care. They include:

·Reinforced polymer composites used for thin-film membranes on the surface of airliners and spacecraft.
·Bulletproof body and vehicle armor from single-wall carbon nanotubes' ability to be spun into fibres 20 times tougher than steel and 17 times stronger than Kevlar.
·Faster, denser semiconducting chips and "nanowires" for computers and electronic devices.
·Reinforced ceramics or polymer composites to build long but lighter wind turbine blades that are more efficient.
·A low-cost alternative to solar cells made with silicone and expensive platinum in fuel cells.
·Non-invasive cancer treatment delivery systems that take drugs directly to the source of the disease and reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy.

With some 40 other start-up nanotechnology companies in Oklahoma, SWeNT could provide the spark for a new industry that someday will rival the storied oil and gas companies that have powered the Sooner State's robust economy since it achieved statehood 100 years ago.

"There has been no leader in single-wall nanotubes," SWeNT CEO Arthur said. "We are going to be the center of the universe - right here in Norman, Oklahoma - for single-wall nanotubes."

SWeNT still has to prove it can compete in the marketplace, but if it can, it could fulfill Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jari Askins' declaration that her state has a "great pioneer heritage that has lent itself to innovative initiatives from its very beginning."

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