Here is a recent interview of Ian Hosie, managing director of Revolution Fibres, featured in Sustainable Nonwovens.
Sustainable Nonwovens: What’s the background to Revolution Fibres and when was the company founded?
Iain Hosie: Revolution Fibres was founded in 2009 in Auckland. It came from a project with a local ventilation company, HRV, which was looking for “the best filter in the world for New Zealand homeowners”. We started looking at filtration technologies and nanofibres came up. Initially we wanted to buy nanofibres, but discovered it wasn’t that easy.
SNW: So you saw a gap in the market?
IH: Yes definitely, despite the potential in many markets. So we hired some engineers, got some start-up funding and took the plunge. It took three years to take the technology from lab-scale to the industrial scale, and we developed our own production know-how and some unique products to get started in some key markets.
SNW: You have described electro-spinning as “a technology with huge potential trapped in laboratories” – could you say a little about that potential and also the obstacles to industrial scale-up?
IH: Like most advanced materials companies, Revolution Fibres has a technology platform, based around specialist IP and proprietary production methods. As a specialist nanofibre provider, we have the expertise the market is looking for – and are commercially driven. There are many, many applications for nanofibres, but most require customisation to suit the market. This represents a challenge for nanofibre manufacturers – most are forced into picking one application and focusing on that, unleashing only a fraction of the potential. There are entire nanofibre plants devoted to air filtration and battery separator applications, but ask these manufacturers to make a wound dressing and they aren’t in a position to do so. The next ‘killer app’ is just around the corner and we are in a good position to be part of that – with the right partners.
SNW: I believe you’ve also achieved a first in having a product qualified for aerospace applications?
IH: Yes, our XantuLayr is now commercially available as a nanofibre composite reinforcement veil and the company has achieved AS9100c certification, a quality assurance requirement for all aerospace manufacturers and suppliers. When XantuLayr is placed in between layers of carbon fibre in composite laminates it provides nano-scale reinforcement. Using it results in a tougher resin which is less prone to failure or cracking when stressed or impacted. The product has been shown to significantly improve interlaminar fracture toughness, compression after impact strength, interlaminar shear strength and fatigue resistance of composite laminates. Unlike many toughening methods, the physical and mechanical properties of a composite, such as glass transition temperature, flexural strength and modulus and tensile strength and modulus are not negatively impacted by the inclusion of XantuLayr. It delivers huge strength improvements in many composite structures – especially carbon fibre tubing and prepreg. Its composite enhancing properties include flexural strength, interlaminar shear strength, impact resistance, part consistency and resin toughness. All these benefits come with virtually no additional weight and thickness to the composite in one easy step during lay-up.
SNW: What are your other commercially-available products at present?
IH: They include Seta air filter products, which are enhanced with natural antimicrobial additives and ActivLayr cosmetic and skin repair patches which employ collagen nanofibres to deliver plant extracts into the skin. Phonix nanofibre acoustic products are thin membranes for use in building materials, furniture and electronics. Many more innovations are under development.
SNW: What do you see as the ‘market pull’ in the advanced materials space?
IH: Whatever sector you look at, industrial manufacturers have the same needs. They want materials that will give them competitive advantages or increased performance. They want to buy materials that already exist, at good market rates, from reputable suppliers. They are looking for specialists – they want to rely on their supply chain to have the expertise and the ability to improve these materials on request, or through their own R&D. And they don’t want to be responsible for the development and manufacture of these materials – the General Electric/3M model of large R&D teams doing all manner of technologies is behind us.
SNW: So traditional technology partners aren’t meeting the industry’s need?
IH: I don’t believe so. Universities and research institutes have different motivations – patents, papers and PhDs are the core focus. And while nanofibre technologies continue to advance at rapid pace, the mechanisms of how they will be used in industry and at what price cannot be addressed. And even if a material fits an industrial client’s needs it’s then a question of who will make it and how much it will cost. We need to bring research closer to manufacturers, in order to entice end-users.
SNW: How does your approach differ?
IH: Our business model is based on open innovation. It recognises that nanofibres and advanced materials in general are not products. They require a platform technology that requires adaptation and customisation to fit a wide variety of uses. Our nanofibre customisation services are designed to create a pathway for nanofibres to get out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. This approach creates opportunities for the research community and end-users alike. Through open-innovation projects we can generate research direction and funding in key areas, such as in a specific instance bioactives and marine collagen, with a commercial focus – everyone benefits. Of course, there is no ‘one size fits all’. Industry must be prepared to pay for this customisation, especially as these materials are now on the cusp of commercialisation. The companies who work with advanced materials companies now will be in the strongest position to have competitive edge and IP ownership in the years to come.
SNW: You have designed and built the Komodo, which is capable of electro-spinning 100 square metres of nanofibre web an hour in widths of up to two metres. When did this machine start production?
IH: The Komodo was finished in April 2012 and went immediately into production. It has been recognised both nationally and internationally as an incredibly versatile technique with over 30 polymers being turned into nanofibre. It can electrospin multiple polymers in one pass, and carry high loadings of actives. Its production rate varies from product to product, but certainly, in the air filtration space we are producing hundreds of square metres per hour.
SNW: Without giving away any trade secrets, how does the machine achieve this?
IH: All I can say is we use a needle-less technique, and have a unique process which hasn’t been seen elsewhere commercially. We manage our IP carefully and have multiple international clients, so disclosing the method behind the manufacture is not something we can do. However, it’s not just the electro-spinning technique. Most of our improvements since 2012 have been in better chemistry and understanding of the various parameters that affect nanofibre production. We’re just constantly getting better and better at making nanofibres!