Revolution Fibres is a high-tech start-up company that produces commercial quantities of electrospun nanofibre. They are one of a few companies worldwide and the only company in Australasia able to do this. With a huge range of potential applications, the market for nanofibre materials is growing rapidly.
What are nanofibres?
Nanofibres are very, very thin long fibres. Because their diameter is measured in nanometres, they belong to the nanoscale and are part of the exciting world of nanotechnology. An individual nanofibre is invisible to the naked eye, but when masses of individual nanofibres have been collected together, they form a tangible visible nanofibre material.
Lab-scale electrospinning and its limitations
While working in the air-filtration industry, Iain Hosie (a scientist), Simon Feasey (an engineer) and Michael Perrett (an entrepreneur and founder of ventilation system HRV) were looking for a way to develop the world’s finest air filter. By chance, they saw a TV documentary featuring scientists electrospinning collagen nanofibres at Plant & Food Research’s Christchurch site. They visited the lab to see the lab-scale electrospinning machine in action.
Aware that nanofibres were being used in filtration products, they purchased a lab-scale electrospinning machine to try making their own air filters. They knew that, if they could produce nanofibre-enhanced air filters, HRV would buy them. However, there were serious limitations in the production rate. This lab-scale machine was only making one strand of nanofibre from a single pipette tip, and it was taking 5 minutes before a patch of nanofibre mat the size of a 10 cent piece was visible. They questioned how long it was going to take to make the 80 000 square metres of nanofibre mat needed to fill an annual air-filter contract.
Shortly afterwards, Iain and Simon discovered that there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of researchers using electrospinning to create nanofibres in the lab. Inspired by all the possibilities, they began to investigate why so little of this work was actually making it to market. What they discovered was that commercialisation of nanofibre applications was difficult because there wasn’t the industrial capability to produce the amount of material required. This was what they had also experienced.
From lab scale to commercial scale
Iain and Simon saw this gap in the market as an opportunity. They set up Revolution Fibres and approached the New Zealand Government for support. They obtained funding to build a prototype machine, the Chameleon, and then a larger machine, the Komodo.
They put a lot of effort into getting from lab scale to commercial scale as quickly as possible. They employed a small group of engineers and scientists and encouraged them to think creatively about how to create machines to make commercial quantities of nanofibre material. When making these new machines, a 3D printer came in handy to create and trial parts that they couldn’t buy. Along the way, they also developed their own technique for electrospinning and spent time learning more about materials and the science of making nanofibres.
Their largest machine, the Komodo, began commercial production runs in early 2012. It was an important achievement for Revolution Fibres as it gave their business the capacity to supply nanofibre mat in industrial quantities. For example, the air-filter contract that requires 80 000 square metres a year of nanofibre material represents just 8% of the annual production capacity of the Komodo.
The first nanofibre products
Product development was an important part of Revolution Fibres’ initial strategy. Even as they were developing the Chameleon and Komodo, they were working to create products that could be made using their production capacity.
SetaTM air filters were produced within 6 months of owning their first lab-scale machine. These are diffuser air filters enhanced with antimicrobial additives and used with the HRV system.
Two other nanofibre products followed:
- Xantu.LayrTM is a composite reinforcement material with a variety of applications. It is used to enhance the characteristics of high-performance composites, particularly carbon fibre. Locally, it has been incorporated into a range of Kilwell fishing rods to make them stronger and more flexible but not heavier.
- actiVLayrTM is a range of cosmetic and skin repair patches that use collagen nanofibre to deliver plant extracts into the skin. Revolution Fibres is working with local commercial partners to develop products based on this technology.
Revolution Fibres established a track record of conceptualising, commercialising and manufacturing nanofibre products.
Refocusing their business
After 18 months in business, Revolution Fibres employed General Manager Albert McGhee. Together with Iain and Simon, he helped the business to think critically about its core strengths. What they realised was that the company’s strengths were in nanofibre creation and manufacturing, not necessarily in the marketing and sales of the end product.
From this realisation, they developed their current business model in which they work directly with clients to create new products, enhance products or solve existing problems. Revolution Fibres uses its unique understanding of the benefits of nanofibre materials and how to make them and translates this into developing products that meet the needs of their clients.
The expanding market
Nanofibres are part of an expanding local and global nanotechnology market. They are ‘smart’ new materials with limitless potential and many different applications. Revolution Fibres provides a commercial nanofibre development and manufacturing service that helps to make these applications feasible and viable. Their strategy to forge partnerships and joint ventures with other firms to create products for local and global markets makes for a very interesting future.