Oxford spin-out takes lead in functional fullerenes

A British company is set to take a market lead in the production of materials that can improve the efficiency of solar cells and be applied to biomedical imaging.

Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s technology commercialisation company, has established Designer Carbon Materials to cost-effectively manufacture commercially useful quantities of fullerenes, which are spherical carbon cage-like structures into which atoms or atomic clusters can be inserted to give them unique abilities.

Designer Carbon Materials will focus on the production of these materials that are currently employed as electron acceptors in polymer-based solar cells, and could be developed as MRI contrast agents for medical imaging and as diagnostics for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Dr Porfyrakis and graduate student Mr Yi Han, loading the composite graphite electrode system into the arc-discharge reactor
Dr Porfyrakis and graduate student Mr Yi Han, loading the composite graphite electrode system into the arc-discharge reactor

In solar cells, the company’s endohedral fullerenes could potentially lead to efficiencies exceeding 10 per cent, and in medical imaging the materials are able to detect the presence of superoxide free radical molecules linked with neurological disorders.

Designer Carbon Materials is based on research from the Department of Materials’ Dr Kyriakos Porfyrakis and the manufacturing process, patented by Isis Innovation, will continue to be developed by the company.

Dr Porfyrakis told The Engineer via email that the challenges facing the up-scaling of endohedral metallofullerenes are: reducing the down time between vaporising graphite rods, collecting the soot and reloading the system; and maximising the anaerobic collection of endohedral metallofullerene-containing soot as some metallofullerenes are air-sensitive.

Currently, endohedral nitrogen fullerenes have been produced for $5/mg and sold for $100/mg.

‘In terms of the production of endohedral nitrogen fullerenes, the challenge that needs to be overcome is to increase the yields of the production method but how this can be achieved is confidential,’ said Dr Porfyrakis. ‘Designer Carbon Materials aim to capture the speciality fullerenes market and also get into the tailored synthesis of fullerene-based functional materials.’

Oxford Technology and the Oxford Invention Fund led investment in Designer Carbon Materials, which is believed to be the only entity that can reliably produce high-purity endohedral and higher fullerenes.