RIGA - One vision of the future predicts a world taken over by tiny ‘assemblers,’ able to build anything from scratch, including the ability to replicate themselves. Another calls for a coming revolution in nanotechnology, leading to the ‘assemblers’ - nanomachines - allowing us to place atoms in almost any possible arrangement, and build almost anything we can design. The consequences will be profound, as the ability to rearrange atoms will also lead to quantum leap advances in medicine, space, computation, production... and warfare.
This second variation is the future promoted by the ‘godfather’ of nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, as expressed in his thought-provoking book Engines of Creation.
However, his remains just a vision for now. To learn what’s currently possible, what’s actually emerging from labs around the world, scientists, inventors, business-people, academics, investors gathered at the EuroNanoForum 2015 held in Riga from June 10-12. Discussions covering nanotechnologies and advanced materials ranged from materials engineering, surface coatings, photovoltaics, to hand-held fluid arrays, micro-electronics and printing capabilities.
Small sample size
Laboratory analysis of samples is being transformed by the so-called ‘lab-on-a-chip’ designs, with several companies at the conference showing off the latest technologies.
These hand-held chips can vary in size from a few millimeters up to a few square centimeters. The technology makes it possible to conduct miniaturized lab analysis on fluid samples such as blood on the micro- or nanoscale. The lab-on-a-chip contains channel structures and have one or more laboratory functions built within it. The technology now relates to the field of microfluidics, says tech firm Micronit on its Web site.
Microfluidics is the manipulation of the flow of very small quantities of fluid within channels in the chip, while nanofluidics takes this a stage further, dealing with the movements of individual macromolecules in solution, writes azonano.com.
Nanosensors on the chips add to their complexity.
Vivienne Williams of Cellix spoke at the conference on the development of these microarrays for the life sciences sector. She highlighted one of her company’s products designed for sampling beer production, to test for dangerous yeast levels, thereby delivering a safer beverage.
Surface finishes printed directly to paper backing, more commonly known as sandpaper, were described by KWH-Mirka’s Mats Sundell. Nano-level control, or control of particle sizes at a very small scale, allows for precise and consistent product finishes, he said. Finishes contain elements such as ‘nanocellulosic fillers’ and ‘nanosilica’ particles.
He went on to describe printing capabilities such as multi-layer, inkjet printing of nanomaterial adhesives, and laser cutting to size. The goal, he said, is to “add new nanomaterials for more precise surface production.”
‘Nano’ coatings of surfaces – metals, glass, textiles – are being developed with self-cleaning capabilities, announced Antonio Braz dos Santos Costa of CITEVE. One application, for example, could be for seating in the automotive and airline industries.
Another, described by Xabier Aparicio with the Maier Technology Centre, is a self-cleaning nano paint with a focus on the auto industry. The paint would be anti-scratch, and “super hydrophobic,” meaning self-cleaning.
What exactly is nanotech? The European Commission defines ‘nanomaterial’ as a material, natural or man-made containing particles which range from 1 to 100 nanometers. An industry definition would simply consider nanotechnology as anything involving science, engineering processes and technology conducted at the nanoscale, writes nano.gov. (A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.Very small particles indeed.).
Small tech, big business
Products and technologies based on nano-level processes are already big business, and growing. In Europe, 400,000 individuals now work in the sector generating revenue of 20 billion euros a year, said Marite Seile, Latvia’s minister of education and science, at the conference opening.
The key point, she added, is that “this industry sector provides employment in highly skilled jobs.”
Deputy Director General at DG Research and Innovation Rudolf Strohmeier agreed, stating that for Europe, “Manufacturing matters; three-quarters of R&D expenditures are in the private sector, [providing] jobs growth. [We] must re-industrialize Europe.”
For Strohmeier, nano plays an important role. As significant as is the growth of the digitized world, European industry needs a wider focus than on just this. “Digital alone will not be enough to re-industrialize Europe,” he said.
Santos Costa suggests that “Leadership for Europe depends on how fast technology spreads to wider use. The level of expertise in industries has to be at the highest, [including] the regulatory system, with new standards, and safety.”
Europe is moving in the right direction, according to Spinverse Group founder and CEO Pekka Koponen. He says that 10 years ago industry didn’t yet understand “the problems that powders, liquids could solve, whereas today SMEs have found a place in the value chain [to deliver].” He tells businesspeople that customers are “looking for solutions, so [you] need to listen carefully to their needs.”
To succeed in the realm of nano it is critical that, in developing new materials, potential users be involved from an early stage, asserts Executive Director at CCAN Alan Hynes. He points to Ireland as an example of how a strong research culture translates its capabilities into tangible products for industry and, ultimately, society. Irish industry shows it can take raw materials and turn them into products with higher value-added content. This needs the support of efficient “supply chains and cluster development,” added Hynes.
Joe Liu, vice president of R&D at 3M International and APAC, stressed that innovation needs a strong culture, one which allows people to take risks. This means developing and maintaining an innovation ecosystem, in the culture and processes, one which encourages individuals to “make things happen.”
In addition, core technologies need to be shared across the company; in nano, he said, “look for the customers’ needs.”
Funding the innovation
Depending on a company’s internal resources, or access to external finance, finding the funds to develop a new technology many times presents a major hurdle; this is no less true today as European banks hold back on corporate lending.
Other sources exist. Speaking on the availability of start-up finance, European Investment Bank Senior Advisor Piermario Di Pietro stressed that the EIB, together with the European Commission, is “working to expand financing, looking to take on more risk.”
“Blue chips are not [our] target, [rather] more fragile companies,” he said. Offering a positive outlook of the nanotech industry, he says that the EIB will support R&D, and “will have an impact. [We] have lowered the threshold for SMEs, start-ups.”
The bank will work directly with company management, assist with the business plan, capital structure, fundraising strategy and due diligence, at no charge - it’s covered by the EC - with minimum investments starting around 15 million euros. The EIB offers this support due to the uncertain outcomes of R&D investment in general, and more specifically to aid companies in poorer EU countries that face “bleak prospecs for [investment] returns.”
Di Pietro said innovators can also look to the EC’s Horizon2020 program, which targets funding for research and innovation.
Besides funding hurdles, other ideas were offered in how to succeed when venturing into nanotech territory.
Company-specific reasons for failure in innovation are manageable. IMD’s Jean-Phillipe Deschamps, speaking on the topic of innovation governance, said that the failure to commercialize ideas involves a failure in a company’s management of the innovative process.
At the execution-of-strategy level, for example, he noted that the number one mistake is “being blind to a changing competitive environment.” This could involve ignoring changing customer habits, or assuming favorable trends will continue forever.
Another error is that managements “get overconfident and in love with their technology,” he said. “They become complacent and unwilling to scrutinize its future validity.”
Regulation lags technology
Due to the relatively short history, but rapid growth of nanotech, health and safety questions are increasing.
Elke Anklam, with JRC-IRMM, maintains that “there is a need for quality assurance tools” that keep an eye on the industry. Currently there is a risk of putting nanotech in a bad light, with a lack of control of final products getting to market. This is needed for safety, she said.
Current EC recommended labeling for products that are intended for sale to consumers are “not hazard labelling, only informational,” warned Anklam. For example, for toxicology risks, not enough is known about nano materials and their dangers, how the small particles might react in the human body.
NANoREG Coordinator Tom van Teunenbroek spoke of the ongoing quest for robust regulatory data in the nano field. “No one can still say if nanotech is safe. There are a lot of answers, partial answers, but nothing conclusive. Policy problems [remain],” he asserted.
Tech’s wide reach
Nonetheless, the pace of research, innovation and market entry of new products accelerates. Director at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics and IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin concurs, saying that “innovation is increasing across industries. Nano is in IT. There are new computing paradigms – non-von Neumann, bio-inspired, quantum computing... We’ve gone from books to digital drives.”
Let’s take another look at what conference attendees had on show:
New materials and processes at the nano-scale were highlighted by Santos Costa as he described the wonders of his firm’s anti-microbial compounds, timed-release drugs, fire retardant materials, even cosmetics.
Thin film deposits on glass offer ‘heads-up’ transparent windshield displays - for industrial vehicles, aircraft - based on OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) and TFEL (thin-film electroluminescence) polymers, exclaimed Lumineq Displays’ Joe Pimenoff.
Or take the developments toward a low-carbon economy with silicone used in advanced adhesives, ‘smart’ windows, for energy efficiency, and in ‘green’ automobile tires to reduce rolling resistance, explained Vice President at Dow Corning Corporation Eric Peeters.
Nano’s impact is being felt also in the consumer packaging and waste disposal business, with bio-based materials being tested as a replacement for crude-based PET (plastic) bottles.
Mathieu Fogel at Airbus Group innovations discussed nanotech in the aerospace industry. Carbon fiber-reinforced polymers have proven to be good mechanically, with advantageous performance-to-weight characteristics.
The next step, he says, is to “add functionalities to the polymers, such as electrical properties; improved materials including graphene; airframes that are damage tolerant – crack self-healing; anti-ice surface technologies; self-sensing functionalities. All this would need to meet strict cost requirements, environment and safety checks.”
These are early and interesting days for nanotech, even if Drexler’s ‘assemblers’ may be still off in the distance. Hynes asserted that “for society to benefit, industry has to be producing products.” At the same time, with nanotech, regulatory infrastructure needs to catch up with the technology. It then needs to work constructively with industry, to ensure that innovations keep rolling out, ones that meet society’s health and safety concerns.