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Nanomaterials December 2014/January 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

2014: The Year in Review

Nanomaterials find use in modern society to an unprecedented extent, having the power to enable both disruptive and continuous changes in a range of industries and commercial products. Despite many researchers' considering nanoscience as a truly distinct field for only approximately the past 20 years, the vast majority of people living in developed countries now use nanostructured materials on a daily basis. This Viewpoints discusses the most significant events and advances to occur in 2014, highlighting a number of particularly important developments and issues that could affect the further commercialization of nanoscale materials.

Materials

Graphene—undoubtedly the most discussed nanomaterial of the past decade—made some significant steps toward widespread commercialization in 2014. Following on from the announcement of the €500 million European Commission research fund for graphene research and development in 2013, the University of Manchester announced in September 2014 that it is to build a £60 million Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre dedicated to the development of commercial applications for graphene. The new center will complement the University of Manchester's preexisting National Graphene Institute. Another interesting development to increase the pace of the commercialization of graphene includes the offer by Perpetuus Carbon Group—a leading supplier of high-quality graphene—to gift £2.5 million worth of product to academic researchers wishing to work with the material. This innovative move could increase the likelihood of the development of novel applications for the material and enhances Perpetuus's standing in the field. BlueVine Graphene Industries—a start-up company aiming to commercialize graphene biosensors and supercapacitors—announced in September 2014 the advances that the company is making in scaling up the production of graphene to industrial volumes through the use of roll-to-roll chemical-vapor-deposition processes. Such developments are necessary to reduce the overall cost of graphene to the extent that it becomes a commercially viable material. Other graphene developments, which the October 2014 Viewpoints discusses in more detail, include pushing the material to its limits of transparency and conductivity—two properties that are necessary for touch-screen applications in the display industry.

The year 2014 also saw many developments with other carbonaceous nanomaterials. For example, in September 2014, researchers from the Pennsylvania State University fabricated novel diamond nanothreads—the first time that researchers have been able to fashion diamond into this form. These threads possess mechanical properties that exceed those of polymer and carbon-nanotube equivalents and could find use in lightweight cables. Despite the promise of the material, this research will require more development before commercialization occurs. However, also in 2014, researchers at Rice University published the results of their research into the scaled-up production of carbon-nanotube fibers—bringing lightweight carbon-based fibers a step closer to commercial markets.

Other groundbreaking "nanocarbon" work in 2014 includes the fabrication of the world's "blackest" material by the English nanomaterials company Surrey NanoSystems—a development that the October 2014 Viewpoints discusses in more detail—and, at the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials, the creation of a polymeric-fullerene material that displays higher hardness properties than those of diamond.

Carbon structures, in many ways, lead the way in the field of nanomaterials. However, 2014 saw several important advances for analogues of carbon nanostructures. For example, in July 2014, a collaboration from Brown University, Shanxi University, and Tsinghua University achieved a world first in synthesizing borospherene—boron nanospheres that are analogous to carbon "buckyballs." The year 2014 also saw significant commercial developments for boron-nitride nanotubes—analogues of their carbon cousins. The National Research Council of Canada demonstrated the world's first pilot-scale production plant for these materials in August 2014. Berkeley Lab followed suit in September 2014 by announcing the licensing of its boron-nitride nanotube technology to the start-up company BNNT LLC. These materials display strengths similar to those of carbon equivalents but remain stable at much higher temperatures.

Inorganic analogues of graphene also caused much excitement in research circles in 2014. Unlike graphene, these two-dimensional, sheet-like materials—such as boron nitride, molybdenum disulfide, and silicene—exhibit a band gap in their natural form. This property makes these materials considerably more useful for a variety of applications in the electronics industry. However, inorganic two-dimensional materials remain the subject of academic research and will continue to do so for several years before any commercial applications arise.

IBM researchers made a significant development in polymer science in 2014 when they discovered a new class of industrial polymer. The material displays a range of impressive properties and could potentially transform many polymer applications across several industrial sectors. The polymer is 100% recyclable, self-healing, and resistant to solvents and exhibits a mechanical strength higher than that of bone—a combination of properties that no other material possesses. The researchers also found that modifying the structure of the polymer with nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes can increase its strength by up to 50%—rendering the material both ultrastrong and lightweight. The implications of this development have discussion at greater length in the July 2014 Viewpoints.

Manufacture

The ability to manufacture industrial-scale quantities of material and the introduction of innovative fabrication techniques that enable the production of novel products are key to the commercialization of nanomaterials. Nanotechnology players made several advances in manufacturing in 2014. For example, 3D printing—increasingly becoming an important manufacturing method for macroscale plastics and metals in a variety of industries—is beginning to make tentative moves into micro- and nanoscale processes. The November 2014 Viewpoints discusses nanoscale 3D-printing developments. Such processes could potentially be of use in the semiconductor industry, which centers on the fabrication of increasingly small structures and generally relies on lithographic processes. In 2014, Nikon announced the introduction of a new ArF immersion-lithography system—extending the lifetime of 193-nanometer immersion lithography and enabling users to fabricate sub-10-nanometer structures at an ultrahigh throughput of 250 wafers per hour.

Self-assembly, despite not yet reaching commercial maturity, is a nanoscale-manufacturing method that holds a great deal of potential. The September 2014 Viewpoints discusses advances in this field—in particular the development of the world's first "reel-to-reel fluidic self-assembly machine."

During 2014, several developments occurred in the industrial-scale manufacture of certain nanomaterials. For example, June 2014 saw the inauguration of the Officine del Grafene in Italy—"the largest European pristine graphene nanoplatelets industrial production plant based on patented and granted technology." Another key development includes the nanotechnology firm OCSiAl's announcing in May 2014 the introduction of the largest low-cost and scalable manufacturing method for the production of single-wall carbon nanotubes. The August 2014 Viewpoints discusses the implications of this development at greater length. Similarly, the August 2014 Viewpoints discusses the implications of Quantum Materials Corporation's announcement of a new automated production system for the industrial-scale manufacture of quantum dots [QDs].

Regulations and Material Safety

After the major developments in nanomaterials legislation that occurred in 2013 governing the sale and labeling of cosmetics products containing nanomaterials in the European Union, 2014 was a relatively quiet year for nanoscale regulations. Perhaps the most important development was the Belgian government's announcement that it will create a register for products containing and processes that use nanomaterials—the third of its kind in Europe (after France and Denmark). This register will come into force in 2016 but increases pressure for the adoption of an EU-wide register. In May 2014, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety published a review discussing the health and environmental issues that currently surround manufactured nanomaterials. The review recommended "the immediate implementation of tools to improve risk management through a stronger regulatory framework at European level." In June 2014, the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks published a report on the health and environmental implications of the increasing use of nanosilver for antimicrobial-resistance applications, claiming that more research is necessary before concrete conclusions about the subject are possible. However, despite the continuation of these—largely European—debates, no new regulations of note came into force in 2014.

Energy

Nanomaterials enabled a range of developments within the energy sector in 2014. For example, in May 2014, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers published the results of their record-breaking work into quantum-dot photovoltaics. The scientists were capable of fabricating zinc oxide/lead sulfide quantum-dot photovoltaic cells with a certified efficiency of 8.55%—considerably lower than that achievable with alternative types of solar technology but a significant improvement on existing quantum-dot-based approaches. In 2012, the record for quantum-dot solar cells stood at just 7%.

The year 2014 also saw the fabrication of the world's first "solar battery"—a photovoltaic device also capable of directly storing the energy that it harvests. Researchers from Ohio State University published the results of their research in Nature Communications in October 2014—detailing the use of titania nanorods to create the hybrid device that eliminates the energy losses that are normal when electrons have to travel to external power-storage systems. The design was based on the "breathing battery" developed by the same lab, which won the $100 000 US Department of Energy clean-energy prize in 2014—leading the researchers to form the spin-off company KAir Energy Systems to advance the commercialization of this technology.

Business

Several important business developments occurred in the field of nanomaterials during 2014. In September 2014, Merck—the German pharmaceuticals and chemicals company—acquired Sigma Aldrich for $17 billion—significantly strengthening its position in the supply of chemicals and, by extension, the supply of nanomaterials. More specific developments in the field of nanomaterials include Quantum Materials Corporation's acquisition of Bayer Technology Services' quantum-dot-manufacturing and quantum-dot solar-cell intellectual-property portfolio. An August 2014 press release from QMC stated that the patents "provide broad intellectual property protection for advances Quantum Materials has achieved in economical high-volume QD manufacturing." The purchase of these patent families protects technological advances by QMC and affords it a strong market position in the supply of large volumes of material.

In July 2014, Applied Materials and Tokyo Electron Limited announced their intention to merge—forming a new company under the name Eteris. Applied Materials designs and commercializes nanomanufacturing technology that enables the fabrication of integrated circuits for a variety of applications.

Another significant business development occurred in August 2014 when Oxford Nanopore—an English company specializing in nanopore-based molecular-analysis systems—announced the success of its fund-raising scheme—raising £35 million in new funds and bringing the total funds raised by the company to £180 million since its foundation in 2005. The funds will enable Oxford Nanopore to develop its commercial infrastructure as well as scaling up production capacity.

Look for These Developments in 2015

  • Graphene-enabled displays are likely to see commercialization in Asian markets. Flexible displays will follow at a later date.
  • Spurred by the success of graphene, interesting research into other two-dimensional materials such as molybdenum disulfide, tungsten diselenide, and silicene will become more commonplace. Despite these increased research efforts, commercial applications remain some years away.
  • Following OCSiAl's announcement about the industrial-scale manufacture of single-wall carbon nanotubes, more development in the electronics industry is likely to occur using these materials.
  • The commercialization of quantum-dot materials—particularly in the display industry—is likely to continue to increase in 2015.
  • Advances in nanoscale manufacturing (in particular lithographic processes) will enable traditional silicon-based technology to continue to dominate the electronics industry.
  • The commercial importance of OLED-lighting panels will increase.
  • Nanoscale 3D printing will enable some small-scale commercial applications such as the fabrication of battery electrodes.
  • Research into the use of artificial nanoscale additives in food substances will continue in 2015, although commercial products are unlikely to reach the market for several years (if at all) as a result of issues linked to public perception.