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Nanomaterials December 2015/January 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Marianne Monteforte

2015: The Year in Review

The proliferation in the use of nanomaterials in consumer markets since the turn of the twenty-first century has led to significant advances in their manufacture and applications. Nanomaterials continued to play key roles in science and technology and have the power to make disruptive and continuous changes in a range of industries and commercial products. This Viewpoints discusses the most significant developments that occurred in 2015 that could affect the further commercialization of nanoscale materials.

Graphene

The global market for graphene-based products and processes continued to grow rapidly in 2015. Graphene is a relatively novel material that has the potential to make a revolutionary impact on many industrial sectors for application in energy storage, electronics, and sporting goods.

Academic institutions, technology start-ups, and established industrialists are all in the race to develop graphene-based products and reveal exciting new applications. For example, in March 2015, Graphene Lighting—a spin-out from the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester—revealed its novel design of an energy-efficient graphene-based lightbulb. The researchers have remained tight-lipped about the novel fabrication process in the production of the graphene lightbulb, although some scientists suggest that the researchers coat the components of a traditional LED with graphene in order to transfer heat away from the structure. Thus, the graphene coating lowers the energy consumption and prolongs the lifetime of the LED.

In April 2015, scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory revealed further developments in the use of graphene in products for new applications. The scientists developed 3D-printable graphene-aerogel microlattices, as their Nature Communications publication detailed. The new lightweight, electrically conductive graphene aerogel can find use in improving applications in energy storage, sensors, nanoelectronics, and catalysis.

Also, in December 2015, a research team at Designer Carbon Materials—a spin-out from Oxford University—revealed the most expensive nanomaterial in the world at £100 million per gram. The "endohedral fullerenes" consist of Buckminsterfullerene-containing nitrogen atoms that could enable the production of smaller atomic clocks. Current atomic clocks are typically the size of a room, but endohedral fullerenes could reduce this size to the size of a chip, which is a major breakthrough in the miniaturization of atomic clocks. Potential applications include use in a new generation of ultra-accurate GPS systems, in mobile phones, and for autonomous vehicles.

The ability to manufacture industrial-scale quantities of graphene and the introduction of innovative fabrication techniques that enable the production of novel graphene-based products are key to its commercialization. Therefore, the focus of many companies and researchers in 2015 was to develop and adapt approaches in the fabrication of graphene-based products to make them more commercially viable. For example, engineers at Bosch—in collaboration with researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research—developed a novel bottom-up self-assembly method for the production of graphene-based magnetic sensors. Major manufacturing limitations—including the lack of wafer-based and transfer-free synthesis techniques—remain, however, in the large-scale production of these graphene-based sensors. Nevertheless, the magnetic sensors are reportedly 100 times more sensitive than silicon-based equivalents and can find use in a range of sensing applications in automobiles and consumer-electronic devices, including smartphones and tablets. In May 2015, a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan revealed a novel roll-to-roll process for the high-volume production of graphene films. This new process offers the graphene industry lower production costs while widening the availability of graphene. In November 2015, Graphene 3D Lab revealed a process to manufacture graphene nanoplatelets at low cost and low energy and using a semiautomated process.

Also, in November 2015, a team of researchers at the University of Glasgow revealed the most significant breakthrough in the development of cost-effective manufacturing processes to fabricate graphene. The researchers used a conventional chemical-vapor-deposition process to produce the graphene films but replaced the expensive copper substrate (at a cost of $105 per square meter) typically in use in graphene production with a commercially available copper substrate (at a cost of $1 per square meter). The researchers effectively removed the need for expensive treatment methods that typically apply to a copper substrate before the evaporation of graphene. According to the researchers, their new method enables the production of high-quality graphene films at 100 times less cost than that of the conventional method.

Nanomedicine

Nanomaterials were the source of a range of developments in the health-care sector in 2015—in particular, for application in diagnostic nanosensing devices. In February 2015, Roche—in collaboration with biomedical start-up company BioMed X—announced its plans to open an innovation laboratory enabling research to develop new nanotechnology-based sensors. Also, in December 2015, Hybergene Diagnostics announced the release of its rapid nanosensing device that uses a new loop-mediated thermal-amplification method to detect infectious diseases in less than an hour.

An increase in investments and competition between several companies to be the first to commercialize their nanopatch technologies became increasingly evident in 2015. Nanopatches—typically made of silica and embedded with microneedles—eliminate the need for injections, refrigeration, lowering dosages of vaccines (reducing the dose by as much as a factor of 100), and adding adjuvants to the vaccine. 3M is licensing its rapid (24-hour) micropatch technology that enables the controlled release of the dementia drug rivastigmine. In January 2015, Micron Biomedical—a start-up company at Georgia Tech—won $2.5 million to develop further its microneedle patches for polio immunization. In addition, Vaxaas announced $20 million of new investment in its company also to move toward human clinical trials for the commercialization of its nanopatch-vaccination technologies.

A significant research breakthrough occurred in October 2015, when a team of scientists—at the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy—revealed a biodegradable polymeric nanoparticle for targeted therapies that can selectively destroy ovarian-cancer cells postsurgery. Surgeons inject the silicon naphthalocyanine nanoparticles into the blood stream during surgery, and the nanoparticles act as a guide to the surgeon by selectively binding to and highlighting cancer cells (under fluorescence). The researchers also found that the nanoparticles were 100% recoverable from the body, making them an excellent candidate for commercial applications.

Researchers have continued in their efforts to develop nanoparticles for targeted-drug-delivery applications, although the lack of control over the ultimate location of these nanoparticles in the body remained a drawback to their use. Researchers are constantly striving to develop new approaches to remove nanomaterials from the body and environment to improve the nanotechnology's market potential.

In November 2015, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, developed a new tool to remove these nanoparticles from the body. The researchers published the results of their new chip-based technology in the journal Small. The technology uses an oscillating electric field to recover nanoparticles from blood plasma quickly and easily. Also, in November 2015, researchers in the Department of Physics at Michigan Technological University revealed a simple method to remove nanomaterials (with a near-100% efficiency) from contaminated water. The researchers shake a vial—containing an emulsion of contaminated water and oil—and the oil traps the nanomaterials (except zero-dimensional nanomaterials, such as nanospheres), thus purifying the water.

Sustainable Nanomaterials

Significant developments in sustainable targeted-drug-delivery carriers that are natural, renewable, biocompatible, and biodegradable also occurred in 2015. For example, in November 2015, a research team from the University of South Australia and collaborators in Dresden, Germany, reported the results of their study into the use of genetically engineered diatom algae nanoparticles as drug carriers. The nanoparticle algae were loaded with chemotherapy drugs and specific antibodies that targeted cancer cells. Thus, the research team possibly revealed a new era in sustainable targeted-drug-delivery methods.

Researchers often regard nanocellulose as the next-generation renewable nanotechnology for application in a range of sectors, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and electronics. However, a commercial barrier to the success of nanocellulose is cost-effective production methods. In November 2015, American Process Inc patented a low-cost commercial-scale fabrication method—BioPlus nanocellulose technology—whose widespread use could prove to be highly beneficial to the environment.

Nanomaterials in Consumer Products

The proliferation of nanomaterials and the products containing them—including food, textiles, kitchen appliances, personal-care products, cosmetics, and packaging—appears to be outpacing any systematic cataloging or labeling of these products. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, more than 1,300 commercial products contain some form of nanoparticles. However, the manufacture, use, and disposal of nanoparticle-based products also harbor occupational, environmental, and health risks for humans.

Currently, companies do not fully catalog, monitor, or regulate nanomaterials. The Center for Food Safety database revealed (in nanosilver-products inventory) that nanosilver—an antibacterial additive—alone is already in use in almost 400 consumer products. However, researchers are still investigating the impact that use of nanomaterials in products may pose. In December 2015, researchers revealed the potential impact that materials containing nanosilver have on the ecosystem. Recent findings—which appeared in the Journal of Hazardous Materials—reveal that plants absorb minute quantities of nanosilver on exposure to soil containing the nanoparticles—thus indicating that nanosilver can travel up the food chain and potentially accumulate in animals and humans and could pose significant health risks.

Also, researchers from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology calculated the quantities of four nanomaterials that ended up in the environment every year: "54 tonnes of nano titanium dioxide (used in sunscreens); 10 tonnes of nano zinc oxide (found in cosmetics); 2.1 tonnes of carbon nanotubes (hollow tubes used instead of fibres in some composites); 180 kilograms of nano silver (for anti-bacterial use); and 120 kilograms of fullerene spheres, another nano-form of carbon, made up of hollow spheres (informally known as 'buckyballs')." The researchers also raise the issue that the long term effects of the exposure of some of these nanoparticles to the environment remain unknown.

Companies that use nanomaterials in their products could also suffer severe effects from new proposed changes in April 2015 to the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Toxic Substances Control Act. The changes would require manufacturers and processors to report chemical information about the nanomaterials they use. The EPA's proposal would apply to nanomaterials that are solid at 25°C (under atmospheric pressure) and include substances of the same chemical composition but of different shapes (such as rods and spheres).

Look for These Developments in 2016

  • Stricter regulations. Researchers are continuing to discover new possible hazards arising from exposure to nanomaterials that could result in tighter regulation of their use in consumer products in 2016.
  • Rivals to graphene. Spurred by the success of graphene research, competing two-dimensional materials will continue to emerge in 2016. In addition, new developments in the fabrication methods for the manufacture of one-dimensional materials will continue to create potential rivals to graphene, which will be of particular interest to players in the semiconductor industry.
  • Nanomaterials in CO2 capture. Nanomaterials make excellent candidates for application as CO2-capture materials. Research and development in this field will continue to focus on nanomaterials with enhanced selectivity and adsorption (such as doped carbon nanotubes) in 2016.
  • Nanomaterials in high-capacity batteries. Researchers looking into next-generation-battery technologies are also keenly looking at nanomaterials.