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Nanomaterials December 2017/January 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Marianne Monteforte

2017: The Year in Review

Nanomaterials are finding use in modern society to an unprecedented extent and are enabling disruptive change and developments in a range of industries and commercial products. Academic research institutions and private organizations continued to drive innovation in nanomaterials R&D in 2017, as a result of a growing number of collaborative research programs. The year 2017 also saw the development of important nanomaterials-enabled products' contributing toward the growing presence of nanomaterials in a range of end-user industries, including electrical and electronics, health-care, water-treatment, transportation, and consumer-goods industries. Scientists are making significant progress in relation to research about the safety of engineered nanomaterials and the transfer of this knowledge into regulations. Still, more work is necessary as nanotechnology reaches the market. Public concern surrounding the potential negative health impact and environmental impact of nanomaterials continues to exist. As a result, regulatory authorities are creating new—or updating current—regulations, tests, and guidelines.

Nanomaterials Market Developments

Collectively, nanomaterials remained a growing business area worldwide in 2017. Indeed, the 2017 InkWood Research report noted that the global market for nanomaterials was worth about $4.75 billion and is set to exceed $13.12 billion by 2024. The electrical and electronics category currently represents the largest segment of the global nanomaterials market, with the health-care industry holding the second-largest market share in 2017. Aging populations and an increasing awareness of human health issues and diseases are leading to an increase in the development of nanoenabled products for medical applications (such as drug-delivery systems, smart bandages, and implants). Concerns about key societal challenges such as climate change also led players in the automotive and aerospace industries to take advantage of nanomaterials (such as nanofibers and carbon nanotubes) in composites for the creation of lightweight parts.

North America held the largest share in the global nanomaterials market, perhaps owing to US government funding of some $1.4 billion in 2017 (through the National Nanotechnology Initiative). Major global players in the nanomaterials industry include Covestro, Arkema, Nanocyl SA, and Showa Denko. In addition, secondary market players—including Thermo Fisher Scientific, BASF, and PPG Industries—reaped the benefit of a growing nanomaterials market as a result of the increase in demand for nanotechnology-related analytical equipment, reagents, and services.

Regulatory Guidelines

Regulatory authorities are increasingly defining their stance on nanomaterials regulations as the number of nanomaterials-containing products reaching commercialization grows. Changes and updates to nanomaterials-related regulations in Europe and the United States in 2017 that could have implications for players in the nanomaterials industry include:

  • A new nanomaterials-reporting rule in the United States. Since 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been attempting to implement a new rule in section 8(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act that will require manufacturers, processors, distributors, and importers of existing or new nanomaterials to report information about their nanomaterials to the EPA. In 2017, the new EPA rule became effective. The rule will help US authorities to build a database of nanomaterials in commerce and determine what, if any, specific control measures for nanomaterials are necessary (see the February 2017 Viewpoints).
  • Completion of a four-year NANoREG framework—costing over €50 million ($59 million) with over 85 institutional partners from EU member states—that focuses on "developing reliable, reproducible and relevant methods for testing and assessing the effects of nanomaterials on human health and environment in a regulatory context." The framework's online results repository summary will be of benefit to scientific specialists and stakeholders (such as regulatory authorities and players in the nanotechnology industry).
  • The European Chemicals Agency's launch of a European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials website in June 2017 that aims to create a reliable source of information about nanomaterials in the EU market. The website targets a wide audience, from regulators and professionals to consumers.
  • New testing guidelines that address the safety of nanomaterials. In October 2017, the International Organization for Standardization and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published three new testing guidelines that describe nanomaterial-inhalation-toxicity studies (on rodents over 28 and over 90 days) and test procedures to measure the dispersion stability of nanoparticles in environmental media. The tests are applicable across OECD member states and, as a result, could help to reduce the resources necessary to fulfill regulatory requirements in individual states.
  • The European Commission's review of the definition of the term nanoform. In September 2017, the European Commission announced its plan to introduce a new legal definition of the term nanoform in the context of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical Substances) regulations. The new definition is little likely to affect nanotech companies but more likely to affect chemical companies that may be currently unaware that they are working with nanomaterials but will need to adapt to the new regulatory requirements despite not changing their products.

As the pace of technological development of nanoenabled products continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly important that governments and international organizations provide tools for risk assessment and management along the entire life cycle and promote safe-by-design approaches that contribute toward the framework of nano-safety and regulatory strategies (including standardization).

Nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence

Academic institutions and major tech companies—such as IBM, Qualcomm, and Intel—are constantly seeking to advance the status of artificial intelligence (AI) by converging neuroscience insights with nanotechnology developments to create fast-processing, energy-efficient nanomaterials-enabled computing hardware (such as neuromorphic chips). Such developments could enable integration of AI onto a nanochip without the need to consult the cloud.

Nanomaterials are a key enabling technology in the development of neuromorphic chips, and the year 2017 saw much early-stage R&D activity and progress toward achieving neuroscience-inspired computing technologies that emulate the behavioral attributes of the human brain. For example, researchers from Belgium's IMEC research institute developed the world's first self-learning neuromorphic nanochip that uses oxide-based resistive memory. The chip contains arrays of oxide-based random-access memory and can find patterns in audio and create music. Of course, other major academic institutions are also making advances in this field: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers recently reported on the development of a programmable nanophotonic processor that uses light and lenses (rather than electricity and wires) in an effort to build artificial neurons with brain-like speeds. Also in 2017, researchers at the University of Southern California and Beihang University published details of their development of the world's first artificial synapse (a neuromorphic chip component) that can mimic two states of the biological synapses (see the August 2017 Viewpoints). The flexible nanoelectronic device comprises black-phosphorus nanojunctions and tin selenide, which enables switching between the two states: excitatory and inhibitory.

Although nanomaterials are the obvious choice for scaling neuromorphic chips, nanoscale devices can come with their own set of problems, such as noise and the lack of stability to process data reliably. In addition, other major tech companies— such as Google and Microsoft—are focusing their research efforts on developing alternative quantum-computing chips, which also saw much R&D activity in 2017. Nevertheless, both computing approaches represent the next wave of revolutionary technology and are well placed for commercial success in the coming decade with widespread implications for the nanomaterials and semiconductor industry.

Medical Applications

The vast opportunities that nanotechnology offers for advances in medicine resulted in important R&D activities in 2017 that could help to accelerate their commercial success. For example:

  • Engineers from Washington University unveiled their development of a noninvasive nanoparticle-based aerosol spray that has the potential to deliver a therapeutic dose of drugs to the brain rapidly (see the May 2017 Viewpoints). Such progressive developments in aerosol-spray technologies for medical applications have the potential to lead to their use as a noninvasive option for drug delivery across the blood-brain barrier, which could help health-care professionals to treat neurological diseases and disorders rapidly.
  • Smart nanomaterials-based health sensors can adhere to the user's skin like a temporary tattoo and record physiological data. University of Tokyo researchers conducted one-week skin tests of their gold nanomesh sensors, proving their mechanical durability (the devices presented no signs of wear after use), their gas permeability, and minimal patient discomfort or inflammation (see the August 2017 Viewpoints). As developments in temporary electronic tattoos progress, they may lead to an inexpensive, disposable, and nonintrusive method for users (and their physicians) to gather and record physiological data discreetly.
  • In March 2017, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, and start-up Nanovision Biosciences announced their development of the world's first nanoengineered retinal implant using nanosilver (see the April 2017 Viewpoints). Also, as advances occur in biocompatible nanomaterials, these materials are finding application in medical coating and surface modifications for implants.
  • Imaging methods assist researchers in optimizing targeted drug-delivery technologies. Despite the increasing number of drug-delivery strategies that involve nanoparticle carriers, a recent meta-analysis by University of Toronto researchers revealed that these nanoparticle drug-delivery systems were failing to distribute drugs in tumors. As a result, the University of Toronto researchers incorporated a high-resolution three-dimensional imaging technique to observe the precise distribution of tough-to-see nanoparticles in a tumor. The new imaging technique could help researchers to understand what is preventing drug-loaded nanoparticles from fully penetrating tumors and to develop new approaches to bypass such defenses.

Research developments and positive trials of nanomaterials-based devices could encourage collaboration among nanomedical companies with similar products in the pipeline and help to drive the research necessary to enable these products to become commercially available on the marketplace.

Graphene

The global market for end-user applications of graphene-enabled products continued to grow in 2017, driven by applications in the electronics, energy storage, advanced composites, health-care, and textiles industries. Some graphene-enabled products saw penetration into new markets, such as Graphenstone's graphene-infused paint, which entered the UK commercial market in 2017 (see the July 2017 Viewpoints).

Graphene continued to attract substantial investment in 2017, with collaborations between academia and industry facilitating an increase in the technology-readiness level of innovative graphene-enabled products. In October 2017, the Graphene Flagship—one of Europe's largest joint research initiatives—released its interim report highlighting its most recent achievements. In a 12-month period, the Graphene Flagship initiative has led to the release of 17 products to the market, over 600 scientific publications, 37 patent applications, and six spin-off companies. Other significant graphene-enabled products that are close to, or have already reached, commercial exploitation include high-stability perovskite photovoltaic cells, a graphene-oxide-based membrane with a tunable ion sieve, a highly sensitive blood-pressure-monitoring viscoelastic graphene polymer-matrix-composite (PMC) sensor, a graphene PMC permeation barrier for use on Airbus winglets, and a commercially available graphene PMC motorcycle-helmet coating.

The number of potential graphene-enabled products continued to grow in 2017; graphene producers still need to bring down the cost of graphene to accelerate its commercial adoption. Graphene developers continued to refine fabrication processes, with the objective of reducing the high cost of production in order to enable economic scalability to an industrial level. Also, research developments in the field continued, and Kansas State University scientists revealed an alternative approach to fabricating graphene—by detonating hydrocarbon gas and oxygen in a contained environment. This low-cost and environmentally friendly fabrication process is a sizable step toward producing industrially scalable graphene. However, the Kansas State University researchers still need to improve the quality of the graphene and increase the yield production associated with the process.

The lack of international standards for and transparency in the quality and characteristics of graphene is also slowing the rate of commercial adoption. Although many approaches measure the properties of various types of commercially available graphene, the industry still needs a standard set of measurements that can facilitate quality assurance. Also, such standards will help to highlight legitimate graphene suppliers.

The year 2017 saw the introduction of new graphene-certification centers that could help manufacturers to conduct quality-assurance tests on graphene. At the August 2017 Internet of Industrial Materials Conference, Swinburne University of Technology showcased its Graphene Supply Chain CRC-P initiative that will host a graphene supply-chain certification and research center. As the concerted movement toward international graphene-testing standards progresses, a concomitant increase in the number of certification centers is likely.

2D Nanomaterials

Spurred by the success of graphene research, R&D activity in the field of competing two-dimensional (2D) materials continued to grow in 2017, furthering commercialization potential. For example, a Rice University researcher created a simple method to manufacture a hexagonal boron nitride– (hBN-) polymer-composite foam that absorbs carbon dioxide (see the October 2017 Viewpoints). The porous hBN-PVC composite shows great application potential as a carbon dioxide absorbent in air purification, natural-gas processing, or biomass-gasification applications. Also, a University of Manchester research team investigated heterostructure architectures—consisting of stacks of 2D materials—that can find use in next-generation electronic and photoelectronic devices to reveal the presence of impurities in the heterostructure (see the September 2017 Viewpoints). This new research can help heterostructure developers to reconsider their manufacturing methods in order to minimize the presence of impurities and accelerate their route to market. Despite these increased research efforts, commercial applications of 2D materials still remain some years away. Nevertheless, new developments in the fabrication methods for the manufacture of 2D materials will continue to create potential rivals to graphene, which will be of particular interest to players in the semiconductor industry.

Look for These Developments in 2018

  • Increasing R&D activity in neurologically inspired nanochips is likely to continue at speed in 2018, and the resulting artificially intelligent applications could potentially revolutionize many aspects of modern computing.
  • Nanomedical research teams will focus on developing nanoparticle drug-delivery systems that target not only cancer cells but also cells hidden in the patient's tissue (which can cause the cancer to return or spread to other parts of the body). In addition, research teams will look to using preexisting and cheap drugs in combination with a type of nanoparticle system that is easy to manufacture to help speed up the approval process.
  • New real-time nanomaterials characterization tools and devices will emerge that can increase the speed and reliability of nanomaterial-analysis techniques (without compromising the nanomaterial measurement accuracy or precision). These developments will significantly reduce the time and resources necessary for nanomaterials research developments.
  • Consultations and reviews of regulations about nanomaterials are likely to continue in 2018. Researchers are increasingly capable of understanding nanomaterials systems that could result in tighter regulation of their use in consumer products. Additionally, such regulation will increase investors' confidence in nanoenabled products in the quality, safety, and reliability of nanomaterials production.