Skip to Main Content

Strategic Business Insights (SBI) logo

Nanomaterials June 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Marianne Monteforte

Screening Nanomaterial Sustainability before Development

Why is this topic significant?

Yale University researchers have revealed their development of a nanomaterials-screening tool that has the potential to facilitate product developers in nanomaterials-product design, saving both R&D time and costs. This framework will enable developers to identify not only the functional performance of prospective nanomaterials systems before developing them but also their potential human-health and environmental impact.

Description

In April 2018, Nature Nanotechnology published a team of Yale University researchers' work to develop a screening tool that could assist nanomaterials-product developers in assessing the sustainability of nanomaterials at the start of the design process. The framework provides researchers with a screening tool to enable the selection of nanomaterials that are environmentally sustainable.

The researchers developed a database containing nanomaterials-property data, including nanomaterials characteristics such as size, shape, and performance (toxicity and antimicrobial activity). The database is an adapted version of the Ashby materials-selection tool that materials developers use to minimize the cost of a product while at the same time meeting product-performance objectives. According to lead author of the study Mark Falinski, "this information [in the framework] would allow researchers to weigh the different effects of the material before actually developing it." The research team is calling for both environmental and materials researchers to develop and input the necessary data to support sustainable nanomaterials design choices.

Implications

Further development and implementation of the Yale researchers' sustainability framework will enable companies to screen nanomaterials-property information before developing a nanomaterial or nanomaterial-enabled product. The screening tool will allow developers to consider not only the performance and cost of nanomaterials at the start of the design process but also their sustainability.

Similar projects are currently under way in this area, including two recent European Union–led projects (see the April 2018 Viewpoints) to assess the potential risks that engineered nanomaterials may pose to human health or the environment. This increasing activity in the field of sustainable nanomaterials design highlights the urgent need for companies to incorporate consideration of the risks to humans that nanomaterials pose into their selection and design processes for engineered nanomaterials and engineered-nanomaterials-enabled products.

Impacts/Disruptions

The potentially adverse long-term effects of engineered nanomaterials could have consequences long after a nanomaterial product's commercialization, with liability possibly falling to players across the nanomaterials-product value chain. Those companies that are first to adopt the framework may dramatically reduce their product-development costs and time to market by working with material known to be safe from the start. In addition, they will satisfy increasing consumer demand for sustainable products. However, for companies to extract the most benefit from the use of these tools, the databases will need to be high in quality, open source, and internationally shared. A barrier to achieving such databases is the possibility that some nanomaterials players may hold relevant nanomaterials information as proprietary for competitive reasons and many have no incentive to add their data to this framework.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Nanomaterials manufacturing, sustainable materials, databases, standards

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

New Class of 2D Material Revealed

Why is this topic significant?

Recent research developments reveal a new class of two-dimensional material—hematene—from a naturally occurring and abundant iron ore. This two-dimensional material has major implications for the design of light-assisted water-splitting systems for hydrogen generation and spintronic devices for data-storage applications.

Description

Recently, researchers at Rice University—in collaboration with international research teams—discovered a new two-dimensional (2D) material: hematene. Using a combination of sonication, centrifugation, and vacuum-assisted filtration, the research team exfoliated the naturally occurring iron ore hematite—a mineral form of iron oxide—creating hematene.

The researchers' investigations of this 2D material show that it is a more efficient photocatalyst than its bulk counterpart. In particular, loading hematene with titania (titanium dioxide) nanotube arrays enhances hematene's visible-light photocatalytic activity. These properties of hematene make it a strong candidate for use as a highly efficient photocatalyst for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

In addition, the research team discovered that hematene has unique magnetic properties different from the properties of the bulk form. Hematite is antiferromagnetic, and hematene is ferromagnetic (like a common magnet). The magnetic moments in ferromagnetic atoms all point in the same direction, whereas magnetic moments in antiferromagnetic materials in each adjacent atom alternate. Thus, developers could take advantage of the ferromagnetic properties of hematene for use in ultrathin magnetic material for spintronic-based devices.

Implications

Typically, 2D materials derive from bulk counterparts with Van der Waals forces connecting the horizontal layers—an example being carbon and its 2D form, graphene. However, hematite does not have Van der Waals bonding; instead it has 3D-bonding networks consisting of comparatively stronger chemical interactions.

The discovery of this new 2D material will likely spur a wealth of new R&D activity that focuses on developing and optimizing hematene-based materials for new applications. One particularly promising application of hematene is its potential for use as a highly efficient photocatalyst for hydrogen generation from renewable sources such as sunlight and water.

Hematite is naturally occurring and present in plentiful levels worldwide. Typically, researchers mine the vast majority of hematite for iron and steel production. However, as developers start to realize the potential of hematene in various applications, demand for the iron ore could increase. Many research teams are extensively investigating scalable exfoliation methods in the fabrication of 2D materials and the commercial potential of titania nanotube arrays in, for example, improving the efficiency of solar cells. This ongoing research could help to drive the commercial viability of hematene.

Impacts/Disruptions

New classes of 2D materials continue to emerge, offering developers a diverse range of potential material candidates. Computational tools and experimental approaches to predict 2D materials will potentially reveal new types of 2D materials that add variety to the range of conventional 2D materials. In addition, studies of other non–Van der Waals bulk materials could reveal a whole new range of 2D materials. By supporting early-stage research in the scale-up and discovery of new 2D materials, nanomaterial players are positioning themselves to capitalize on these materials and their novel applications.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Nanomaterials, 2D materials, hydrogen generation, nanoelectronics, magnetism, energy conversion, energy harvesting

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: