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Nanomaterials December 2018/January 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Bradley

2018: The Year in Review

By Ivona Bradley and Madeeha Uppal
Uppal is a technology analyst with Strategic Business Insights.

The nanomaterials research scene continued to grow steadily in 2018, owing to an increase in demand from the electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and polymers industries. Other key drivers include financial support from government organizations and increasing availability of nanomanufacturing technologies and tools. North America is the largest and the fastest-growing market for nanomaterials. Global investments in cutting-edge nanotechnologies also continued to rise in 2018. Several developments focused on driving down the production costs of nanomaterials. However, concerns persist surrounding the potential negative environmental and health impacts of various nanomaterials. In the medium term, these concerns may hamper the growth of the nanotechnology market in emerging and underdeveloped economies. Research to clarify the toxicity of nanotechnologies is ongoing, and various government bodies made changes to regulatory mandates to accommodate technological advances, to give the nanotechnology industry room to develop its great potential, and to address the lack of consumer knowledge about which products contain nanoscale ingredients. Nanomaterials applications for medical products and for aerospace and automotive components are also in demand, with some developments bringing nanomaterial products significantly closer to market.

Regulatory Guidance

In 2018, governments announced various changes to regulatory policies and mandates that affect nanomaterials. For example:

  • In January 2018, Switzerland adopted an amendment to the Chemicals Ordinance to add a disclosure rule for synthetic nanomaterials in fibrous and tubular form. Under the amendment, manufacturers need to register these nanomaterials as new materials within three months of market entry.
  • The Swedish Chemicals Agency introduced a new regulation that requires companies to register any intentionally engineered nanomaterials (except pigments) present in their products. The regulation came into force in January 2018. Companies need to provide information including the classification of the nanomaterial, its function in the product, particle size and shape, crystal structure, surface area, and surface treatment.
  • In June 2018, the European Chemicals Agency added two new databases—"NanoData" and "eNanoMapper"—to the EU Observatory for Nanomaterials to provide consumers with information about whether the product they are purchasing contains nanomaterials and about the toxicological properties of nanomaterials. The information provided by the two databases—as well as the Swiss Chemicals Ordinance amendment and the Swedish Chemicals Agency's new regulation—should empower consumer choice about whether to purchase products containing nanomaterials.
  • In April 2018, EU member states voted to amend several annexes of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation to provide clarification about the requirements for registering nanomaterials. The amendments aim to address confusion about how manufacturers can register nanomaterials and to provide information about nanomaterials quantities and specific nanoforms.
  • In August 2018, Safe Work Australia issued a national guide on classifying hazardous chemicals, including nanomaterials. Safe Work Australia recommends that manufacturers prepare a safety data sheet for any nanoparticles with incomplete safety characterization. The sheet aims to provide transparency about any unknown hazards that nanomaterials might exhibit.
  • In October 2018, five European countries—Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Austria, and Switzerland—issued a set of recommendations to address regulatory gaps on nanomaterials, including the use of a "uniform and unambiguous" definition of nanomaterials across all relevant EU legislation. The recommendations aim to ensure that companies employ good common practice to measure and identify nanomaterials.

Materials

Disruptive developments in the field of nanomaterials often originate from advances in carbon-based nanotechnology. Several such advances, having the potential to lead to future commercial opportunities, occurred in 2018. For example, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a cost-effective technology that can produce thin films of semiconducting materials, including gallium arsenide, gallium nitride, and lithium fluoride. These films offer better electrical properties than silicon but have so far been expensive to produce. The new technology involves placing a layer of graphene over a semiconducting-material substrate and flowing gaseous atoms of the semiconducting material over the graphene. The atoms then assemble into an exact replica of the underlying semiconducting substrate.

Elsewhere, aerospace engineers from England's University of Central Lancashire displayed the first aircraft with a graphene skin at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show and trade exhibition. The 3.5-meter-wide unmanned plane—Juno—also incorporates graphene materials in batteries and three-dimensional-printed components. The September 2018 Viewpoints discusses the development in more detail.

The year 2018 also saw many developments with other carbonaceous nanomaterials. For example, in August 2018, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated that previously developed zeolite-templated carbon structures are, effectively, schwarzites (a negatively curved buckyball-type carbon structure), which are desirable because schwarzites offer an extremely large surface area.

Two-dimensional (2D) analogs of carbon-based nanomaterials also caused much excitement in research circles in 2018. For example, a team led by researchers at Rice University used a combination of sonication, centrifugation, and vacuum-assisted filtration to exfoliate (generate thin layers of) naturally occurring iron ore hematite and create a new 2D material: hematene. The material offers higher photocatalytic efficiency than its bulk counterpart offers. In particular, loading hematene with titania-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 for use in hydrogen fuel cells. In another development, scientists at the University of Washington discovered that a two-dimensional form of tungsten ditelluride exhibits ferroelectric switching (changing the polarity of a material's magnetic field by applying an electric field. This property is important for some forms of computer memory).

An important development for the commercialization of some 2D materials (such as 2D quantum dots) resulted from work led by researchers at Rice University. The team developed a low-cost method to produce 2D quantum dots from bulk materials, including graphene, hexagonal boron nitride, semiconducting stannic sulfide, and transition metal dichalcogenides. Although the 2D-materials research scene continued to advance in 2018, high-grade 2D materials will continue to remain the subject of academic research for several years before commercial applications will arise.

Nanomaterials in Photovoltaics

The year 2018 saw a number of research groups setting new records for efficiencies of photovoltaic cells that incorporate nanometer-scale thin films. For example, Oxford Photovoltaics achieved 27.3% efficiency for a tandem perovskite-silicon solar cell. A team led by scientists at Nankai University achieved 17.3% efficiency for a double-junction organic solar cell, and another team led by scientists at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and South China University of Technology achieved 12.25% efficiency for a single-junction organic solar cell. Scientists also continued to develop upconverter materials—which can convert the infrared portion of sunlight to visible light, which is more readily absorbed by photovoltaic cells—to boost the efficiency of solar cells. Scientists at the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory fabricated dye-sensitized upconverter nanoparticles that can increase the brightness of light by a factor of about 33,000.

Quantum-dot solar cells continued to be an active area of research in 2018, and several companies announced plans to progress in the commercialization of solar cells that contain inorganic nanomaterials. For example, Amtronics CC made an initial investment of $20 million in Quantum Materials for the development and commercialization of thin-film quantum-dot solar cells. The two companies, with support from Assam Electronics Development Corporation, plan to build a 12,000-square-foot facility in Assam, India. A further development came from Glass to Power, which generated $2.5 million through crowdfunding to advance production of transparent solar cells that contain inorganic nanoparticles. The company is targeting the nascent building-integrated-photovoltaics market and plans to launch its first generation of product in 2019.

Nanomaterials in Health Care

The great potential nanomaterials have for use in the development of drug-delivery systems in nanomedicine has continued to fuel R&D in this area in 2018. For example, researchers at Freie Universität Berlin and the Polish Academy of Sciences developed micellar-like nanoparticles that can deliver anticancer drugs directly to tumor cells. The nanoparticles contain ureidopyrimidone-functionalized polylactide and have a hydrophilic, protective outer layer of polyethylene glycol. Adding low-density polyethylene glycol layers to synthetic nanoparticles makes them invisible to the body's immune system and extends their half-life. Although polyethylene glycol is the most common material to cloak the outside of nanoparticles, scientists continued to investigate other materials that can protect nanoparticles once inside the human body. For example, a team led by researchers at the University of Utah functionalized nanoparticles with bile-acid molecules to improve their uptake in the gastrointestinal tract. However, toxicity to the body is one of the reasons why many nanomedicine technologies have not reached patients. Many R&D initiatives in nanomedicine technologies do not pass the initial stage of development. According to the US National Library of Medicine's clinical-trials database, which contains clinical studies that have already begun, 13 phase-I, phase-II, and later-stage studies of nanoparticles, most of which are for cancer therapies, commenced in 2018 worldwide. Concerns about the side effects of some nanomaterials therapies have prompted organizations to commit significant funding to investigate the potential side effects of nanotechnology. In July 2018, researchers at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University announced the results of a study that showed mixtures of engineered nanomaterials exhibit toxicity in zebrafish embryos at concentrations at which the nanomaterials separately were not toxic. The scientists hope that the study can enable engineers to alter the design of individual nanomaterial ingredients and adjust various nanomaterial quantities so that, cumulatively, the nanomaterials do not have a harmful effect on the human body. The University of Oregon research and other similar studies are of great importance to companies seeking to commercialize nanotechnology products. Globally, regulators will continue to base laws for such products on nanotoxicity studies.

In 2018, the development of novel biosensing and diagnostic systems also continued to be key areas of nanomaterial use. By enabling the early detection and treatment of a variety of diseases, nanomaterials could directly affect the quality, and indeed the length, of human life—arguably making detection and treatment important applications of nanotechnology. Increasing emphasis on the incorporation of nanomaterials as part of biosensing and diagnostic systems continued to develop in 2018. Researchers are learning how to manipulate and apply nanoscale materials in biological environments and how to increase the sensitivity and selectivity of implantable biosensors. Some biosensing companies found 2018 rewarding. For example, in October 2018, NanoView announced that it had raised $10 million in series B funding to continue steps toward the commercialization of its biosensing technology: a platform for the detection and characterization of exosomes. Exosomes are important bio indicators and could find use in diagnosing illnesses and potentially in therapeutic treatments.

Look for These Developments in 2019

  • Although commercialization of high-grade 2D materials is still some years away, 2019 may see more 2D-enhanced materials come closer to appearing in commercial products.
  • Expect global investment in carbon-capture technologies to drive up the development of enabling-component technologies, including 2D materials such as metal-organic frameworks.
  • Look for an increase in the number of human clinical trials for nanomaterial-based therapies—including drug-delivery systems—for cancer.
  • Expect an increase in commercial applications for nanomaterials in the aerospace industry driven by growing demand for high-performance, lightweight materials.
  • Look for a slow but noticeable adoption of artificial-intelligence technologies in the design and development of nanomaterials.
  • Following breakthroughs in flexible nanotechnology, the year 2019 is likely to see a limited initial rollout of "foldable" portable devices.