Nanomaterials December 2019/January 2020 Viewpoints
2019: The Year in Review
Nanomaterials enable an extensive array of products, and nanotechnology—use of nanomaterials—is a growing field. Advances in nanomaterials continued to transform many market sectors in 2019. Nanomaterials have the potential to revolutionize health care, and research into the development of drug-delivery systems, genetics, sensors, and therapeutics progressed steadily. In 2019, biomedicine, electronics, and energy held the major share in the nanotechnology market, with the automotive market likely to see substantial growth in coming years. Issues relating to air and plastic pollution and climate change continued to garner significant attention. Scientists conducted substantial research looking to mitigate these issues by, for example, adopting renewable-energy technologies alongside energy-storage solutions.
As the world begins its transition away from fossil-fuel-based energy and toward renewable energy, the intermittent nature of many popular renewable-energy sources necessitates the development of efficient energy-storage devices. Nanomaterials generally have properties superior to those of their bulk counterparts that make them attractive candidates for next-generation energy-storage devices such as batteries and ultracapacitors. Research in this field excelled in 2019. For example, in March 2019, Imec presented a novel metallic nanomesh with high porosity and surface-area-to-volume ratio. The nanomesh can function as a highly efficient electrode in fast-charging batteries and fuel cells. In June 2019, Imec announced that its research efforts have resulted in doubling the energy density of solid-state lithium-metal batteries. The new battery exhibits an energy density of 400 watt-hours per liter and a charging speed of 2 hours—a record combination for solid-state batteries. Imec also began upscaling the technology in a 300-square-meter assembly pilot line.
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to pioneers of lithium-ion batteries, and scientists across the world continued to work on improving these ubiquitous batteries. At the University of Alberta, scientists tested the effect of changing silicon-nanoparticle size in silicon-nanoparticle-and-graphene aerogel anodes for lithium-ion batteries. Results showed that 3-nanometer silicon nanoparticles exhibited the best long-term stability over 500 charge/discharge cycles. The scientists are now working on reducing synthesis costs of silicon nanoparticles. Also working on lithium-ion batteries, engineers at Purdue University created a novel electrode. The electrode comprises antimony nanochains with empty pores that limit the expansion of the electrode as it absorbs lithium ions. Electrodes that expand in size when charged can pose a safety hazard, and giving the electrode a nanostructure that can absorb high concentrations of ions without expanding can enable safer and more efficient batteries than current ones enable. The antimony-nanochains electrode can also help speed up the charging time of batteries.
Working on novel nanomaterials, scientists at the Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering at Trinity College, Dublin, developed an ink-based MXene. The material has high surface area and advanced mechanical properties and is an excellent electrical conductor. The material could enable batteries smaller than currently available ones and significantly extend battery capacity, thereby not only expanding the lifetime of batteries in electronic devices such as smart phones but also potentially increasing the range of electric vehicles. And scientists at Yangzhou University used a metal–organic-frameworks composite in an alkaline electrochemical capacitor. The device showed high specific capacitance and excellent stability over 5,000 cycles. Furthermore, the device is flexible, and its easy fabrication makes it an attractive candidate for further studies.
Although lithium-ion batteries are very common, they do have some drawbacks, including high cost, safety concerns, and the limited nature of lithium reserves. Scientists continued to research alternative materials for the development of efficient batteries. Some of the highlights from 2019 include the development of a manganese dioxide/zinc battery at the City College of New York. Common manganese dioxide/zinc batteries have a voltage of 1.2 volts and are suitable for one-time use. However, the new battery displayed a record high voltage of over 2.4 volts and is rechargeable, and its manufacture uses low-cost materials. At the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore, scientists designed a method of fabricating lithium-sulfur cathodes in a simple fashion, using inexpensive materials. Lithium-sulfur batteries can theoretically store up to ten times more energy than lithium-ion batteries can; however, they are prone to degradation over time. The team overcame this issue by creating a robust carbon scaffold before addition of sulfur to create a three-dimensional (3D) interconnected porous nanomaterial. The resulting cathode displayed minimal loss in performance over 200 cycles.
Funding and Investments
The nanomaterials market is rapidly growing and accordingly witnessed huge investments in 2019. Notable investments in nanomaterials in 2019 include:
- The Oklahoma Center for Advancement of Science and Technology's $390,000 investment and the US National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Program's $954,000 investment in nanoadditives developed by Mito Materials Solutions. The nanoadditives are nanoparticles that scientists can add to composite materials, such as Kevlar and fiberglass, to make them tougher and more durable than conventional composites.
- Shenzhen Hifuture Information Technology's $45 million investment in Xjet—a company that offers an innovative 3D-printing technique for ceramic and metallic nanoparticles. Xjet uses the proprietary technology to create nanoparticle-containing liquid suspensions. Use of the liquid negates melting of materials, which other 3D-printing methods employ, and reduces contamination.
- The Engine and the Goose Society of Texas's co-led series-A funding of $5.8 million for Syzygy Plasmonics. The start-up develops a chemical reactor powered by light that may enable clean manufacturing of a variety of chemicals, including fertilizer, fuel, and plastic.
- The federal government of Canada's $40 million investment in CBN Nano Technologies. The company develops nanomanufacturing techniques that can improve security features on passports and banknotes.
- Sustainable Development Technology Canada's $5 million investment in Nano One. The company develops an industrial-scale process to manufacture materials for highly efficient, low-cost batteries.
- The European Union's over–$33 million investment in five projects about nanomaterials safety. Together the projects plan to develop an extensive framework for the risk assessment and risk governance of engineered nanomaterials.
In 2019, research about use of graphene across a broad range of areas progressed, and a number of graphene-based products reached the market as well. After a successful launch of its graphene-enhanced engine-oil additive in Korea, German automotive-part supplier Hella expanded distribution of the lubricant in China and Japan. The product—which offers many benefits, including improved power output and reduced engine wear—contains graphene nanoplatelets sourced from XS Sciences. XS Sciences also announced that Cenostar plans to begin distribution of XS Science's new concrete additive: XG Concrete. The additive is based on graphene nanoplatelets and increases the strength, performance, and lifetime of concrete. Nanomaterials' use in the construction industry is a growing market. In August 2019, GrapheneCA launched what the company claims is the world's first commercially available graphene-enhanced concrete. The novel concrete formulation can reduce cracking and increase strength of structures. Furthermore, the concrete is suitable for water-based mortar systems, and the company claims that its use reduces carbon emissions.
Other industries have also experienced increased nanomaterials uptake. For example, in the footwear industry, graphene-products supplier First Graphene and work-boots manufacturer Steel Blue designed and developed prototype boots with graphene-incorporated soles. Safety tests showed that the graphene-incorporated soles had improved wear and chemical resistance and reduced permeability. And in the sensing industry, Imagine Intelligent Materials reported the development of a graphene coating, which the company has integrated into a sensing system with applications in the Internet of Things field. The system can measure moisture, pressure, stress, and temperature readings from surface areas as large as 4,000 square meters.
Many companies received patents for graphene-based research and products. For example, Italian company Directa Plus received an Italian patent from the Italian Patent and Trademark Office for its graphene-enhanced polyurethane film. The company plans to use the patented technology to develop breathable, waterproof, and bacteria-resistant clothing. The membrane is also a good conductor of electricity and could find further use in smart textiles and data transmission. The World International Patent Organization (WIPO) approved a patent application for a graphene-based membrane by Grafoid. The membrane can serve in desalination plants, and the scientists claim that it outperforms commercially available membranes in tests. In June 2019, WIPO also published a patent application by LG Electronics. The patent concerns a transparent heating device that functions by flowing current through a layer of graphene.
Look for These Developments in 2020
- Research in two-dimensional materials will continue to expand, including syntheses of novel two-dimensional materials with unusual magnetic, optical, mechanical, and electrical properties.
- Developments in nanomedicine will include further research into utilizing nanomaterials in medicine as well as more nanomaterials-based therapies' entering clinical trials and seeking regulatory approval.
- Expect continued development of nanotextiles and nanotechnology-enabled wearables. In late 2019, Malaysian company NanoTextile partnered with Malaysian retailer Poney Garments, and together they released a line of antimicrobial kids' apparel. Wide adoption of nanotextiles in other countries with stringent regulations about nanomaterials may be further along the way; however, smaller wearables may enter the market first.
- Computing is an important research area for nanomaterials. Expect increasing research and investment into the development of enabling components for quantum computing, smaller computer chips, and data and memory storage.
- Look for progress of the Internet of Nanothings (IoNT). IoNT devices and sensors have numerous potential applications, and major companies, including IBM and Intel, continue to invest in IoNT.