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Nanomaterials December 2020/January 2021 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Madeeha Uppal

2020: The Year in Review

Contributions by Guy Garrud
Garrud is a consultant with Strategic Business Insights.

Special Edition: Year in Review

This special-edition Year-in-Review Viewpoints is part of a set of analyses that investigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on technology commercialization across six consequential technology domains: Advanced Manufacturing and Materials, AI and Automation, Clean Energy, Digital Connectivity and Lifestyles, Health Care, and Sensors and Electronics. The May 2020 Viewpoints identifies key forces that are likely to influence these technology domains. The June 2020 Viewpoints considers the future of the domains across three scenarios.

This special-edition Viewpoints describes developments in the most impactful forces for Advanced Manufacturing and Materials in 2020 and outlines likely developments for those forces in 2021. In addition, this Viewpoints highlights additional specific developments in the Nanomaterials Technology Area during 2020 and areas to watch for in 2021.

Key Forces That Shaped Advanced Manufacturing and Materials in 2020

The May 2020 Viewpoints identifies key forces across global societies that are likely to have a major influence on the six consequential technology domains. Here, we return to the forces that had the most impact on Advanced Manufacturing and Materials in 2020.

  • Health-care focus. Health care, particularly care that concentrated on preventing or treating severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was an area of keen focus for numerous companies, governments, and the wider public. As researchers learned more about the virus, the public-health focus shifted away from hand hygiene and surface transmission and toward airborne transmission. Various manufacturers unveiled an assortment of personal air purifiers, but the largest single development in health-care-related materials and manufacturing has been the huge increase in production of simple surgical-style face coverings.
  • Economic growth. Today is still too early to accurately assess the full economic impact of the coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) pandemic on materials and manufacturing, but some broad trends emerged in the past nine months. Countries whose governments took early and aggressive action were, in large part, able to effect a faster recovery than could countries whose governments failed to take action or delayed their lockdowns. The most prominent examples of the former are various countries in East Asia, including China and Korea. Australia and New Zealand also fared relatively well, aided in part by their geographic remoteness.
  • Energy-use patterns. The year 2020 saw dramatic swings in energy-use patterns and, with them, substantial volatility in the energy sector. These changes contributed to a notable first in April 2020, when prices for West Texas Intermediate crude oil briefly traded at negative values. Oil prices recovered somewhat in the months thereafter but still traded significantly below previous levels because of continuing travel restrictions. Longer-term volatility in oil prices will be an important factor for materials manufacturers that rely on petrochemical feedstocks.
  • Clean-energy transition. Despite significant headwinds in 2020, renewable energy remained a major growth industry, with the International Energy Association (IEA) estimating that about 90% of all new energy generation in 2020 was from renewable sources. The IEA's report places renewables on target to become the largest source of energy by 2025. Renewable energy likely escaped some of the turbulence affecting fossil fuels because it finds less use in transport applications. This escape is a positive for manufacturers of green energy technologies and manufacturers developing next-generation energy-harvesting materials such as perovskites for photovoltaic cells.
  • Persistent manufacturing. As was true for many sectors, manufacturing was hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic, with a sharp drop in output in April 2020. Researchers at Naveen Jindal School of Management characterized the response by manufacturers as "largely reactive and uncoordinated." This response was followed by a relatively swift recovery in many countries, albeit not to the output levels evident before the pandemic. Many companies had to adapt to new working environments through social distancing, use of personal protective equipment, and implementation of remote working where possible. Some companies successfully pivoted to offering new products during the pandemic, with surging demand for ventilators and surgical-style face coverings. A second level of disruption came in the form of delays to supply chains and rapidly shifting product demands, which had a strongly asymmetric impact across the manufacturing sector.
  • Product delays. Dampened market interest prompted various manufacturers to postpone the release of new products or to release the products but with the anticipation of lower sales than might otherwise have occurred. A survey by Dimensional Research and Supplyframe estimated that 91% of product delays arose from difficulty in sourcing components, with about 37% of respondents saying that their components' costs increased during 2020 and 37% reporting that they had been unable to fulfill customer orders.

Additional Developments in Nanomaterials in 2020

As well as the forces affecting the wider advanced-manufacturing-and-materials sector in 2020, multiple developments specific to nanomaterials are noteworthy. Below are examples of these developments in quantum computing and advances in instruments.

  • Quantum computing. Nanomaterials play an important role in this research area, and 2020 saw multiple efforts in nanomaterials to enhance technology for the development of quantum computers. Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia University, and Bar-Ilan University used DNA scaffolds to create three-dimensional superconducting nanostructures. The 3D nanostructures have the potential to improve the speed and accuracy of quantum computers. Large-scale quantum computing requires improvements in the coherence times of qubits. Scientists at the University of Victoria studied energy absorptions in quantum computers, which can cause qubits to lose coherence. The research provided calculations of energy losses at interfaces in superconducting devices. And researchers in Finland have developed a bolometer that is sensitive and fast enough to measure the energy of qubits. The detector also overcomes some of the challenges of measuring qubit energy by using voltage measurements, which is how most current quantum computers measure qubit energy. Quantum computing could benefit many industries—including energy, finance, and pharmaceuticals, and several companies and institutes in the United Kingdom have joined a $13 million consortium that aims to launch the United Kingdom's first commercial quantum computer.
  • Instruments and analysis. The year 2020 saw progress in instrumentation and analysis techniques that could accelerate the development of nanomaterials. Fritsch introduced a new particle sizer that uses laser diffraction to measure particles in the nanometer to micrometer range. The particle sizer is easy to operate, requires minimal maintenance, and records measurements in less than a minute. Oxford Instruments released the world's coldest cryogen-free dilution refrigerator, the Proteox5mK. The instrument can achieve base temperatures below 5 millikelvin and could enable scientists to study exotic quantum states that appear at extremely low temperatures. And Delmic launched a new fluorescence microscope that can see integration in many existing focused ion-beam/scanning-electron microscopes. The device streamlines specimen preparation, which decreases preparation time, and helps protect fragile specimens from damage and contamination that may occur during excessive handling. Current techniques that measure magnetism or regular 3D materials are unsuitable for measuring properties of 2D materials. A multinational team of researchers demonstrated a new microscopy technique that can serve to study the magnetic properties of 2D materials.

Look for These Developments in 2021

What to Watch for in Advanced Manufacturing and Materials in 2021

  • Supply-chain consolidation. Watch for manufacturers and materials companies to take steps to increase levels of vertical integration in order to shore up their supply chains. Some manufacturers may take alternate approaches such as sourcing components from a range of manufacturers in order to reduce disruption should one or more be unable to deliver on time. Businesses may also look to source more components locally, either within their own national borders or in the same geographic region, to reduce potential shipping delays. An extreme outcome may even see multinational companies' offering different product lineups or products using different components in different territories.
  • Resurgent demand. Some industries were hit harder than others by the covid-19 pandemic during 2020. Consumer behavior in various segments—including the purchase of new cars and other luxury items—saw significant disruption, whereas other manufacturing fields saw either relatively stable demand or significantly increased demand. The year 2021 could see some resurgence in demand for some sectors that struggled. Much will depend on the accessibility of effective vaccines for SARS-CoV-2. Even in the event of a rapid, widespread, and easily accessible vaccine program, consumer demand will likely not be a one-for-one match to the situation in early 2020, because the pandemic has curtailed or accelerated some longer-term trends.
  • Accelerated research and development. Both university and private research and development groups will likely be better placed to return to relatively normal work styles in 2021 than they were during much of 2020. Consequently, 2021 may see more rapid advances in various manufacturing and fundamental research fields than were possible in 2020. This acceleration will be particularly important for the consumer-electronics sector and will likely see bigger steps forward with, say, 2021's flagship smartphones than were possible in 2020.
  • Geographic manufacturing shifts. The year 2021 will likely see a continuation of existing trends in various sectors. In particular, East Asian economies—particularly in China, Korea, and Taiwan—will continue to grow in importance for various forms of high- and low-tech manufacturing that influence the electronics industry.

Additional Items to Watch for in Nanomaterials in 2021

  • Self-cleaning surfaces. Watch for developments in such surfaces—particularly surfaces with antimicrobial coatings, because the need for sterile communal areas is gathering attention.
  • Diagnostic tools and nanosensors. Further nanomaterial-based diagnostic tools and sensors will likely emerge with a greater focus on point-of-care diagnosis of infections and monitoring of airborne pathogens and chemicals.
  • Green energy. Expect to see increased interest and investment in green-energy technologies, including renewable energy and carbon capture enabled by nanomaterials such as 2D materials and metal-organic frameworks.
  • Smart materials. Look for research into smart materials that can enable new applications in wearables and energy harvesting.