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Nanomaterials December 2021/January 2022 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Madeeha Uppal

2021: The Year in Review

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.


Throughout 2021, supply-chain issues affected sales of products that incorporate nanomaterials and nanotechnologies. This effect was most evident in the semiconductor industry, where global shortages of chips resulted in an insufficient supply of, for example, consumer-electronics products. However, except in this example, the industry did not feel a disproportionate impact of the covid‑19 pandemic and maintained its position as a key enabling technology across virtually all industrial sectors. Indeed, several nanomaterial-based responses to the pandemic are now emerging, demonstrating that the capacity to pivot and innovate within this sector remains strong.

Looking forward to 2022, the importance of nanomaterials to a wide range of industries will only continue to grow as promising emerging technologies mature. Key examples of technologies that are likely to make an impact in the short-term future include nanoscale sensors, particularly in non-health-based applications. Graphene-based technologies will also continue to increase in commercial importance, with several new products likely to enter the market in 2022. However, the lack of large-scale manufacturing capacity for high-quality graphene will curb the introduction of some complex optoelectronics-based applications within the next two to three years at least. The other major area to watch in 2022 will be the ever-shifting regulatory framework that governs the use of nanomaterials. The introduction of more stringent regulations could negatively affect the range of materials that can find use in commercial products. However, any such legislation would also be likely to stimulate innovation, as researchers look to develop, for example, less-toxic alternatives.

Key Developments Identified by SBI in 2021

  • Quantum-Dot-Technology Development. Nanoco—the leading nontoxic quantum-dot company—announced a development project with one of the major European electronics players. The long-term deal relates to the development and supply of materials and covers a wide range of potential use cases and applications.
  • Proposed Carbon-Nanotube Regulations. The US Environmental Protection Agency put forward significant new use rules for multiwall carbon nanotubes that could affect the use (and therefore the commercial prospects) of this material.
  • Investments in Nanoscale Water-Resistant Coatings. A series of venture-capital wings of major companies (such as BMW, TDK, and Hella) announced a significant investment in Actnano—a start-up company focusing on developing surface treatments for nanoscale water-resistant coatings. The technology could have a substantial impact in protecting electronics components in the automotive industry.
  • Nanotechnology for Infrared Vision. Infrared sensing and imaging represents a growing challenge across a number of industries. Current sensors are costly, cannot integrate with complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor technology, can be bulky, and often require cooling. Recent research represents a step forward in this field and could lead to commercial applications in, for example, the automotive industry.
  • Short-Wave Infrared Sensing. Cost-effective shortwave-infrared-image sensors could give many existing products significant additional functionality and enable the creation of entirely new applications. Existing technology is prohibitively expensive for high-volume products. However, recent research into quantum-dot-based sensors could open up short-wave-infrared sensing to a variety of consumer applications.
  • Carbon-Nanotube-Transistor Fabrication. Carbon-nanotube-transistor technology is an emerging area that could, one day, yield devices that outperform silicon-based competition. Recent research demonstrates a major breakthrough in the reproducible fabrication of nanoscale gates on the surface of such transistors.
  • Ultrasensitive X‑Ray Detectors. The advent of techniques that detect X‑rays revolutionized medicine. However, practitioners must take care to minimize the doses both they and patients receive. Novel, highly sensitive detectors could enable the application of far smaller X‑ray doses, thereby improving the overall safety of the technique.
  • Ultra-Fast-Charging Lithium-Ion Batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are set to gain in commercial importance as electric vehicles increase their market share. However, battery charge time has always been a particular pain point in the automotive industry. Recent industrial developments demonstrate a significant decrease in charge time for mass-production devices—representing a major step forward for automotive-energy storage.
  • Novel Nanolubricants. The market for lubricants is significant. However, standard lubricants such as greases and oils are not suitable for certain applications that occur under challenging physical conditions. Recent research highlights the potential for dry nanomaterials within this sector, potentially enabling the efficient use of, and an increased protection for, equipment that has to operate under such conditions.
  • Nanoparticle Cancer Treatment. Nanomaterials hold great potential within the field of medicine in general and particularly in cancer therapy. However, nanoparticle-based cancer therapies are in some instances difficult to implement. Recent research demonstrates a novel therapy that kills cancer cells using in vivo–generated light. This research represents a step toward the realization of nanobased treatments.
  • World-Record Thermal Conductivity. An enormous amount of energy in the form of waste heat is unrecoverable every year. A solution to this loss includes the integration of efficient insulation materials or thermoelectric devices (or both) that can either trap or reuse this energy. Recent research, demonstrating record low levels of thermal conductivity in an inorganic bulk solid, could help to reduce the negative impact of waste heat.
  • Ultralight Impact-Resistant Materials. Impact-resistant materials are necessary components within a wide range of applications—most notably in the defense and aerospace sectors. Recent research demonstrates that, at small scales, nanoarchitectured carbon structures could potentially provide enhanced impact-resistant properties, challenging established materials such as Kevlar and steel.
  • Graphene-Nanoribbon Fabrication. Graphene nanoribbons hold considerable potential for next-generation electronic devices. However, fabrication methods have been unable to yield materials of sufficiently high quality or quantity for use in commercial devices. Recent research provides a route to producing long, thin graphene nanoribbons in quantities that could accelerate the development of technologies based on this material.

Areas to Monitor Highlighted by SBI in 2021

Macro/Dynamic Issues (Frequently Featured)

  • Sensors

    Nanosensors can find use in a range of industries, including the agriculture, health, environmental, defense-and-security, food, and drug-discovery industries. Developers believe that the use of nanotechnology could enable the design of sensors that are more sensitive, stable, responsive, and selective than are existing sensors.

  • 2D Nanomaterials

    Scientists are investigating a range of exotic 2D materials. The range of available materials is vast, offering a host of properties that could find use in many applications. Despite the fast progress, 2D nanomaterials are at an early stage, and they are unlikely to have a significant commercial impact in the near future.

  • Nanoelectronics

    To continue the trend of shrinking chip features (and thereby improving performance), nanomaterials will play an increasingly important role in the future of the electronics industry. Nanomaterials that have performance benefits over conventional materials could enable product price-to-performance improvements comparable to those of size scaling.

  • Nanomanufacturing and Process Integration

    The processes and equipment in use to manufacture nanomaterials can differ significantly from those currently in use to produce bulk materials. Integration of nanomaterials in conventional materials and devices is already an active issue area, and it will become increasingly significant.

Micro/Semi-Stable Issues (Sometimes Featured)

  • Intellectual-Property Strategies

    A company's IP strategy is subservient to its commercialization strategy and business model. For example, a company that intends to commercialize a technology itself may choose to do a limited amount of patenting and retain most of the IP in the form of trade secrets. Patents may protect, but they also give away a lot of information.

  • Medical Applications

    Efforts to develop nonbiological nanomaterials for use in the medical and health-care market sectors have been under way for several years and continue to promise improvements to existing therapeutic and diagnostic methods. At present, computer-modeling and -simulation capabilities are limited, and experimental verification is vital.

  • Nanodiagnostics

    Diagnostic-platform developments target more individualized capabilities through multiplexing of biological levels of information. Such developments of nanoscale diagnostic applications could benefit from the use of quantum dots, gold nanoparticles, and other nanomaterials with high sensitivity and selectivity.

  • Molecular Self-Assembly

    Scientists generally agree that molecular self-assembly is feasible for the manufacture of simple materials and devices, but they are skeptical about its prospects for more sophisticated manufacturing—particularly high-volume production. Biological or nonbiological templates could be important for fabricating complex materials.

  • Nanotoxicity

    The rapid proliferation of manufactured-nanomaterials research, development, and commercialization has called into question these materials' environmental, health, and safety impacts. The small size and great reactivity of nanomaterials have led to concerns that nanomaterials may enter some parts of the human body more easily than do larger particles.

  • Thermoelectricity

    Thermoelectric devices generate electricity directly from heat and find limited use in the industrial and consumer spaces. Subjecting two dissimilar materials (such as metals and semiconductors) to a thermal gradient can produce an electrical current between the two materials (explained by the Seebeck effect).

Look for These Developments in 2022

  • Nanocomposite materials will continue to come to the fore across a wide variety of applications—particularly in the fields of energy-storage packaging materials. Other, more complex, applications (including drug delivery and structural materials) will require more time to mature.
  • Nanoscale additives such as graphene, carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, and certain polymers will increasingly find use in 3D-printing applications.
  • Nano-inspired cancer therapies will continue to make their way through the regulatory process but will not yet find use in human patients.
  • Nanotechnology will begin to have an increasing impact on the covid‑19 response via novel diagnostic, and even therapeutic, innovations. For example, carbon-nanotube-based sensors could lead to a novel testing system with improved speed and accuracy.
  • Nanotech Energy—the US graphene and energy-storage company—will open a major new production facility in Nevada. The facility will continue to grow in the coming years as the company expands its operations and reaches its commercial targets.