Nanonascence

Paul Reip, managing director of Qinetiq Nanomaterials Ltd, says 2004 will be the year that nanotechnology ‘takes off’ in the UK. George Coupe spoke to him.

Paul Reip is excited about nano-technology, and it would appear he has good reason. His company, QNL boasts a unique method of producing many different substances at the nanometric level, all of which could have potentially large consumer or very valuable niche markets.

The process is flexible and ‘scaleable’ which means he can switch production easily from one material to another depending on market conditions, and produce either a few kilos or few thousand tonnes depending on his customers’ requirements. As a subsidiary of Qinetiq, QNL also has, effectively, an 8,000-strong, multidisciplinary R&D department ready to come up with new ways of using its materials.

But most excitingly Reip, who is managing director, and his team are in the pack leading the way to a brave new world, which others are only just waking up to. He is convinced that their work, and the discoveries of others like them around the world, have the power to enhance almost any human endeavour, from the mundane to opening up as yet alien realms of technical functionality.

Naturally, however, all the detail remains confidential. There is so much value perceived in nanotechnology, a general view not much more than a year old, that Reip is moved to liken the now to those days just before the world and Bill Gates became acquainted.

‘There will be a new Microsoft in nanotechnology, and the only question is who is that going to be? You are seeing strange, wild and crazy ideas coming out which are like the early computer operating systems and you think: are they going to go? If you have that little piece of nanotechnology that everybody has to use, you will see that new Microsoft.’

Nanotechnology is engineering on the nanoscale, the sub-micron range. Nanomaterials are substances produced in particle form, each particle of which is measured in nanometres. At this level the substance, whether intended as a catalyst or a protective coating, is enhanced. The catalyst has a greater surface area and is more reactive, while the coating might make the substrate material stronger, allowing it to be thinner, lighter and less expensive.

But this is basic stuff. The wild and crazy things that Reip talks about are the loos on sale in Japan with a nano-coating that tests your urine and e-mails your doctor if it picks up something wrong. or the fish tank at Nanotech 2004 in which fresh and salt water fish were able to swim together thanks to a clever use of nanoparticles. Strange certainly, but an indication of what might be possible in the future.

More than 30,000 people turned up to that conference in Japan. The US, Japan and other parts of Asia are pushing nanotechnology hard. Europe is a comparative backwater. But Reip believes this could be the year in which it takes off. ‘The floodgates are about to open,’ he said.

Reip spent a substantial part of his career in weapons development, where he first encountered nanotechnology. He is responsible for designing the electromagnetic gun that is currently being tested by the MoD at Kirkudbright, Scotland.

‘I became aware of a programme on new explosive materials. A company called Tetronics – a plasma torch specialist – was making nanometric aluminium. It developed a process to manufacture this material at a rate of 1kg per hour. In industrial terms this was not much, but it was faster than anyone else had ever done.’

Reip went to see them. ‘We didn’t talk technology, but deals. Tetronics had this process to make aluminium quite fast. We at Qinetiq had all the applications for it in the sphere of defence. We realised we had an interesting combination; the possibility for some kind of joint venture.’ Tetronics said it could make 60 different materials, for which Qinetiq immediately saw many applications.

‘We got approval from the Qinetiq board for a major investment at a time when the company had other things on its mind. Having done it we did the deal with Tetronics and created QNL in January 2002, using Tetronics to build a facility to manufacture materials in a scalable way.’

The process involves a hot plasma stream which is used to vaporise the feedstock material, usually introduced in wire or powder form. The vapour is then quenched to form the nanometric particles. Control of the heating and quenching process has allowed the Qinetiq team to achieve a precision manufacturing process.

The trick, said Reip, is to produce 12,000 degrees C at one end of the process, and have a cold powder at the other. The plasma method, as opposed to wet chemistry, is convenient for research purposes, but can also be ramped up for full-blown production of a nanomaterial.

‘Having a DC plasma running at a certain rate, putting a certain amount of material through, is not as cost-effective as making a bigger plasma. Tetronics leads the world in large-scale DC plasmas, so we have a scaleability on the critical component. Everything else is scaled very easily.’

QNL is now working on four sets of materials. The first are oxides, for use as catalysts among other things. The second group is nitrides and carbides, to make hard protective coatings. QNL made tungsten carbide three weeks ago at 60 nanometres, said Reip. ‘We think this could be the world’s smallest and purest.’ He has already sold several kilos for experimental research.

The next group is metals. Many nanometals are produced already by wet chemistry, but according to Reip, these do not achieve all that is desired in terms of shape, or ‘morphology’. Sometimes it is the morphology of the substance rather than size alone that dictates what you can do with it. Reip’s thermal process allows more control over shape, than the wet process. ‘We can produce discrete particles in a gas stream. But we have only scratched the surface with this.’

He said QNL is looking at the possibility of titanium and stainless steel for use in metal injection moulding. This would allow the manufacture of extremely small components, or larger ones with ultra-high definition finishes. The final class of materials is layered or doped materials; doped zirconia, structured materials like zinc oxide and copper oxides. All these variations offer the possibility of more and more applications.

‘The basic concept will work on a whole stack of materials – metals, oxides, carbides – but we can also make adjustments to the feed or the gas stream to change it even more,’ said Reip. ‘You can make a high-purity nanoversion of a material, but then you can morph it many different ways, and each one of those has a completely different market.’

After two years QNL has developed a dozen new materials and has six applications awaiting patent: they are in the fields of fuel cells, new explosive devices, fibres and applications for the oil and gas industry. There are another ‘big’ seven ideas in the pipeline, said Reip. ‘We are actually investing money back into Qinetiq to generate new IP which we are going to go out and license.’ He said QNL is already exploring the option of setting up other production plants with a number of firms in Japan. The next step is to brand its process and range of materials, which is expected shortly.

The global interest in nanotechnology has developed rapidly. ‘The market has completely changed in the last three years. When we started this, if you had a gram of anything you could sell it.’ Reip has just returned from a conference in Japan, where he made up part of a small UK delegation. ‘Looking at the exhibitions, originally they were full of universities touting for money; venture capitalists without any money and large corporates who would send a third level researcher to go and see what all the fuss was about.

‘By Nanotech 2003 this time last year in Japan, 20,000 people turned up. as the only UK company there we saw about 150 people : of those, 30 per cent were universities and about 50 per cent were companies. We started to see more senior researchers and some more of the big corporations.

‘By Nanofair in September last year, we suddenly saw a lot more of the production directors, managing directors and senior level people who had heard the buzz. There were venture capitalists who wanted to invest and a lot more smaller businesses.

‘At the conference we had in Japan two weeks ago, 30,000 people turned up. We didn’t see one academic. Instead we saw production engineers who were asking how many kilos we could make. In the last two weeks we’ve seen that momentum coming through with a number of companies saying they are interested in large-scale tonnage.’

But there is still a long way to go, it would seem, before those floodgates really open for the likes of QNL.

‘Having the great ideas is only half the issue – being able to convince other people to apply that is critical. We are quite far down the chain in terms of developing added functionality. It can take a long time for those ideas to filter through. If you have just bought a system to handle micron-sized powder you are not going to want to buy one to handle nanopowder.’

While Reip and his team have made good progress on their journey into nanoland there is a danger that those who do not follow quickly could suffer. That seems to apply mostly to the developed world where we have conventional techniques and systems that could be swept away by emerging nanotechnologies produced elsewhere, said Reip. The developing world wants to make the jump straight to nanotechnology, and the investment required is not huge if you want to create niche high-value products that give you added functionality. QNL itself is looking to tap some of this enthusiasm for nanotechnology in Asia.

‘I think UK industry should be worried. Someone, somewhere, will be developing a product that will wipe away your market. Nano has the potential to be a disruptive technology, which blows away what has gone before; it is a completely new order of doing things. What you see in nano is the potential for it to be disruptive across everything.’

The UK has made progress in nanotechnology research, but commercialisation has not been strong. Education and training is always part of the problem here said Reip. Elsewhere state funding, billions of dollars in the US, and a ready supply of science graduates is making all the difference to the adoption of nanotechnology. So far our government has spent £90m. ‘There are not many new nanocompanies in the UK, maybe a dozen. Allegedly there are 700 in the US. In Japan there is even a schools outreach programme to tell youngsters about nanotechnology. There is nothing like that here. We need to nano-enable people at university.’

In Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China businesses are being spun out of government-funded research projects and selling their products on the market. Many are now looking for further investment. But the competition could come from anywhere.

Reip believes that the UK should concentrate its effort in areas where itis traditionally strong – developing new ideas or applications for nanotechnology that could be licensed. and we must do it before somebody else. ‘A lot of nano is based on imagination, seeing the possibilities, and that is universal. We are seeing some interesting things come out of India. Somebody told me that by 2005 the number of science graduates in India will exceed the population of the UK. That is a worrying concept. Our problem is that we do not recognise that there is an IP land-grab going on out there, and we are not putting enough money into this. Think about the money in Microsoft, and that was just three guys in a shed.’

The other danger for those who don’t nano-ise to enhance their products is that their customers could start spending their money elsewhere. Reip points out that the money going into nano-development is not new cash, but funds being diverted from spending on conventional technologies.

‘If you believe even some of the American bulls**t that nanotechnology is going to be a one trillion dollar market by 2015, the question you should ask is where is the money coming from? There’s no new money. Where it’s coming from is existing businesses and supply chains. You can see that happening now.

‘We have a customer in the UK who has a great application idea for nanomaterials, but does not have the manufacturing capability. It [the customer] is now using our materials. And that is a potentially thousand-tonnes-a-year market, where you would take out the old market, so an entire feed chain of materials would go.

‘If I can see that with one small UK company in one specific area, the impact is quite possibly going to be very large. The question is where is it going to hit. We don’t quite know yet.’

This is all grist to the mill, so far as Reip is concerned.

‘What I’ve got is a toolbox. Because of the way its designed I can use it to do lots of materials. Its not like I’ve optimised down on a zinc oxide production system – what I’ve actually got is a zinc oxide production system that is financially viable to compete against any other thermal process, and indeed compete against some other wet chemistry processes. So if that market disappears, I can say let’s make another material for another market. I can say today I’m going to make zinc oxide, and in three weeks time I’m going to make copper oxide. I’ve got that flexibility.’

Reip is also keen to promote another advantage of QNL’s method. If it builds a nanomaterials manufacturing plant for somebody, initially to supply one particular material, that customer will then be able to develop a sideline in manufacturing other materials under license.

The only problem is that not many people are thinking ‘nano’, he said. When they do cotton on, however, their minds begin to overflow with the possibilities.

‘Once you start thinking what you can do, you find people will suddenly stop you and say hey, I could use it for this or that. I gave a presentation in Scotland in December. And afterwards one of the people there called me and said he had never thought about nanotechnology before, but on his way home he thought of five applications. This was not because I was brilliant – it’s because his eyes had just been opened.’

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