Liquid assets

EU-funded research aims to make the manufacture of nanoproducts easier.

AN EU-funded project backed by Bayer and Unilever will investigate unpredictable nanoparticle dispersion in liquids leading to easier manufacture of nanoproducts such as suncreams and plastics.

The PROFORM project aims to end the waste that occurs due to ‘trial and error’ manufacturing techniques used to inject nanoparticles into a liquid, said the group. The research will look at chemical effects on nanoparticle dispersion such as pH or temperature, mechanical forces like particle-to-particle interaction, and the hydrodynamic behaviour of the particles in liquid.

The programme, led by engineering consultants BHR Group, has 10 partners including Bayer, Unilever and universities throughout Europe, including Birmingham and Loughborough.

Dr Gul Ozcan-Taskin, project co-ordinator at BHR, said the action of nanoparticles in liquids is not fully understood and so conventional processing methods yield many mistakes. ‘It’s often been the case that companies have similar products and try to use the same manufacturing methods as they did in the past,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but it can mean that there is a lot of waste produced.’

Nanoparticle behaviour in a liquid can be unpredictable, and lab-based processing methods often fail to translate to an industrial scale. ‘The incorporation of particles into liquid can be difficult,’ said Ozcan-Taskin. ‘Some particles might float, others may sink to the bottom. Others are difficult to wet, or once wetted they will sink.’

Unilever and Bayer hope to develop the results for their consumer and healthcare products. There has also been interest from the petrochemical industry. The consortium plans to publish its first results in a year, and eventually develop a database of information on nanoparticles for industry, including information on shape, strength, wettability, porosity, particle size distribution and surface-free energy.

The Loughborough team will investigate turbulence and fluid velocity effects, while Birmingham will look at how the particles can clump together into aggregates for example. ‘The aggregation of nanoparticles means that one is dealing with size changes throughout the whole process, and so the properties of the particles and their dispersion will change during processing,’ said Ozcan-Taskin.

The EC is providing £1.7m in funding to the group via its nanotechnology programme.