No small matter

The government is expected to establish a nanotechnology network linking UK experts in the subject. But, asks David Fowler, is there a sure future for these little particles?

You’ve heard the hype and you’ve seen the first rumblings of a media backlash. But underneath the exaggerated claims from both sides of the nanotechnology argument, events have been quietly moving forward. Nanotechnology, and especially nanomaterials, could soon cease to be the stuff of science fiction and become reality.

Qinetiq Nanomaterials has just commissioned a new plant in Farnborough which will be capable of producing a huge range of nano-powders on an industrial scale. In the next few weeks the DTI and regional development agencies will announce funding to create a network to connect the UK’s nanotechnology centres and improve links between researchers and industry.

But although experts are in no doubt that nanotechnology could change the face of whole industries, there are concerns that the response of UK industry has been too slow. International competitors are rushing to stake out whole areas of nanotechnology by filing patents, denying access to latecomers.

The umbrella term nanotechnology covers the creation of tiny machines and components – for example sensors used to fire car airbags – as well as materials. But the most immediate impact on the market will come from nanoparticles. These are ultra-fine powders of otherwise commonplace materials but, because of their size, they have desirable properties in their own right or can improve or add new functions to other products.

Qinetiq’s Farnborough plant could be one of the biggest producers of nanopowders in Europe, if not worldwide. Two rigs will be capable of producing a wide range of metal powders, oxides, nitrides and passivated metals (with a thin coating of oxide) at the rate of several kilograms hourly. A pivotal role in the design of the plant was played by Tetronics, whose plasma torch technology it uses, with support from BOC which supplies pure argon and other industrial gases needed for the process. In the plasma vaporisation process feedstock material is put into a plasma at 4,000-9,000 degrees C to vaporise it, and is then rapidly quenched so that it solidifies to a powder with a particle size of about 100nm – or about 500 atoms across.

‘Two years ago when we started we realised there was a gap in the market,’ said Qinetiq Nanomaterials managing director Paul Reip. ‘Some nanomaterials, such as carbon and silicon and to some extent oxides, you can get. But in general there aren’t production processes to make many other materials, especially metals. In addition the market is getting more sophisticated and is calling for special surface characteristics or shape.

‘We have control of all the parameters of the process – temperature, pressure, gas flow and cooling – and we’re just beginning to understand the potential and how far we can push it. We can do particles, layered materials and metal alloys.’

Qinetiq Nanomaterials is working with a number of customers to produce powders for demonstration and evaluation, effectively undertaking contract R&D. Reip said he has received enquiries from 380 potential customers in the past 15 months.

For companies needing large quantities, dedicated plants would be set up close to a customer’s manufacturing plant. ‘If you need 100kg we can manufacture it here. If you need 30 tonnes we’d set up a spin-out or joint venture,’ said Reip. Partly for health and safety reasons and partly because some nanopowders will become commodities, he acknowledges that shipping the material around the world in large quantities will not be desirable.

In parallel, Qinetiq Nanomaterials is using its parent company as an R&D arm to come up with completely new applications and products. Half a dozen patents are in the pipeline, Reip said.

However, uses have already been found for nanoparticles, for example in Pilkington’s self-cleaning windows. Nanomaterials will be able to create anti-graffiti surface coatings. Nano-platinum in catalytic converters reduces the amount of the metal needed by 96 per cent. Nano-silver can add antibacterial properties to wound dressings. Nano-iron or cobalt can give magnetic properties to polymers. Nano-copper can add conductivity.

Prof Graham Davies, head of the school of engineering at Birmingham University, cites quantum dots that will be used in telecoms amplifiers. They are nanoparticles whose size can be graded, and when used in the right proportion in a semiconductor will allow it to separate out specific wavelengths. This would ultimately allow 4,000 different wavelengths of light to be sent down an optical fibre at once, which would give a single fibre the capacity to carry all today’s internet traffic.

‘Here at Birmingham we’ve concentrated on working with industry on commercial applications of small particles of ceramics, metals or semiconductors,’ said Davies. ‘We can change their functionality through smart chemistry, often in simple ways, like dipping. The clever bit is to stop them aggregating into clumps in solution.’

Birmingham University recently launched the I2 multidisciplinary nanotechnology research centre. The university has research worth around £11 million under way, and the centre has been given £2 million by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. The RDA money will allow the centre to provide facilities for people from industry to work there using the university’s specialist equipment and with university technicians to operate it.’

The centre addresses a shortcoming highlighted in a report produced last year for the DTI by the Advisory Group on Nanotechnology Applications, of which Davies was a member. ‘While the UK has excellent research credentials in nanotechnology, it lacks the coherent and co-ordinated national strategy for developing and applying the technology that characterises many of its leading industrial competitor nations. Partly as a result of this, much of UK industry has yet to respond to the challenge and put in place its own R&D for nanotechnology,’ said the report. The most important obstacle, it said, ‘is the absence of facilities where researchers, companies and entrepreneurial thinkers can work together to assist established businesses in their adoption of nanotechnology.’

In the next few weeks the government and RDAs are expected to respond to the report by providing funding for a network, linking existing centres, and directing enquiries from firms to a research centre with the most appropriate specialism.

However, UK research spending is still worryingly low compared with the US, Japan and other competitors, though the EU’s sixth framework research programme has allocated 1.3 billion Euros (£920 million) for nanotechnology. The advisory group report estimated UK government funding at about £30 million.

Perhaps of even more concern is the rate at which competitors are filing patents. Qinetiq’s Reip, who worked on defence projects for Qinetiq’s precursor DERA, said: ‘For years there was no intellectual property in nanomaterials. Now there’s a huge land grab going on. Companies could find whole areas in which someone will say ‘I’ve got the rights to this”.

And both Reip and Davies admit to concern about a GM food-style backlash against the technology. ‘I’d hate to see scare stories disrupt a technology I think will be greatly beneficial to the UK population and the economy. I think there are enough rules and regulations covering research to make sure that we do consider the wider impact,’ said Davies.

Reip added that some materials that are candidates for use as nanopowders are benign in their normal state – titanium dioxide is even found in some foods, for example. Others, such as nickel, are harmful in their normal form. Whether making nanopowders of them makes them any worse is not known. But manufacture is carefully controlled, while the public will not be exposed to the powder, only the end products containing nanomaterials.

‘We don’t believe that the knee-jerk reaction of the press is logical,’ said Reip. ‘But we need to do the work. We’re not changing the laws of physics, we’re just introducing a new factor that might have an effect. But let’s be logical and scientific about it. Let’s not make nanomaterials a bogey word.’