Manufacturing technologies: nanotechnology as little miracles

Posted on 18 Jun 2012 by Malcolm Wheatley

Nanotechnology has arrived. But what is it, and how do manufacturers exploit it? Malcolm Wheatley finds out.

Shoes, clothing and electronic devices that repel water, as if by magic. Handheld sensors that screen the female breast for cancer, identifying individual lymph nodes that carry the disease. And innovative materials that turn waste heat from car exhausts into electricity, powering the car’s electrical systems, and reducing the load placed on its carbon dioxide-emitting petrol or diesel engine.

Is Britain losing the nanotechnology race?

Governments with an eye to the future love nanotechnology, or at least governments other than the British government appear to.

Reportedly, the United States government has invested $3.7bn through its National Nanotechnology Initiative, and even cash-strapped Japan is pumping $0.75bn into applied nanotechnology research. Singapore offers nanotechnology technology companies tax breaks to locate there.

So should the British government be doing more to foster nanotechnology? Professor Ravi Silva, director of the advanced technology institute of the University of Surrey, believes emphatically that it should.

“The government should be doing more, and that’s the conclusion of a task force that I set up in 2006,” he says. “Other governments are putting more resources into nanotechnology, and here in Britain we need to develop a manufacturing policy that reflects nanotechnology’s importance. We need a plan: it won’t just happen on its own.”

Certainly, speak to nanotechnology manufacturers and it seems that finance can be a problem. While far from certain that government seed-capital funding is the answer in every case, Endomagnetics’ chief executive Eric Mayes points to a definite lack of venture capital funding due to the recession.

“The venture capital funds are there, alright, but investors aren’t investing in venture capital – so the funds don’t have as much capital to invest,” he points out.

Down on the factory floor, meanwhile, European Thermodynamics’ technical director Kevin Simpson points to the physical reality of the problem.

“We’re only an SME, so we’re always stuck for resources. If we had more spark plasma sintering equipment, we could prepare more samples that would allow us to build more prototypes more quickly,” he says. “We have the skills we need – but not the equipment.”

In each case, the underlying technology, nanotechnology, was not so long ago regarded as the stuff of science fiction. In short, it’s the ability to manipulate materials in the scale range of one to a hundred nanometres, where a nanometre is onebillionths of a metre.

Or, to put it another and perhaps more impressive way, nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. And science fiction it most certainly is not.

Oxfordshire-based P2i, for instance, is a nanotechnology business that spun out of that most hard-headed of institutions, Britain’s Ministry of Defence. The liquid repellent nano coating technology it produces is based on Ph.D research carried out by chief technical officer and co-founder Stephen Coulson while at Durham University in the late 1990s. The goal: making soldiers’ protective clothing more effective against chemical attack.

Handily though, a material that repels liquid chemicals also does a decent job of keeping out a more ubiquitous substance: rainfall.

To do this, P2i’s patented technology employs a special pulsed ionized gas, created within a vacuum chamber, to attach a nanometre thin polymer layer over the entire surface of a product. This dramatically lowers the product’s surface energy, so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply roll off.

The coating is molecularly bound to the product surface at a nanoscopic level, which means that it becomes inseparable from it, and is as durable as the material it protects. Even better, because the coating is one thousand times thinner than a human hair, it is invisible to sight or touch.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the result is that this particular strain of technology has proved attractive to some of the world’s top clothing and footwear brands. Adidas, Mizuno, Hi Tec, Timberland, Ecco, and Teva, for example – each uses P2i coatings on their products. What’s more, P2i technology also coats 60% of all hearing aids today, and can be found on Motorola RAZR Droid phones and Zoom2 tablets.

“Hi-Tec was our ‘breakthrough’ first partner,” says Coulson. “Back when nanotechnology was very new and not understood, Hi-Tec – a British sporting success story – took a risk with a small British manufacturer, and led the way.”

But although understanding and application of nanotechnology has come a long way since those days, it remains technically challenging. Leicestershire-based European Thermodynamics, for instance, which is working to turn waste heat into electricity, has research partnerships with over half a dozen leading science universities, explains technical director Kevin Simpson.

But the partnerships aren’t overlapping, he stresses: each university is working on a particular aspect of the technical challenges that European Thermodynamics faces – typically, although not always, the temperature range in question. And again, some hard-headed businesses and institutions are working closely with the company on joint projects. Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, and the European Space Agency.

But mastering the nanotechnology aspect of the equation is still only solving part of the problem, warns Victor Higgs, managing director of Enfield-based diagnostic medical device manufacturer Applied Nanodetectors.

“The trick is translating the concept into something that can be readily manufactured, and in volume,” he stresses. “It’s about scaling up, and reducing the cost, and integrating the nanotechnology aspect into other products and solutions that meet a commercial need.”

The good news is that venture capitalists, who still fund many nanotechnology startups, now appreciate that message more than they used to.

“Venture capitalists learned a lot of lessons from the 1995- 2000 era when nanotechnology hype was at its highest,” says Eric Mayes, chief executive of Cambridge-based handheld nanotechnology-based cancer sensor manufacturer Endomagnetics. “Now, the focus is much more on finding markets and solving problems, and not just developing interesting particles and then looking for a need.”