Nanotechnology - nearly 30 years in the making

Nanotechnology - nearly 30 years in the making

Nanotechnology is a very large innovation field and a bit of a buzzword which attracts attention from governments, researchers, public, and industry. In the 1990s, when Richard Feynman’s lecture, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom” was rediscovered (and has since been extensively re-quoted), the aims and priorities of nanotechnology have changed. What started out as a mere academic curiosity became a heavily invested area of activity, covering many conventional sectors such as materials, engineering, medicine, food, cosmetics, and transport. This article will not dwell on nanotechnology’s past since many highly respected books and papers have already covered this. Instead, it will look at the most recent trends and opportunities in the area.

Since the inception of one of the biggest national nanotechnology initiatives - the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001, billions of dollars have been poured into nanotechnology. Most of these investments have been made by various governments into academic research. At the time, very few commercialised nanotechnology applications were actually reaching markets. Since then, several attempts have been made to produce a killer application or a star material for nanotechnology. The first attempt involved fullerenes, and then nanotubes became the hot topic; currently, graphene is the material du jour. While the applications for all of these materials are exciting, there seems to have been a distinct lack of big ideas: we hear about the amazing properties of carbon nanotubes, yet we mainly see their application in composites that are seemingly produced only to replace the cheaper and more ubiquitous carbon fibre; we hear about the world-changing properties of graphene, but all we get is a conducting transparent film on top of our mobile phone screens. Where are the ground-breaking ideas that will change the world, or at least revive some conventional industrial sectors? And no, this is not just a feature common to carbon allotropes—it is the same for other nanomaterials.

Over the years, ever more private investment has been made into the production of these nanomaterials; as a result, we are now at the point where the commercial supply of nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, nano-ZnO or nano-TiO2, has surpassed the market demand. There is a risk that the global prices for such high-tech materials will drop, just like the prices of photovoltaics did a few years ago. However intellectually intensive the production of nanomaterials may be, we are still talking about them as being raw materials that are supplied to industry, which is supposed to use them in large quantities. However, the current trends indicate that the volume of nanomaterials used in truly novel and ground-breaking applications are relatively small, On the other hand, the large volumes are required for applications where nanomaterials are mostly used as substitutes for conventional materials. For such applications of nanomaterials low price is clearly important. We are already observing a competition on price-points amongst some nanomaterial suppliers.

Price competition sounds great on paper, but in reality it leads to low profits for investors and entrepreneurs alike. Mass production of nanomaterials that are, by their very nature, highly sensitive to process parameters often leads to batch-to-batch variations in a product’s properties or to wide spreads of parameters within batches. One of the ways in which such inconsistencies can be overcome is through the development and by following of strict international norms for material specifications, characterisation, safety and usage. Such norms are being developed by international standardisation organisations, such as ISO, IEC, CEN and ASTM. The answer to price competition is not further price cuts, but an attempt to reach higher standard and consistency of the materials being supplied. This is the only way in which industry can avoid both prices spiralling downward and a decline in customer experience.

Richard Feynman said “there is plenty of room at the bottom”, but he did not mean a drive to the lowest possible value! Rather, he meant, and this is fundamentally important, that the opportunities in nanotechnology are virtually limitless. We are passing the raw materials “boom” at the moment, which is typically characterised by moderate overinvestment and some outstanding materials (such as graphene) emerging as front-runners in the applications gold rush. It is these applications that will bring out the real value of the raw materials. There are many applications, or even areas of applications, however, that have not yet been discovered. It is therefore appropriate to christen 2010–2020 as the “great beginning” of nanotechnology, even though the whole field is nearly 30 years in the making.

Investors are now looking for the next “big idea”. In many cases, they are ambivalent as to whether it will be a nano-enabled application or not. The key criterion for them is that the application must be unique and be high in demand (or at least believed to be high in demand in the future). Some analysts say that, in such environments, an investment into know-how, rather than equipment, results in the best returns. This is the reason why there has been a growth in the nanotechnology services industries, such as consultancies, R&D houses and legal practices, in recent years. This also indicates that a shift is underway from expertise that had solely existed within academic circles towards these service sectors.

It would irresponsible to talk about the benefits of nanotechnology without mentioning the potential drawbacks. From the onset of the development of nanotechnology, significant questions have been raised about the risks associated with some nanomaterials in some applications. The original assumption was that nanomaterials are fundamentally different from their large-scale cousins, which had been used for many years. This notion is still applied to some nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, quantum dots and graphene. The current level of understanding of the effects of nanomaterials is reaching a point of clarity. There is a wealth of data out there on the toxicological and other effects of nanomaterials that  (by-and-large) has been developed and published by large-scale government-sponsored projects. With this clarity comes the responsibility for developing appropriate regulations. From 2013 until now, regulations have generally been tightened for nanomaterials. While this may sound like a negative development for industry, it is actually the opposite. Good and clear regulations and safety guidelines lead to both less risk for consumers and more certainty for investors. Regulations are, however, still under development, which makes for a mildly uncertain short-term future for industry.

Aside from regulatory frameworks, there has been a great deal of effort internationally in standardising the terminology, characterisation methods, safety protocols, material specifications and even applications of nanotechnology themselves. As intimated earlier, four main international standardisation committees responsible for developing consensus-driven international standards have already produced a large number of standards and guidance documents with many more under development. These standards enable informed choices to be made about nanomaterials that are being supplied and help ensure the safe use and manipulation of these materials in the work place. Some countries, especially those in the Middle East and Far East, are already implementing national nano-related certification schemes; to date, there are five active schemes, with a few more currently in development. These developments build upon the positive perception of nanotechnology in these regions, and they are an indicator of the structured approach that is forming with regards to nanotechnology commercialisation. This is also linked to significant approaches being made at funding innovation at a large-scale. As such, never before has there been a better time to commercialise nanotechnology ideas—the question is, who will have the next grand idea, and who will be the first to take it to market?



About BREC Solutions

BREC Solutions Limited is one of the leading consultancies in nanotechnology innovation. We operate as a network of experts from all over the world covering all possible sectors impacted by nanotechnology. We offer services in research and development, information tracking, technology scouting, standardisation, and regulation briefings. Our network covers nanotechnology sectors such as environmental sciences, food, pharmaceuticals, energy, and composites.  We have a unique specialisation in nanotechnology standardisation where we monitor all nanotechnology standards, contribute to some and draft a few selected documents at ISO, IEC and CEN standardisation committees working on terminology, characterisation, material specifications and applications. BREC Solutions regularly undertakes economic, regulatory and technology analysis of regional markets and sectors.

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