Nanotechnology in the Chemical Industry

Nanotechnology and the chemical industry go hand in hand, as many areas of nanotechnology work because of the fundamental chemical principles (and interactions) that underlie many nanotechnology mechanisms and phenomena.

The chemical industry produces a wide range of functional nanoparticles. These nanoparticles can be found in a wide range of products from paints, to everyday household formulations and additive mixtures for automobiles. That being said, the term ‘chemical industry’ is broad, and companies that fall within this category can also produce products ranging from smart electronics to food products.

Many polymers are created within the chemical industry, but they still fall under the jurisdiction of nanotechnology – especially when many products are often tweaked at the nanoscale, even if the material itself is not considered a ‘nanomaterial’. Companies like DuPont have created many well-known polymers such as Kevlar® and Teflon®, both of which have some influence from nanotechnology.

One formulation that is influenced by nanotechnology is sunscreen. Companies such as Oxonica have teamed up with Croda to create sunscreen protection formulations that bridge the interface of nanotechnology and the chemical industry using UV absorber materials.

Catalysis is used throughout the chemical industry to speed up processing and reaction times, and nanoscale catalyst and catalytic surfaces have provided huge benefits to many areas of the chemical industry in recent years. Creating new and efficient catalysts takes a lot of work and any new developments are often realised through industry-university collaborations, such as the relationship between BASF and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) that has created new heterogenous catalysts for the chemical industry.

BASF have also been a world leader in the chemical industry for many a year, and some of their finished products have taken inspiration from nanoscale processes that occur in nature. A classic example of this is the Lotus Spray. The Lotus spray is based off the leaf of the Lotus plant because the surface of the leaf possesses a superhydrophobic surface that completely repels water. The Lotus spray has since become a leading water-repellent spray and can be used on many different surfaces.

Onto the area of processing. It’s no secret that the various processing procedures in the chemical industry are at the heart of creating the products that we buy. Nanotechnology has infiltrated this area of the chemical industry in the form of membranes. Whilst you may not see this in action in the products directly, various nanoscale membranes have been created for use in carbon capture technologies that produce greener processes, in the desalination and purification of water, and for the purification and production of chlor-alkali chemicals.

One future technology in the chemical industry could involve selective separations using metal organic frameworks (MOFs). MOFs have been developed in academic laboratories for a long time and the commercialisation potential is only just being realised. However, should this technology become more commercially available, it could have huge implications in the petrochemical industry for the selective sorting of alkanes, and the removal of branched alkanes from alkane mixtures.


Written by Liam Critchley

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