Nano gets bigger

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Nanotechnology is here and now. Paul Fanning talks to Dr Martin Kemp, who is seeking to help the technology make the leap into the industrial lexicon.

What does' nanotechnology' mean to you? For some, it may still be a word associated solely with science labs. To others, it may be a concept that is vaguely understood, but not considered of any great relevance to their day-to-day working lives. For a few, however, it may be an area of exciting design possibilities.

Bringing these groups closer together is the work of the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network, which seeks to build a supply chain for the technology, securing applications for this technology in the 'real world' of engineering. As Theme Manager- Engineering, energy & environment for the NanoKTN, Dr Martin Kemp has specific responsibility for this and it is a subject on which he is evangelical. "Nanotechnology to my mind is an industrial revolution," he says.

One of the factors to which Dr Kemp points in this field is that nanotechnology is already playing a significant part in our daily lives – albeit largely unbeknownst to us. "The number of end user applications is increasing every day," he says. "And many of those you're already using at home and you don't know it. The obvious one is sunscreen. You can buy a SPF 30 or 40 sunscreen and now, and instead of being white because it's made up of large particles, it's clear. You get the same UV protection and the aesthetic benefit of not having white arms. And if you look at that functionality of what you're achieving versus the cost of realising it, most people look at the higher added benefits initially, so if you're getting a major benefit then that's the one to target first."

Nonetheless, Kemp is acutely aware of the knowledge gap in this area. Some of this he puts down to a fundamental failure to grasp the possibilities, saying: "The analogy is when polymers and composites were invented. For people who had previously just used metal and wood to understand what those new materials could do for them took decades… There has to be a creative step taken by the end users. Materials producers can produce anything you ask for, but you have to ask. That requires a creative leap. And if you don't know what to ask for, you have a circular conversation of 'What have you got?' 'What do you want?' etc. It's breaking that circle that's the problem – and that's where we come in."

He continues: "All emerging technologies start with a technology push – ie lots of clever ideas. The big key is connecting up the market and the end users. Our job is to do that and develop a culture of 'market pull'. So we want the end user to start defining the agenda and sourcing the materials. That's quite a complex process, which is why we have workshops like this. We have various mechanisms to help broker those conversations."

One of the major issues that has had to be overcome with regard to nanotechnology, Kemp believes, is a shortage of definitive design data on nanomaterials that will provide engineers with the confidence to specify them. This is now being overcome, but companies' unwillingness to share their data remains a problem. Says Kemp: "One of the big barriers at first was that people would say 'OK, that sounds great, but where's the design data?' And the trouble is that the design data we've developed up to now has taken 20-30 years to develop in a database. And you need to basically do that all over again with any new nano-additive or nano-material. We're starting that process. The larger companies have their own databases, but that information is their own data and they won't release that. So one issue is normally you have to develop one product and test it to get the design data."

While many companies retain proprietary information about nanotechnology that they are not prepared to share, this does not mean that the technology is hard to access. Now, however, with companies of the size of Bayer having opened its 200t per year manufacturing plant for carbon nanotubes, nanomaterials have become commoditised. However, says Kemp: "There will be commodity products that are very obvious. So thermoplastic with a nano filler that has a 10% Modulus increase. And you can just go and buy that and you know the properties… But you're not going to see every possible nanoparticle commoditised. You can buy things like zinc oxide, carbon nanotubes and whiskers – certain materials producers have commoditised those products and they can be used in your own products, but there has to be a creative leap from the end users."

According to Kemp, the UK is now very strong in the ability to develop, prototype and test materials. The MNT (Molecular Nanotechnology) initiative network of facilities funded by the government in 2003 was a major factor in creating this network. He says: "Most universities now have nanotechnology facilities now and they're very much geared up to helping people with material specification and they will help to guide you in tieing down the specification.

"We're trying to speed that process up and there are many companies who can help you to achieve your material once the specification has been developed. Now, the slight uncertainty is that you want a customised material. So you need to develop a number of variants and test them in some way. But the message is that there are people who can help you with all those processes."

Following a career in materials science research at DERA during which he was awarded the Donald Julius Groen prize from ImechE, Martin Kemp moved into corporate marketing for QinetiQ, including a secondment to the European Commission, before spending five years with DTI Global Watch Service developing international technology transfer in the high performance engineering sector responsible for Western Europe. As a Chartered Marketer, he has 12 years experience in technology transfer including commercial exploitation of IP.

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