Is the UK economy creating value from new developments in Nanotechnology?

Posted on: 05/11/2016

Is the UK economy creating value from new developments in Nanotechnology?

In the world we live in, there is hardly any area of human endeavour that is not impacted in some form or another by nanotechnology…

Driving markets worth billions of pounds a year, nanotechnology provides answers and solutions to pressing global issues that affect us all, issues such as energy production, the drain on natural resources, climate change, food production, healthcare and beyond. Today, in the world we live in, there is hardly any area of human endeavour that is not impacted in some form or another by nanotechnology. Spearheading what is to become the 4thIndustrial Revolution, nanotechnology typifies how a fast growing innovative technology can drastically change the face of industry by facilitating and enabling swifter and more adaptable industrial processes.

However, one may question if UK economy is benefiting from its world leading nanotechnology R&D. Are our universities and research centres working effectively with UK businesses to commercialise new nanotechnology developments?

Last year, on the 2nd and 3rd November, KTN held one of its flagship events, the HiPerNano 2015 conference and exhibitions. The event aimed at bringing together both users and developers of nanotechnology for a series of discussions, debates and presentations covering the needs, trends, challenges and recent developments taking place in the nanotechnology R&D world. Featuring over 20 high profile speakers and attended by more than 70 delegates, representing, in total, 49 SMEs, large corporations and research and public organisations, the event was an unmitigated success.


Of the very interesting, and more importantly, useful information during the course of this 2-day event, the following can be highlighted:


UK industry is committed to advancing graphene innovation and commercialisation
Graphene crystalline form of carbon, in which a single layer of carbon atoms is arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern, was discovered in the UK. It is the thinnest known material in the universe and the strongest ever measured. It is also an extremely efficient electrical conductor capable of sustaining at room temperature current densities six orders of magnitude higher than that of copper. Furthermore, it has the best thermal conductivity of any material known to man and is the most impermeable. However, up-scaling graphene production does pose a number of challenges. Principal among these is how to maintain and prevent deterioration of material properties in large quantities of graphene. This major issue is presently restricting application and commercialisation of this “wonder material”.

Also worthy of note is the fact that the UK Government decided to invest £50m in order to build up national capability to support the commercialisation of applications for graphene, a pledge made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in October 2011. Industry, too, has displayed great interest in and commitment to accelerating innovation in this specific field with view to commercialisation, as exemplified by Cambridge Nanosystems and Zap&GO, two companies that took part and presented at the HiperNano 2015 conference.
Catharina Parker, head scientist at Cambridge Nanosytems, a start-up that branched out from Cambridge University, spoke about her company and what it does. Cambridge Nanosystems specialises in volume production of graphene materials from plasma cracking of natural gas or bio waste. The company has just recently opened up new facilities, which has significantly increased production capacity to 5 tons per year. Today the company is equipped and able to supply graphene powder, as well as graphene dispersed in solvents, polymers and resins. The dispersion and mixing process developed by Cambridge Nanosystems allows for control of aggregation, homogeneity, stability and concentration, and ultimately, the properties of the resulting material.

Founded in 2013, Zapgocharger Ltd has set out to develop and market a new charger based on a graphene composite supercapacitor. According to the company, this technology will enable fast charging of devices (aimed to fully charge a mobile phone in 5 minutes), have them hold their charge for days, namely 100,000 charge/discharge cycles, all of which achieved whilst employing low cost materials, thereby making the product affordable to the end user. Their very first prototype of a charger with these specific features was presented at the exhibition held as part of HiPerNano2015.


Advances in nanotechnology are enabling more resistant surfaces from usage and the environment

Nanocoatings, i.e. nanostructured or nanoscale thick coatings, are a good example of how nanotechnology can advance existing surface engineering. As the interface between the product and the environment, nanocoatings are utilized by different industrial sectors for aesthetic purposes and to provide surfaces with useful properties, such as anti-corrosion, self-cleaning, chemical and scratch resistance. The nanocoatings market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 24.68% between 2014 and 2019, when it is expected to reach the $14,219.05 million mark. In 2010, revenues from anti-microbial, easy- and self-cleaning nanocoatings were US$764 million, hard proof of the potential for growth in this particular field.
Nanocoatings play a significant role in the energy sector. According to Sheetal Hand, Research Programme Manager at BP-ICAM, in oil and gas applications nanocoatings have to perform in very demanding environments, as is the case with subsea extraction, where temperatures range from 4°C to > 100°C and pressures up to 20k psi. Yet a more comprehensive understanding of surface interaction with the environment is urgently required to better predict corrosion processes and improve protective coatings. An example of nanotechnology for protective coatings was presented by Yuri Zhuk, from Hardide. This Oxfordshire-based SME has developed a nanostructure carbide and tungsten–based composite able to coat surfaces and efficiently protect them from wear erosion and chemical attacks. Examples of applications include turbine blades and pump components for oil and gas and power generation plants.
Protective coatings are also of great interest in the building industry. Future opportunities lie, in particular, in the development of scratch resistant, self-cleaning and antimicrobial glass surface coatings, as stated by Su Varma from NGS Pilkington.

Sol-gel coatings were presented by a startup company called Sol Gel Tech, which specializes in sol gel technology. The company has recently developed a coating that is able to restore colour and partially remove scratches on wood and glass surfaces. Silica particle-based, the technology is also considered super hydrophobic, and is being subjected to further development for self-cleaning and anti-stain applications.

Protective coatings also have a key role to play in preserving our heritage. Richard Ball, a senior lecturer from the University of Bath, presented his research on nanolime for the conservation of stone buildings that have been exposed to pollution. His research has demonstrated a significant improvement in the preservation of the bath stone microstructure when treated with nanolime-based coatings, which have been tested under SO2exposure.


Nanotechnologies can create innovative building concepts for better and sustainable living
Buildings are thought to be responsible for as much as half of all energy consumption and for more than 50 % of global emissions. They are also seen to consume up to 40% of all electrical energy produced worldwide. Hence, there is an urgent need to change over from more conventional to high-tech and high-performance applications in buildings, but this will only be possible through innovation in structural materials and insulation, as well as air purification and renewable energy technologies.

According to Su Varma, from NSG Pilkington, nanotechnology also offers significant market potential for glass industry in the field of solar energy generation. The reflection of the sun’s rays from the glass covers of photovoltaic modules causes up to 4% of the energy to be lost. He went on to explain how all current solar technologies use glass as an integral part of the solar cell, or as the back support. NSG Pilkington have developed and brought to market a range of products in Transparent Conductive Oxide (TCO) coated glass for thin film photovoltaics.

Moreover, nanomaterials can be instrumental in improving air quality. They may help reduce, or even eliminate odours and contaminant materials from interior and exterior wall panels in building. The photocatalytic properties of nanoparticles, such as Co-TiO2, make them very attractive for use as surface coatings in order to improve indoor air quality, as was explained by Dr Richard Ball from the University of Bath.

In conclusion, HiPerNano 2015 conference showcased UK businesses, which are successfully commercialising nanotechnology, in sectors like energy, transport, consumer goods and built environment. The conference demonstrated how close collaborations between academics, SMEs and corporations can significantly contribute to accelerate commercialisation of nanotechnology-based products. Notwithstanding, startups and SMEs, require significant support to access financing, supply chain and new markets.


Dr Tatiana Correia – Knowledge Transfer Manager, Nanotechnology


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