Commercialization of Nano-additives — Labs to Market

Published on 27 Jul, 2017

Through the application of nanotechnology, existing products such as fuel, cement, or food can be manipulated on an atomic, molecular, or supramolecular scale by means of nano-additives/nano-fillers so as to enhance their physical or chemical properties. 

Based on the application, the manipulation can enhance the properties of the material, improving its strength for example, making it lighter, perhaps even boosting its electrical conductivity. Graphene, Carbon Nanotubes (CNT), and quantum dots are some examples of nano-additives that can be used to such ends.

Nano-additives generally fall in the size range of 1 and 100 nanometres, and are generally synthesized from inorganic materials. Due to their nano-size and minimal loading requirement, nano-additives are eclipsing conventional fillers in today’s industries.

The quantity and type of nano-additive used varies significantly depending on the end application area. Titanium dioxide, for instance, is commonly used in the food industry, while cerium oxide finds a majority of applications as a fuel additive. Carbon nanotubes have a wide range of applications that include electronic components, sports goods, vehicles, rubber, and so on. In the textile industry, nano-silver particles are being used to create antimicrobial fabrics. Apart from these, nano-additives are also useful in other industries such as construction, biomedical, paints/coatings, and so on.  Given its current scope and ongoing R&D, nanotechnology will likely touch every aspect of life, perhaps even as soon as the end of this decade.

Here are some key players that are looking into nano-additives and their possible applications:

  • Reade Advanced Materials – Specializing in toll processing and toll packaging services, this company also researches specialty chemicals that include nano-additives such as carbon nanotubes, carbon fiber, carbon black, ceramic, and so on, which could have future applications in electronic displays, batteries, supercapacitors, and many more.
  • AkzoNobel – This chemical firm provides performance additives used to optimize materials for coatings/paints. Some of their nano-additives based products include nano colloidal silica and resin reinforced with silica nanoparticles.
  • DuPont – This leading chemical company offers various additives and modifiers useful for agricultural, biotechnology, and the food industry. Some of the offerings, such as TiO2-based nano-additives, are also useful in the packaging industry.
  • 3M – A multinational conglomerate, this company is looking into nano-additives that have applications across a number of sectors such as dental, automotive, electronics, food, and so on.
  • Henkel – Henkel provides nano-ceramics as an additive used in the surface treatment process for metals. Henkel has also recently developed a conductive ink using silver nanowires, useful in the electronics domain.
  • Toyota Central R&D Labs Inc – This group is looking into materials with applications in the automotive industry. Toyota Central R&D Labs have several innovations to boast of, including novel carbon nanotubes with high thermal conductivity as well as electrical insulation that forms polymer composites with less than 1% of CNT loading.
  • Nanostructured & Amorphous Materials Inc (Nanoamor) – A relatively younger company than the others in this list, it is a leading nanomaterial supplier involved in R&D as well as manufacturing of nano-additives such as carbon nanotubes, nanofibers, graphene, graphene oxides, and so on, which find applications in batteries, conductive plastics, and conductive coatings.

Types and Structure of Nano-Additives

Nano-additives are classified based on their physical structure. Basis the physical structure, there are three main types of nano-additives:

  • Nanoparticles Nano-additives of this type, such as carbon black, silica, and quantum dots, have all three dimensions which fall in the nano scale range.

    There has been growing interest in gold nanoparticles that can be used in drug delivery systems for the treatment of cancer. This is mainly due to its biocompatibility and unique physical and chemical properties.
  • Rod-like Structures This kind of nano-additive has at least two dimensions that fall in the nano scale range. Carbon nanotubes, metallic nanorods, and whiskers are some of the rod-like structures which are commonly used for various application areas.

    Carbon nanotubes have gained tremendous popularity amongst researchers recently. CNTs are rolled-up sheets of graphene which are usually cylindrical in structure, and which further have hexagonal graphite molecules attached at its edges. CNTs exhibit strong thermal and electrical properties, making them viable as electronic chips.
  • Plate-like Structures This kind of nano-additive has only one dimension that falls in the nano scale range, while the other dimensions could be in the range of several hundred nanometres to microns. A popular example of this class is Montmorillonites (MMT). After the successful synthesis of graphene from graphite, graphene has started to receive significant research attention recently.

Although all types of nano-additives strengthen the targeted material, the alignment of nano-additives could cause anisotropy. As far as processing is concerned, carbon nanotubes are easier to align due to their rod-like structure. They are also relatively cost-effective as compared to grapheme, increasing the likelihood of CNT based composites replacing carbon fibre.


Applications of Nano-Additives & Hindrances for its Commercialization

Nano additives have garnered significant interest, both in terms of research as well as practical applications, in several areas of industry.

Commercialization of Nano-additives

There are, however, some limits to the use and commercialization of nano-additives in those industries.


Plastics

There are two predominant applications of nanoparticles in the plastics industry — enhancements and lowering costs.

Nanoparticles have the ability to enhance plastic’s physical properties such as water repellence, impact resistance, making it electrically conductive, preventing bacterial growth on the material’s surface, as well as making surfaces easier to clean or more visually enhanced. They can also go a long way in lowering the cost of plastic articles, usually because additives are cheaper than the primary binders conventionally used in manufacturing. Some examples of nano-additives used for these purposes are carbon black, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, nano silica, calcium carbonate, aluminium oxide, and iron.

Graphene is a promising nano-additive for the plastics industry at the moment, performing well in lab tests thus far. The aircraft sector, for instance, is looking at graphene as an additive to enable the creation of a polymer composite matrix with higher compressive strength, temperature resistance, reduced moisture uptake. There’s also the added advantage of mitigating damage caused due to lightning strikes, as the addition of graphene makes a structure electrically conductive.

Companies’ introduction of bioplastic articles, instead of traditional petroplastic products, would be an extremely positive step toward environmental responsibility as well, as petroplastics accumulate and degrade the environment. With rapid growth and research in the field of nanotechnology, bioplastics have also incorporated nano-technology to become cost-effective enough to withstand competition from petroplastics.

Bioplastics fall short of petroplastic in terms of mechanical properties such as barrier properties however, and research is underway to develop nano-additives that can overcome this challenge. Currently, among the various silicates available, sepiolite is one of the most suitable nano-additives for bioplastics, as it provides dimensional stability and mechanical strength along with increased barrier properties against gases. Ceraplast, a US organisation, has recently commercialised many bioplastic as well biodegradable products (straws, plates, cups) using nanoparticles of silica and magnesium silicate.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: The issue with using nano-additives in plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is that there are chances of them clumping together to form large, capsule-like structures, thus rendering them ‘non-nano dimensional’ additives. This non-uniformity of additive distribution would be the key focus of further research, to avoid a negative impact on end products.

Regulatory: Due to certain health risks linked to some nano materials (carbon black, TiO2), the disposal of bioplastic could be a problem when products are composted as such nanomaterials could cause harmful reactions when exposed to certain environmental factors. This would, invariably, be a huge regulatory hurdle. The European Commission, for instance, recommends a case-by-case approach for nanomaterial hazard identification. We believe more research and experience would thus be necessary, which could delay overall product commercialisation procedures.


Rubber

To make rubber electrically and thermally conductive, a very little amount of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes (SWCNT) loading is required, which further enhances mechanical properties. The adaptation of SWCNT, however, is a bit slow — a matter of concern due to its high cost and complex processing when compared to multiwalled carbon nanotubes. OCSiAl, the Russian company pioneering this technology, has developed SWCNT additives that can be added in concentrations starting from as low as 0.01%, with a price 75 times lower than that of its closest analogues, thus creating amazing possibilities for a range of applications such as gaskets, tyres, enclosures for electronic components, and so on.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: Though companies are developing nano-additives for rubber, there are problems associated with addition of nanomaterials like CNT into polymer matrix of rubber and its adhesion therein, mainly because of high aspect ratio of CNT and high viscosity of rubber.


Construction

Various nano materials including CNT, nano silica and nano TiO2 are useful in the construction industry (as well as paints and coatings) for the development and maintenance of structures, providing mechanical durability, crack prevention, as well as curtailing the growth of germs and contaminants. Other than making structures stronger, scientists are looking for solutions utilizing nanotechnology to reduce the time required by cement to harden as well.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: The size of nanomaterials is a problem not only for biomedical applications, but also in construction. These nanomaterials are airborne and waterborne, making them a risk to human health in case of overexposure.


Food

In the food industry, nanotechnology helps control how food looks, tastes, and even how long it lasts. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is the predominant nano-additive in the food sector. The packaging of the food also involves the use of nanotechnology. Phyllosilicates, polyolefin based nano-additives are currently used to make oxygen scavenging food packages. Some more techniques/applications also include using polypropylene and polyethylene barriers to inhibit moisture in the package, coating the food package with nano silver particles in order to make them antimicrobial, and embedding silicon-based nanoparticles into the package to detect pathogens.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: A significant concern while using nanotechnology in the food sector is that the nanomaterials used in packaging could be transmitted to the food, affecting food quality and shelf life. The risk of using nanomaterials in food is hard to quantify at this time as well, as the research in this area isn’t extensive. While some initial studies uncovered health risks, this wasn’t the case for all nanomaterials looked into.

Regulatory: As per a very recent update, titanium dioxide, the most commonly used additive, is under review after it was linked to elevated risks of cancer. Its use is expected to be curbed due to stringent regulations by various regulatory bodies.


Biomedical

In the biomedical field, nanomaterials are being used in both, diagnostics as well as in treatments. For example, Rice University and Nanospectra Biosciences are together developing a new therapy using a combination of gold nanoshells and lasers to destroy cancer tumors with heat, while keeping damage to adjacent healthy tissues minimal. Diagnostics is also shaping up rapidly with the use of nano-devices that can travel through the body and collect data. Apart from these devices, quantum dots and carbon nanotubes are also being looked into as vectors to carry this diagnostic data to central processing systems.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: While the size of nano additives is an advantage, the same feature makes these materials cytotoxic.

Regulatory: Nanotechnology presents some huge challenges from a regulatory perspective, simply because current regulatory models weren’t designed to govern revolutionary technologies like these.


Oil Industry

Nano-additives are added to fuel in order to reduce emissions from engines, inhibit friction, and general wear and tear of automotive parts. The major nano-additives used to improve fuel and oil properties include cerium oxide, zinc oxide, carbon, cobalt, titanium, and graphene. An addition of cerium oxide in blends of biodiesel and diesel is a key area of research in this sector, an application that helps to improve the combustion of the fuel significantly, thereby reducing emissions.

Hindrance for Growth

Technical: The effects of nano-additive on friction, lubrication, and wear of engine is poorly understood because it is hard to quantify these effects in the long-term, posing challenges for product development as well as commercialization in a timely manner.


Other Applications

In the electronics industry, additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing and inkjet printing are gaining traction to make sensors and other components, as they reduce the wastage of material. Conductive inks are used in these cases, and they are mainly formed using silver nano-additives. Apart from this, CNT and grapheme also have scope to be used in semiconductor chips, replacing silicon due to their better electrical conductivity and electron flow rate, as well as the miniaturization of chips where silicon has reached its minimum size limit.

In the textiles industry, CNT, nanoparticles of silica, TiO2, ZnO, silver are added with fabric material for enhanced antibacterial properties, odour control, UV protection, water and oil repellence, wrinkle resistance, and strength enhancements

Nano-additives also have a host of applications in coatings for metal surface treatment, lightweight automotive parts, and personal care products such as sunscreens.

Apart from application-specific issues, there are several other hindrances. Scalable production is also a challenge for the commercialization of nanomaterials, as they’re made of scarce resources and are manufactured by slow or complex processes, all of which impact the cost significantly. Given that the average gap between research, completion, and commercialization of a nanotechnology product is anywhere between three to five years, firms face challenges in obtaining funding for sufficient R&D. Another concern will be to reduce carbon emissions while manufacturing these nanomaterial-based products so as to make them climate-neutral and recyclable.


Conclusion

Based on size and compatibility, all three types of nano-additives have a different and wide range of applications. Researchers are also looking into innovative application areas where nano-additives can be used, giving us an inkling of the tremendous growth this sector could see in the future. There are, however, certain obstacles that need to be tackled by leading research firms, both regulatory and financial. After regulatory clearances and the successful adaptation of nanotechnology however, securing finance for further research and development shouldn’t be a problem, possibly even cutting down production costs in future generations. The nano-additives market could be a multi-billion industry over the next decade.




This post first appeared on SpecialChem.com.



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