Diversity of application has been central to nanotechnology -is accessibility the next significant step-change?

Nano copper dispersion
Nano copper dispersion

  • In July 2020, Promethean Particles won an Institute of Physics Business Innovation Award for solving a key fluid-mechanics problem enabling the use of supercritical fluids for the large-scale production of nanoparticles.

  • This breakthrough supports the development of a unique manufacturing process that enhances the scalability, safety, and sustainability of nanomaterials, whilst reducing supply-chain waste and cost.
  • Dr. Selina Ambrose, technical manager at the company, leads a team of research scientists and manages Promethean’s research-and-development projects.
  • Because of her work, Business Insider named Dr. Ambrose to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming manufacturing in Europe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

The commercial design, engineering, and manufacturing industries thrive on innovation. When process efficiency and sustainability remain core to business success and the bottom line is at stake, no business can afford to fall behind its competitors. 

One of the most rapidly accelerating solutions of contemporary industry has been nanoparticle technology. While the technology has been used in scientific laboratories for a long time, nanotechnology is surging in commercial application as the capabilities become better understood and more effectively communicated.

While at first glance, nanotechnology may seem an imposing term for those that might be unfamiliar with it, it describes a deceptively simple concept. By manufacturing and manipulating materials and devices on an atomic scale, with a dimension of 100 billionths of a meter or less, the physical and chemical properties of materials can be fundamentally changed. In turn, changing how materials behave in certain conditions unlocks new possibilities for application and innovation. 

The technology has more than proved its potential in applications such as inks and pigments, printed electronics and functional coatings to name just a few. In terms of industries, they are finding diverse use in textiles, healthcare, energy, food, retail, and construction. The opportunities are clear; however, innovation cannot exist in isolation. If the technology can’t offer the economy of scale that brands and manufacturers need, there will remain a question mark over nanotechnology as a tool for commercial success in the longer term.

The sheer depth of application has been a core driving force for the growth of nanoparticle technology – could accessibility be the next significant development? 

At Promethean Particles, we want to change the narrative around nanotechnology. At present, brands and manufacturers see nanotechnology as a commercial advantage, but don’t explore the application further because the scalability of production isn’t there. Nanoparticles are created in too small a quantity to add long-term value and present challenges in terms of reliability and consistency in large-scale supply.

Promethean Plant
Promethean Plant

Most nanomaterial manufacturers use batch processes that are either not scalable or can only be scaled with significant monetary investment, leading to extremely high pricing of the resulting materials. This then makes it less economical to implement the technology.

The challenge of cost varies greatly between markets or sectors, mainly because some are more niche and able to tolerate higher prices, if the technical benefits are present. In others, where chemical additives are more commodity-style goods, for example paints and pigments, the cost is the bottom line which dictates if nanotechnology can be adopted.

At Promethean, we are setting a new benchmark in nanoparticle manufacturing – by delivering competitive advantage for our customers. We can address the challenge of scalability through our patented continuous-flow production process, which enables nanomaterial manufacturing to be scaled up without the usual surge in operating costs.

Importantly, the process does not affect material performance or quality. By achieving economies of scale in production, we can support the commercial viability of product innovation. Ultimately, the unique manufacturing configuration at Promethean challenges the idea that nanotechnology is not accessible. This new way of producing materials has boosted supply availability and, in doing so, unlocked nanoparticle potential for an even more varied group of sectors.

Bridging the gap between nanomaterials considered as a novel, small scale idea for manufacturers, to an industrially viable innovation is core to the Promethean vision. As part of this, we recognise that manufacturers will want to incorporate the technology into existing processes to mitigate risk and cost. We provide feasibility studies and take a flexible approach to understand specific customer needs and requirements, so that we can offer a bespoke and tailored solution for any one application. When it comes to nanoparticles, it very much isn’t the case that one size fits all!

Recently, Promethean collaborated with a speciality ingredients manufacturer to improve process efficiency and health and safety in operations. The company used a batch process to manufacture a pigment but the chemical reaction to generate the pigment released heat. This led to complexities in process control and health and safety challenges, resulting in material losses and downtime, increased costs and unreliable supply.

Working closely with the customer to understand the required pigment specification and establish an alternative manufacturing process, the Promethean team was able to utilize the continuous flow manufacturing process to enable a more controlled, safe chemical reaction. The result was a pigment that displayed the same colour and stability characteristics as the benchmark material. 

Meanwhile, during the past year, Promethean has been able to demonstrate its ability to adapt its processes to suit different applications. We have traditionally developed nano-copper particles for the printed electronics market, due to the conductive properties of copper. Yet, copper is also well known for its antimicrobial properties. Working with UK and Mexican textile companies and research institutes, we have developed nano-copper for use in fabrics and Personal Protective Equipment for the healthcare sector, to deliver antimicrobial and anti-viral properties. There is also scope to further develop these nano-copper materials for use in coating applications, such as for healthcare surfaces and touchscreen devices.

At Promethean, we are creating a more accessible platform for nanotechnology for businesses of all sizes, operating in a wide variety of industries from the niche to the mainstream. It is evident that manufacturing supply chains are under increased pressure to perform in increasingly volatile and complex markets. Innovation and efficiency have never been more critical. These needs can, not only be supported with, but driven by, nanotechnology enabling businesses to improve production performance and succeed commercially.

Read the original article on Business Insider