Workshop sets stage for DOE’s nanotech future

A June workshop hosted by the Department of Energy (DOE) aimed to set industry-driven R&D priorities that will yield significant energy savings in manufacturing and product use.

The workshop produced recommendations for applied research, development, deployment, and business practices that the DOE will incorporate into a Nanomanufacturing for Energy Efficiency Roadmap. The road map, in turn, will help set DOE funding priorities and guide industrial R&D.

The event drew researchers and executives from large corporations (Air Products, DuPont, GE, Boeing, PPG, Intel, Dow), smaller nanotech innovators (SDC Materials, Nantero, Nanosolar, Aspen Aerogels), universities, and national labs; Veeco represented tool and equipment providers on the conference agenda.

The meeting explored the use of nanotechnologies to reduce our need for traditional energy sources in manufacturing, transportation, lighting, cooling/heating, and other applications-and how to leverage nano to maximize energy storage, transmission, and production.

Productive honesty

I was struck by the honesty of the first day’s speakers and panelists, many of whom expressed frustration over slow technology adoption. That set the stage for open, productive dialog the next day.

Although this conference centered on energy, many recurring issues were specific to nanotechnology and not to the energy industry. This confirms-for those who wonder about the value of scale-focused versus application-focused discussion-the opportunity to make advances across many verticals by addressing a common set of “small tech” issues.

According to one speaker, 80% of U.S. government funding for nanotechnology goes to basic science research while 20% goes to applied research-a contrast to more applied-research funding in Europe and Asia. This begs the question, “Will the difference help U.S. industry in the long run by ensuring a greater pool of knowledge, or is there a need to invest more into shorter-term applications?”

Warning: Don’t avoid EH&S

If the nanotech ecosystem wants to bury its head in the sand regarding environment, health, and safety (EH&S) issues, this workshop did a good job of tugging at its tail feathers. The large corporate representatives stated clearly that they are holding back nanotechnology implementation because of unknown toxicity and an unclear regulatory future-but did not address what specific actions need to occur before they proceed.

Unfortunately, the subject of EH&S was taken off the discussion table in the nanomaterials breakout the next day. The issue is too large and not within the DOE purview. But clearly, if nanotechnology is going to play a role in solving energy efficiency and production needs, everyone with a vested interest should help produce a solution.

Scaling and reliability

Besides the open questions surrounding EH&S, the group pegged scaling and reliability as the biggest challenges to nanomaterials market adoption. OEMs need steady supply, consistent quality (including both different suppliers and among batches from the same supplier), and cost reductions.

Steady supply is difficult as many nanomaterials companies are young and not on firm financial ground-and acceptable secondary suppliers are hard to come by because of intellectual property protections and major differences in the delivered product.

Regarding consistency, the smallest of variations can change application performance-and that feeds into characterization issues. What standards should be applied, what are the best methods for testing, and what tools can provide reliable measurements both inline and for quality control? Having more characterization companies in the breakout would have helped to answer these questions.

Scaling volume for cost reduction requires capital investment, but nanomaterials companies cannot easily build for production capacity without signed orders. Also, current production techniques typically require adding same-size manufacturing units rather than larger production equipment-which diminishes a company’s ability to reduce capital costs and pass savings to customers.

There are still many hurdles to overcome to get advanced nanomaterials into the mass market. Workshops and conferences that can define key challenges and set goals to overcome them will help speed commercialization for the entire sector. But these efforts won’t progress without your participation. Play your part!

Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at pattig@pennwell.com.

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