The nanomanufacturing revolution: What’s the holdup?

The wait isn’t over for transition from exciting research to commercial product

BY SARAH FISTER GALE

Great strides have been made in nanotech research across multiple industries. From biotech innovation to pharmaceutical applications to textile and electronics advancements, the potential these new discoveries offer is awesome-but so is the challenge of how to transition them from promising new research to commercial products. Although there are already a few commercial applications for nanomaterials, the intellectual and concrete building blocks required to support these emerging industries at a market scale is still years away.

“Nano research is coming into the mainstream, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” says Terry Wilkins, CEO of the Nanomanufacturing Institute at the University of Leeds in the U.K. He claims one of the biggest obstacles is integrating interdisciplinary researchers and supporting them with the money and entrepreneurial training they need to bring new products to market. This integration is particularly challenging because so many disciplines are involved, and researchers are, understandably, extremely protective of their intellectual property as they move forward with commercial entities, says Wilkins. “Academics tend to work in silos. We are trying to bring them together to build larger projects that have the potential to evolve into something greater.”

These scientists also need to work with business experts to get their products beyond the lab, says Dr. Mikail Roco, senior advisor to the National Science Foundation, which has earmarked $25 million for nanomanufacturing programs in 2007. “Scientists don’t always understand the business of manufacturing,” he says. “To increase innovation, we need to train people on how to develop governance methodologies and business models.”

Roco is encouraged by university programs that support entrepreneurial training for scientists, and by courses designed to help them develop business plans.

Part of developing those business skills also involves teaching scientists when to cut their losses on a process or technology that doesn’t hold realistic commercial promise, adds Wilkins, who supports the introduction of business management and entrepreneurial training programs for scientists. “Having that mix of entrepreneurial and technical skills will help them achieve commercial success.”

Building a supply chain

Adding to the intellectual challenges of bringing these professionals together to work toward a common commercial cause are the more tangible challenges of financing the development of processes and technology to support the commercial production of new nanotech products, says George Kachan, UMass Lowell, director, research and technology development, nanomanufacturing and biomanufacturing. “We have the technology in the labs, but it takes a lot of money to develop facilities to support commercial production.” A large part of Kachan’s job is promoting collaborations between industry and academia that encourage commercialization. “Collaboration is the best way,” he says.

Concurrent to the development of commercial-scale processes and facilities, the industry must also support the development of a supply chain of equipment and materials providers to accommodate large-scale production goals, adds Julie Chen, co-director of the CHN/NCOE Nanomanufacturing Center at UMass Lowell. “There are so few companies building tools to support commercial scale production because they don’t yet see the market for them,” she says.

The challenge is in showing the equipment manufacturers which tools or processes hold the most promise. “It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. At what point do you have the confidence to invest in a set of processes?” she asks. “It has to come in stages.”


Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation
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Wilkins agrees. “We have to give these companies the confidence that the risk/reward profile will go in their favor,” he says, noting that this requires a radical change in the industry. “We have to find ways to eliminate uncertainties as early as possible to foster their confidence.”

Chen notes that there already is a lot of promising progress underway, particularly in the production of nanomaterials, including carbon nanotubes. “The next stage, however, is more complicated because manufacturers need to decide which processes to support based on which ones have the biggest market potential,” Chen says. “The easiest way is to start small and sell to labs to show proof of concept.”

She predicts that small-scale plug-and-play lab outfits that offer researchers a complete lab-scale setup of an entire processing layout is where equipment manufacturers will find their footing. “We are starting to see this in different fields and it’s a good indication that commercial applications are coming,” says Chen.

Creating more structure in nanotech industries, through international standards and health and safety protocols, will also give researchers a stronger framework within which to measure their achievements and evaluate the scalability of advancements. It will also give equipment and material manufacturers the confidence to invest in them, says Chen.

“A lot of industry members are asking: ‘If we make these nanotech products, what do we need to worry about?’ It’s tough to develop standards in a new area but we at least need to look at issues such as exposure in the manufacturing environment and what we need to do to protect workers.”

Roco notes that work is already underway by the American Society of Testing and Materials and the International Organization for Standardization, but they are far from finished. He hopes to see segments of the industry developing consortia that will develop rules for toxicology, common nomenclature, and road maps for the future.

Placid Ferrier, director of Nano-CEMMS (The Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems) at the University of Illinois, department of mechanical science and engineering, notes the semiconductor industry is a good role model. “They have done an excellent job of scaling down to the nanoscale through the application of strict models, materials processes, and technologies, and they adhere to a tightly defined set of geometries that gives them control over their processes,” says Ferrier. “The question is, can the same success be achieved without strict restrictions on materials and geometries?”

In the meantime, the nearest-term commercial nanomanufacturing opportunities are likely to come from products and applications that don’t require full-scale ramp up of new facilities, but rather small modifications of existing processes or tools that incorporate nano-components (i.e., replacing etching steps in lithography with nanoscale assembly of materials, etc.).

Roco believes that ongoing progress from passive to active nano products will come relatively soon. “The revolutionary products will come after 2010,” he says. “After that we will see a fast pace in nano, and by 2015, we will start to see a lot of commercial prototypes. It will be a very exciting time.”


Prospects on the horizon

Setting all of the nanomanufacturing challenges aside, there are hundreds of projects underway at universities and laboratories across the globe with fascinating potential commercial applications. While we couldn’t possibly name them all, some of the experts we spoke with told us what excites them the most in the near term. Microfluidics, bone replacement applications, and a “cell nanny” top their list.

Replacing bone grafts

Terry Wilkins, CEO of the Nanomanufacturing Institute at the University of Leeds in the U.K., is very excited about the possible applications for the fabrication of Hydroxyapatite nanocrystallite/collagen composites, which is a project currently underway at the Nanomanufacturing Institute. The research team is looking at ways to use Hydroxyapatite nanocrystallite orientation to emulate natural bone from both compositional and structural aspects, for use in medical and clinical applications, such as orthopedics and prostheses.

According to the group’s research Website, traditional bone therapies of autogenous and allogeneic routes are limited by either donor shortage or immuno-rejection and pathogen transfer. Nano-scale hydroxyapatite/collagen composition is an attractive potential alternative due to its larger surface area, high surface reactivity, relative strong interfacial bonding, and enhanced mechanical properties.

Preliminary experiments, such as dental pulp stem cell outgrowth, nano-scale Hap powder synthesis (both Ca and Sr containing), HBMSCs and HDPSCs culture on nano-material film, and 3D nano-scaffolds have been set up or are currently running. For more information, go to www.leeds.ac.uk/nmi/research.html.

A NANI to baby-sit cells

A group of scientists from a multidisciplinary team has made a discovery at the CHN/NCOE Nanomanufacturing Center at UMass Lowell that excites Julie Chen, co-director. Novel Automated Nutrient Incorporation (NANI, pronounced “nanny”) is an automated nutrient delivery system for cell cultures made using pH-sensitive biomaterial with glucose storage capacity. The material can sense when cell cultures are “hungry,” based on their pH levels, and automatically releases glucose to feed them. It was developed by a cross-functional team of five researchers from four disciplines, including chemists Sandy McDonald and Lisa-Jo Clarizia. “What’s key to this is that it is a simple low-cost but elegant solution to a problem,” Chen says, noting that bench scientists in biology and biotech can be trapped in their labs if they have to check cell cultures every three hours. “NANI does the care and feeding for them so they don’t have to baby-sit their cells.”

Electrohydrodynamically induced fluid flows and S4

Placid Ferreira is encouraged by several projects underway at The Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems at the University of Illinois. Topping his list is the ongoing work with high-resolution electrohydrodynamic jet printing, in which the use of electrohydrodynamically induced fluid flows through fine microcapillary nozzles for jet printing of patterns and functional devices with submicrometer resolution has exciting potential.

“It’s not new technology, but as the geometries shrink to 200 to 300nm, it opens new opportunities for nanoscale evolution that could support a number of common applications,” Ferreira says. For instance, in printed electronics it could accommodate high-resolution printed metal interconnects, electrodes, and probing pads for representative circuit patterns and functional transistors with critical dimensions as small as 1μm. “It’s an excellent example of how fluid can be extruded to create new structures.”

He’s also working with a team on a solid-state electrochemical nanoimprint process for direct patterning of metallic nanostructures that uses a patterned solid electrolyte or superionic conductor, such as silver sulfide, as a stamp and etches a metallic film by an electrochemical reaction. “Our preliminary experiments demonstrate repeatable and high-fidelity pattern transfer with features down to 50nm on silver films of thicknesses ranging from 50 to 500nm,” he says. “As the process is conducted in an ambient environment and does not involve the use of liquids, it displays potential for single-step, high-throughput, large-area manufacturing of metallic nanostructures.”

The use of superionic conductors in manufacturing opens up a new and potentially energy-efficient approach to nanopatterning and fabrication. “It offers a highly competitive approach, both as a stand-alone process and as a complement of other nanofabrication techniques, to fabricating chemical sensors, photonic and plasmonic structures, and electronic interconnects.”

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