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Putting nanotechnology to work in industry

Article-Putting nanotechnology to work in industry

A new nanocomposite project kicked off this week in Europe that aims to exploit the potential of nanotechnology for industrial applications. Nanocomposite materials are promising for many sectors, as they can make polymers stronger, less water and gas permeable, tune surface properties, and add functionalities such as antimicrobial effects. The project will be focused in particular on the benefits nanotechnology can bring to packaging, automotive and photovoltaic materials.

What would these benefits be? In, say, the packaging sector, nanocomposites could be used to boost functionality, for example, by adding improved barrier properties. Another option could also be the development of a slippery coating that would sharply decrease or even eliminate the amount of product that remains behind in plastic tubes and gets thrown away by consumers. Not only would this reduce waste, it would also make this kind of packaging more acceptable to recyclers. The product residue that stays behind in the tube—estimates vary from 1-30%, according to the product in question—can make recycling more difficult.

Functionality could also be added to photovoltaic materials. Solar panels lose up to 40% of their energy harvesting potential due to the accumulation of rain and dirt on their surface. If they were designed to be self-cleaning, their effectiveness could be considerably increased. Not only would the period between maintenance checks be longer, the lifetime of the panels could also be extended by filtering the UV light, which would otherwise promote the weathering of the material.

Nanocomposites also offer numerous properties that make their application in the automotive industry highly attractive. As an alternative to conventionally filled polymers, these materials provide outstanding barrier properties, decreased flammability and increased modulus and strength.

Lightweight, they can replace metal and glass in a host of components for fuel- efficient, durable vehicles. Every additional 100 kg of car weight leads to increased fuel consumption by 0.4L per 100 km and 10 g of CO2 per km, the main greenhouse gas. And, although the emission caps which are due to be enacted by the EU have been relaxed somewhat, vehicle lightweighting remains an important issues for carmakers everywhere.

In spite of intensive research activities, significant efforts are still needed to deploy the full potential of nanotechnology in the industry. The main challenge is still to obtain the proper nanostructuring of the nanoparticles, especially when scaling up to industrial levels. Further improvements are clearly needed in terms of processing and control.

The OptiNanoPro project, as the new, three-year EU project is known, is an R&D project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 program, in which a consortium of partners from all around Europe are taking part, and is being coordinated by IRIS, the advanced engineering and research institute with headquarters in Barcelona and facilities in Dublin. The project will target the development and industrial integration of tailored online dispersion and monitoring systems to ensure a constant quality of delivered materials.

To that end, a group of four research institutes and eleven industrial partners covering the supply and value chain of the three target sectors and using a range of converting processes, such as coating and lamination, compounding, injection/co-injection and electrospray nanodeposition, will work together on integrating new nanotechnologies in existing production lines, while also taking into account nano-safety, environmental, productivity and cost-effectiveness issues.

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