Cerion’s Chief Operating Officer, Matt Winslow, discusses how nanomaterials will help companies in the specialty chemical industry create new value and differentiate themselves from their competition, while also highlighting practical considerations to ensure these materials transition from proof of concept to the commercial market.

Creating Scalable Nanomaterials for Industry
January 1st, 2018  |  By Matt Winslow, Chief Operating Officer of Cerion Advanced Materials

EXPERTS have been touting nanotechnology as the next Industrial Revolution for the better part of the last 20 years. To date, the most common commercial applications for nanomaterials are as whiteners or UV filters in consumer products. Not exactly boundary pushing materials science. However, specialty chemical companies are increasingly exploring how precisely-engineered nanomaterials can help them move up the value chain and offer higher-margin products to their customers.

But developing and scaling performance nanomaterials for industrial applications is still a complex, highly-specialised skillset that requires several constituencies to closely collaborate and, in many cases, co-design new processes never employed before in the materials industry. For example, finely-tuned zirconia nanoparticles, when uniformly dispersed in optical coatings, can boost the light output of touch screens and displays by increasing their index of refraction. Creating, functionalising and then manufacturing these nanoparticles is not a trivial task. To be successful, the zirconia nanoparticles must meet the following minimal requirements:

  • particles must be surface-modified to reduce the chance of agglomeration;
  • polydispersity index must be at or near 0.1;
  • they must be compatible with complex organic matrices;
  • they must have no haze when cured into a final film; and
  • they must seamlessly integrate into a company’s manufacturing processes.
  • It doesn’t take a seasoned chemical engineer to understand how difficult it is to create precisely engineered nanoparticles that meet these requirements. Further, the synthesis process must be scalable and the manufactured cost must meet the customer defined price parameters. The challenge can be daunting but the rewards are substantial.

According to analyst BCC Research, the nanomaterials market is set to grow from US$32.5bn in 2016 to US$77.3bn in 2021, demonstrating a 19% year-over-year growth.  Cerion designs, optimises, scales up and manufactures high-performance inorganic nanoparticles for industrial companies. We support the research and commercial efforts of a diverse range of industries including drug development, drug delivery, functional coatings, thin films, catalysts, printed electronics and antimicrobials. A majority of our customers are looking to use nanomaterials to enable next-generation performance improvements to existing products, or to develop new products.

Established in 2007, we were formed to address two critical gaps within the performance nanomaterials market that have largely inhibited commercial adoption – namely the lack of precision control over numerous technical attributes of nanoparticles; and cost-effective, repeatable commercial-scale manufacturing. We decided early on to focus on designing and engineering materials at the atomic scale rather than product development.

Developing nanomaterials for specialty chemical companies is challenging, but the good news is that many of these companies are starting to take big pharma’s lead and are looking to external subject matter experts to enable and accelerate innovation. In fact, according to Trends in Clinical Success Rates, partnering with external resources to bring products to market has proven to be a successful model for the pharma industry, as externally-sourced programmes have been 66% more successful than internal ones (https://bit.ly/1UfCn1S). This is good news for nano and advanced materials companies, but the fact remains that there needs to be a confluence of factors to ensure success when developing and scaling a performance nanomaterial for an industrial product. In my experience, there are several key contributing factors that will determine whether a material achieves commercial success or fails to make it out of the lab. We’ll discuss each in turn.

Flexible synthetic processes
The companies that have enjoyed the greatest success developing nanomaterials for industry have flexible synthesis processes. They are not handcuffed by an expensive machine or an energy-intensive reaction. Every specialty chemical company’s systems and processes are unique and often proprietary. A nanomaterial that can improve performance in a functional coating product is most likely not available as an off-the-shelf product in Sigma Aldrich’s catalogue. Nanoparticles must be optimised to achieve maximum performance in the end product. It is a deal breaker if a company’s synthesis processes don’t offer the ability to customise the size, shape, structure and composition of a nanomaterial. Further, many customers want customised nanomaterials to be delivered in organic matrices that will allow seamless incorporation into their systems.

Give early consideration to processing and end-use conditions
Do your homework. If your customer is truly invested in achieving success, they will give you full transparency into processing and operating conditions of your material and the end-product. It is a waste of time to develop a surface-functionalised 30 nm zinc oxide nanoparticle for UV attenuation if your R&D team doesn’t understand how it will interact with the customer’s complex solvent mixtures, not to mention the curing temperatures for the end-use application. Put simply, researchers aiming to develop nanomaterials for commercial applications should consider, at the very earliest stages of research, the realities of how the material will be processed and ultimately used by the consumer.

Be mindful of degradation of materials by contaminants
Performance nanomaterials are often incorporated into premium end-use applications such as semiconductor slurries and transparent conductive coatings. Even the lowest levels of impurities can impact end-product performance. For many applications, even the presence of water at parts per billion (ppb) levels is a problem. Unfortunately, much of the basic nanomaterials research being done at companies and throughout academia focuses on developing materials in an idealised processing environment when, in reality, the materials will need to perform robustly in the presence of contaminants at highly variable concentrations that may degrade the nanomaterials over time.

Run a techno-economic model early in the research process
When researchers understand how capex and opex costs affect margins it is good for business. Even the most rudimentary modelling provides cost and performance boundaries that assist in the research process. Forcing R&D teams to work within these confines leads to new thought processes and solutions. When I ask a customer about price parameters I always tell them that it’s a waste of everyone’s time for us to develop a material that costs US$500/kg when they want it for US$50/kg.

Pilot scale is the most important scale
So. The research has successfully created a nanomaterial that meets the customer’s particle size, morphology, purity and reactivity specifications, and the process for producing it seems reasonable. Congratulations, now break it. Researchers have built-in knowledge when lab experiments are run, and unconsciously monitor and tweak the synthesis process in each 50 g batch to ensure success. Once the researcher appears to have created this successful product with the required performance, the formula should be written up and processed with all the instructions and parameters the researcher believes are necessary.

Following this step, a technician or member of the development team should replicate the process on development equipment that models the manufacturing environment. Spend the time to understand the nuances and the fine-tuning necessary at this scale to ensure batch-to-batch consistency. It’s much cheaper than figuring it out at commercial scale.

Look inwards for solutions
The outside knowledge base and engineering consultant system for robust process design is much more established for the bulk and commodity chemical manufacturing sector. For the time being, each nanomaterial company needs to develop unique methodologies in-house. It’s imperative for R&D and manufacturing teams to literally be in the same room from the first customer technical briefing through the initial full-scale production run.

You don’t always have to hit a home run
It seems that almost every nanotechnology company that has opened its doors over the past 20 years has done so with the goal of creating a material or product that will profoundly disrupt a market. A nano-catalyst that will split water into usable hydrogen. Nanocomposites that dramatically increase the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. Super-hydrophobic nano-coatings. The most successful nanomaterial R&D focuses on incremental innovation rather than radical innovation. It takes sustained capital investment over a long period of time to develop, scale, commercialise and manufacture a nano based product and then introduce it to the market. And most of the firms attempting to do so are small ventures.

Radical innovations require a high level of risk and in many cases the need for complementary process innovations by the end-user to implement the technology. This has not proven to be a recipe for success for some of the nanotech companies that have come and gone since the mid-1990s.

Better then, to enable incremental innovations for customers, allowing them to introduce better performing next-gen products to the market or to capture more margin from current products – most often targeting products and applications that currently use nano or micron-sized materials as key actives. For example, if you can remove 50% of the platinum and replace it with silver nanomaterials in a catalyst and save a customer US$10m/y in PGM costs they will be thrilled and likely willing to pass on a meaningful portion of that saving to you. Provide enough of these solutions and you can build a business!

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Author:
Matt Winslow, Chief Operating Officer of Cerion Advanced Materials
T: +1 585 271 5360; https://cerionnano.com