Chemical group seeks industry help in setting priorities for nanotech R&D

By Paula Doe, Contributing Editor

The group of chemical companies trying to implement their roadmap for government nanotechnology research funding priorities proposed collaboration to the semiconductor materials suppliers and users gathered at Semi’s Strategic Materials Conference in mid-January.

In pursuit of its big picture goal of leveraging resources, the Vision 2020 group now is getting ready to approach national labs and government funding agencies about specific research plans for building nanotechnology infrastructure and figuring out nanotechnology environmental issues. One practical early step in the works — compiling a database of the toxicity of nanomaterials.

“Seems to me there is overlap with the semiconductor industry,” said Jack Solomon, chair of the Vision 2020 Steering Committee and director of technology assessment and external relations at Praxair. “And it would be good if we could get together.”

The group of a dozen or so major chemical companies and related organizations developed a roadmap for nanotechnology research priorities, at the request of the National Nanotech Initiative. Now they’re working on implementing the first steps in their effort to leverage technological and financial resources by promoting collaborative R&D and outside funding, and figuring out where best to target those efforts.

The first conclusion from the roadmap work: The nearly $3 billion/year or so that governments worldwide spend on nanotechnology research is not being spent on the most important things to develop the industry.

“One of our key findings was that a lot of the work was discovery work — finding the next nanodot or nanowire,” explains Solomon. “But we’re not doing enough of the fundamental research that would allow us to put these discoveries to use.”

He argued that researchers now first discover some novel nanostructure, then determine its properties, and only then do they look to see if it can be used for anything practical. “It’s a very limited approach — sort of accidental,” he noted. “We’re proposing a cultural change.”

Solomon explained that the industry still is not very good at the basics of making desired nanoscale particles, or at putting these highly engineered materials where they’re needed — dispersed uniformly through the matrix material. The better roadmap for commercialization would instead start with a problem that needs solving, decide the materials properties that would solve it, and then design and produce the nanomaterial with those properties.

To do that, research priorities need to shift to focus on understanding the fundamentals of nanoscale physics and chemistry, and that requires first investing in things like real-time and in-process analytical equipment, and robust measurement tools. Also essential is major work on modeling and simulation, to be able to predict the properties of nanomaterials and systems containing them.

With this big picture of research priorities set, the Vision 2020 group is now working on proposing what specific R&D is needed next, and then approaching government agencies to propose that they help fund it. The group plans to talk to the five nanocenters at the national labs to urge them to work on the infrastructure and basic science needed for commercial development, including the expensive tools the industry needs.

The environmental safety and health working group has established a specific list of common research priorities for the things the industry needs to find out about the safety of nanotechnology materials. “This is the plan we need to take to funding agencies like the EPA,” explained Solomon.

The first priority is to figure out if and how nanomaterials might be toxic, which involves a whole world of basic things that just aren’t known — for example, “We don’t even know if standard gloves or current filters protect from nanomaterials,” Solomon noted.

Also, testing for and measuring nanoparticle emissions could require the development of a new automated microscopic screening system. The group has commissioned a literature survey, which will be put into a nanotoxicity database, to be taken over and maintained by Rice U. for all to use.


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