Nanomanufacturing supply chain reaches beyond R&D

By Tom Cheyney, Small Times Senior Contributing Editor

June 6, 2007 — Although most nanomanufacturing markets have yet to reach the volume levels seen in more mature micro-scale industries, the nascent nano supply-chain and production infrastructure shows signs of moving beyond R&D.

At the recent NSTI Nanotech 2007/Cleantech event, held May 20 – 24, keynote speaker John Hofmeister of Shell Oil addressed a broad range of potential solutions in his presentation on ensuring future energy supplies, including his company’s solar efforts. “Nanotechnology offers the greatest opportunity to capture solar energy,” the executive said.

He noted Shell’s exit from the silicon-based solar-cell business several years ago and its embrace of copper-indium-selenium (CIS) thin-film-on-glass technology. Shell and Saint-Gobain’s joint venture, Avancis, will open a new solar fab in Torgau, Germany, later this year, with the first CIS-based modules set to hit the market by year’s end, according to Hofmeister.

Hofmeister noted Shell’s embrace of copper-indium-selenium thin-film-on-glass technology. (Photo: NSTI)

Many first-time exhibitors at NSTI found possible nano and cleantech applications for their products or services. Jeff Spiegelman, president/CEO of RASIRC, a San Diego-based manufacturer of ultra-high-purity steam systems, has seen a keen interest in his technology’s ability to reduce contamination and foster carbon nanotube (CNT) growth and uniformity.

“The introduction of a small amount of water vapor can combust the amorphous carbon and turn it into CO2, which is purged from the chamber,” he explains. “If any oxygen remains in water, the oxygen will attack the amorphous carbon, the carbon in the CNT, and also the catalyst, so oxygen-free water is important. Our technology is the only water purification that can separate out oxygen from water vapor and deliver ultrapure steam under control to the process.”

One company offering a volume alternative to CNTs is CleanTechnology International. It will soon open a production facility capable of making 60 lbs per hour of “100% pure” carbon nanosphere chains (CNSCs) in Houston, according to Danny Cross, executive vice president/COO. “We see good or better functionalization [for CNSCs] than CNTs in some applications,” citing potential lubrication, nanomedicine, and electronics uses.

The MEMS/NEMS contingent was well-represented at the event, both in the conference sessions and exhibit halls. Tomas Bauer, vice president of sales for Silex Microsystems, said the company experienced an 85% growth spurt in 2006. The Swedish MEMS foundry manufactures more than 100 products for its 70-plus customers, which are mostly in R&D or pilot phase. Ten customers are in “volume production,” which he defined as “more than 100 wafers per month, [having] a fully developed process, with an end-customer.” The fab runs 150-mm wafers now, but Bauer said Silex plans to add a 200-mm line in 2008 and “migrate the top five customers” to the larger wafer size.

In addition to several life science and industrial nanocoating applications done on a variety of substrates, Applied MicroStructures‘ president/CEO Jeff Chinn described several MEMS-related uses for his company’s room-temperature, molecular-vapor-deposition technology, including “surface engineering” of accelerometers, digital micromirrors, and silicon microphones. “The microphone is subjected to environments such as high humidity, spit, and dust,” he explained, “so [our tool puts down] a coating only atoms thick, providing an inert surface — like a Teflon shrink wrap — to ensure that these devices work [reliably].” Chinn said the San Jose-based company has more than 40 R&D and production systems in the field.

Nanoimprint lithography plays an increasingly important role in small-tech research, but is also starting to gain traction in certain manufacturing niches. Brian Bilenberg, CTO of NIL Technology, a Danish nanoimprint stamp manufacturer, said the company’s business is split about “50:50 between university and commercial customers” (mostly for bio or optics applications), although revenues tend to come predominantly from the industrial side.

NIL has used its e-beam-based process to fashion stamps with structures down to 20 nm, but Bilenberg notes that most buyers are “not interested in such small features,” with more demand for its UV and thermal imprint products seen in the 50-100-nm range. He expects the company to finalize another round of funding within the next few months, which will allow NIL to “speed up development and develop new applications for nanoimprint.”

For more on the NSTI Nanotech 2007 event see “NSTI panel examines challenges, advances in nanomanufacturing” and “‘Green’ is theme at NSTI Nanotech 2007”.


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