Nanomanufacturing processes have the potential to greatly improve the properties of materials, resulting in nanomaterials that are stronger, lighter, more durable, among other traits. Current applications of nanomaterials that already take advantage of these properties include tools with ultrasensitive detection and identification of toxins, highly efficient and low-cost solar cells, nanomedicine, and many more.
While innovation in the nanomaterial industry is growing, the development is complicated by manufacturing problems. Since trial-and-error scaling and quality assurance is expensive and tedious, nanomaterial manufacturing is more complex than traditional manufacturing. As a result, nanotechnology companies cannot fully utilize their resources and optimize their production.
This post will be breaking down the current problems in nanomaterial production including:
1. Production is slow
2. Production is expensive
3. Environmental impact
There are two approaches to nanomaterial production: top-down and bottom-up methods. The top-down method starts with a large piece of material and “carves” it down to the nanoscale, while bottom-up fabrication builds products by assembling them up from the atomic and molecular scale. Both methods are time-consuming and in the case of the top-down method, a waste of excess material.
The current approach to improve nanoparticle synthesis involves analyzing high-resolution microscope images and identifying each particle. Either a free software that is unreliable for samples with complex geometries and compositions is used or graduate students have to spend hours manually counting the particles in each image. As a result, valuable resources are being wasted on slow and inaccurate processes.
Because nanotechnology is difficult to manufacture, it is also very expensive. Nanotechnology R&D and nanomanufacturing requires very advanced and expensive facilities and equipment. The current manufacturing process involves painstaking batch by batch labor that is frequently bottlenecked, creating these high costs of production. For example, gold nanoparticle production costs USD $80,000/gram while raw gold costs USD $50/gram. The gold is not making it expensive. The problem lies with mass-producing them cheaply.
Inefficient nanomaterial production has negative long-term environmental effects. Stricter requirements for material purity, lower tolerances for defects, and lower manufacturing yields also lead to greater harm to the environment than traditional manufacturing processes. For example, bacteriostatic silver nanoparticles used in socks can pollute the wastewater stream and destroy bacteria that are essential to the ecosystem. Another study completed at Ohio State University found the life-cycle environmental impact of carbon nanofibers was about 100 times greater per unit than traditional materials. Therefore, improved efficiency in nanoscale manufacturing is necessary to reduce energy use, emissions, waste, and toxic input and output materials.
Inefficient nanomaterial production is slow, costly, and damaging to the environment. Therefore, nanotechnology companies will greatly benefit if their nanomaterial manufacturing processes can be optimized. In turn, the time and money previously devoted to production can instead be used to improve other aspects of their business. To learn more about how to improve nanomaterial production, read how data science is changing the field of nanotechnology.