Process Engineering of Nanotechnology-The Nanomanufacturing Revolution

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. Strategic Planner

Robert Ferris, Ph.D.
Strategic Planner

A blog by Robert Ferris, Ph.D.

Nanomanufacturing is the next industrial revolution

The term nanomanufacturing has emerged as industry adopts nanotechnology. Nanomanufacturing indicates the various methods companies are using to a make the advanced materials and devices enabled by nanotechnology. At the core, nanomanufacturing is a collection of processes that can control assembly at the nano-scale to produce novel devices and materials. Microprocessors are a great example of nanomanufacturing, but semiconductor manufacturers primarily uses one category of nanomanufacturing called top-down processing. Other examples of nanomanufacturing include the supercapacitors made of carbon nanotubes. Here, carbon nanotubes are grown from the surface of the electrode, representing a bottom-up fabrication process.

Top-down nanomanufacturing is common in semiconductor manufacturing and uses the addition or removal of layers to build devices or electronics. By cyclically adding and removing layers of material nanomanufacturers can construct complex devices. Bottom-up nanomanfucturing, on the other hand, is where material or complexes are assembled through natural forces and self-organization. The most complex examples of bottom-up fabrication are plants and animals, however, scientists still struggle to produce examples beyond the most basic structures and length-scales. In either case, nanomanufacturing does not mean that the product is always ‘nano’ in scale. For example, nanocomp has produced 16 gauge wire woven from carbon nanotubes (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Nanocomp has produced 16 gauge wire from spun carbon nanotubes (link).

Figure 1. Nanocomp has produced 16 gauge wire from spun carbon nanotubes (link).

A recent report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified nanomanufacturing as the next technological mega-trend, with the capability of exceeding current manufacturing capabilities (figure 3). Unlike previous technological revolutions, such as the personal computer or the internal combustion engine, nanotechnology is a fundamental change in manufacturing processes; much like digital processing was for how electronics worked. Nanomanufacturing, however, will result in new materials and products with capabilities beyond that currently accessible. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, estimated the impact of advanced materials alone will be between $150 and $500 Billion by 2025. Lux Research‘s recent report noted that nanotechnology-based products have produced roughly $2 Trillion in revenue in 2013. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is also supporting the nanomanufacturing revolution transition. The National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN) is an alliance of academic, government and industry partners that cooperate to advance nanomanufacturing strength in the United States.

Figure 3. GAO’s projection of nanomanufacturing capability over the recently realized digital technology revolution.

Figure 3. GAO’s projection of nanomanufacturing capability over the recently realized digital technology revolution.

Some examples of nanomanufacturing methods include; Photolithography, Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD), Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE), Dip-pen Lithography (DPN), Roll-to-Roll Processing, and Self-assembly. These methods, and many more, are used to produce products such as touch-screens, anti-microbial coatings, or elite sporting equipment.

The current challenge is scale-up of these processes. The majority of nanomanufacturing techniques were developed for research applications. This means that the equipment is low-volume, designed to be flexible, and require a competent operator. Commercial-scale manufacturing equipment requires high volume, minimal operator interaction, and needs to focus on producing the same product every time. Also, a lot changes when you move from a bench-top to high-volume production; heating methods change, batch processes transition to continuous processes, and the level of automation increases. It takes a lot of innovation, time, and money to cross these technology gaps.

Some companies have already overcame the challenges associated with nanomanufacturing. Liquidia, for example, uses a roll-to-roll technology called PRINT®. PRINT® technology leverages molds and advanced flouro-polymers to reliably produce nanoparticles with custom size, shape, and chemical composition. Alternatively, Nanofilm uses a variety of deposition techniques to produce self-reactive thin films are ultrathin and invisible on a surface. With just a thin layer, however, Nanofilm can make it easier to clean your table, not smudge your iPhone, or reduce glare while driving. On a larger scale, companies like BASF and Eastman Chemical have leveraged their chemical processing skill to produce nanoparticles and quantum dots.

Figure 2. An overview of Liquidia’s PRINT® technology and ability to produce nanoparticles of custom size, shape, and chemical composition.

Figure 2. An overview of Liquidia’s PRINT® technology and ability to produce nanoparticles of custom size, shape, and chemical composition.

Even with some progress and investment, there are a number of things that need to take place to enable the proliferation of nanotechnology:

  1. Standards are still required before nanomanufacturing techniques can gain wide-spread adoption. Without standards, each company has to solve the same problem, innovate their own equipment, and support their own operations. Standards will drive consistency and enable suppliers to compete to supply nanomanufacturing equipment and support. This will drive down capital and operating costs for companies.
  2. Nanomanufacturing typically has to take place within a clean room, which is a massive capital and operating cost to companies. Instead, nanotechnology needs to “get dirty” by developing containment methods or inherently stable processes that can be exist outside of a cleanroom. To accomplish this, new methods need to be developed to handle contamination and operating in dirty environments.
  3. The industry needs to establish good manufacturing practices for handling and controlling exposure risk for manufacturing personnel. Right now, there is a veil of uncertainty around how to handle and sell these products. Regulatory agencies should engage companies to start a set of guidelines for handling these materials in the workplace.

Nanomanufacturing is the coming change for how industry operates. These changes, however, will take time. By addressing some key hurdles, however, we can accelerate the adoption of commercial scale nanomanufacturing.

Stay tuned: My next post will address the challenges and benefits of managing nanotechnology.

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. is a strategic planner with Emerson Process Managements. He holds a bachelors and masters in chemical engineering, an MBA in new technology commercialization, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. He has an extensive background in nanotechnology development and advanced process control.

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