Advances in nanotechnology drive process advances

Paul Boughton

Nanotechnology is at the heart of many new developments, enabling process companies to manufacture products as diverse as novel fuel storage units, organic light emitting diodes (OLEDS), and more efficient tyres.

German chemical company BASF is focused on maintaining its global leadership in both metal organic framework (MOF) materials research and large-scale MOF materials production. MOFs allow storage of natural gas and other gases such as hydrogen. They can also be used in other applications such as gas purification, gas separation and in catalysis.

Among the benefits cited for natural gas storage are potentially increased vehicle range and the ability to operate vehicle fuel storage tanks at lower pressures. BASF is currently testing a range of light- and heavy-duty vehicles in the United States and Europe, equipped with MOF materials-based fuel systems.

The company says that one interesting aspect of this is transport fleets which could benefit from a lower cost fuelling infrastructure. Operating at medium pressures (around 1500 psi) could provide substantial capital and operating cost savings. MOFs would be a key enabler for that segment to provide adequate range. “Depending on range requirements, virtually any vehicle could benefit from this approach,” it says.

Another focus for BASF’s nanotechnology work is organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). These are displays made from organic semiconductor materials that can be more energy efficient than liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Their colour rendering is more vivid and they allow thin and flexible displays. These have to cover a broader colour spectrum than lighting elements. In particular, BASF is developing materials which generate deep blue light and are crucial in this field and the company holds broad key intellectual property for the most promising class of materials.

In a very different use of nanotechnology, the company has developed Master X-Seed, a product that allows very finely dispersed synthetically produced crystal speed hardening (CSH) crystals to be added to the concrete in a ready-made suspension as crystal seeds. This process – known as seeding – speeds up the hardening process significantly, particularly during the early stage of cement hydration. Adding Master X-Seed means concrete hardens as rapidly at 20°C as concrete without hardener does at 60°C. This improves production processes, improving concrete quality, and even allows it to be poured during the winter when outside temperatures are low.

Meanwhile Solvay’s nanotechnology efforts are focused on three main areas: electronics and IT; manufacturing and materials; and healthcare and life sciences.

One dramatic success is with its silica products, which generate net sales of over €400 million from eight industrial production sites. Marketed as the Zeosil range, these have applications in industry, personal care and nutrition products. However, their most notable success has been with the automobile tyre industry.

Here the silica products are used to improve tyres’ rolling resistance, something which the company says typically improves fuel consumption by 5-7%. The company has invested in a new 85,000 t/y plant to produce several ranges of Zeosil in Poland, including Zeosil Premium – a new generation of product which will further improve tyre energy efficiency and performance.

Like BASF, Solvay also has an interest in OLED technology. The company has already demonstrated OLED lighting tiles and is working to increase their area. In addition, many current OLED devices are made at pilot scale by depositing many layers on glass using a vacuum process. Working with the specialist R&D Holst Centre in Eindhoven, Solvay has been able to deposit several layers of the OLED by solution processing, which brings the use of printing technologies to produce OLEDs closer.

Use of printing technologies on flexible substrates will enable large scale manufacturing of OLEDs for general lighting applications, and will bring some additional features such as thin, flexible, and potentially transparent light sources that could be integrated in ceiling, walls, windows and other locations.

One of Dow Benelux’s key nanotechnology strategies involves working with Utrecht University in order to develop a process to produce ethylene and propylene from fast growing trees and grasses. The difference between this and other bio-based solutions is that the new products have exactly the same structures and properties as those manufactured by the traditional oil-based routes and so can be exact substitutes for them.

The key to the process lies in new kinds of iron catalyst which consist of tiny nanoparticles separated from each other on carbon nanofibres. In laboratory tests the catalysts have proved what the company describes as highly effective at converting a biomass-derived synthesis gas into ethylene and propylene, notably without producing a large amount of unwanted methane which can be a by-product of iron-based catalysis processes.

“The nature of the newly developed catalysts consists of promoted nanoparticles dispersed on weakly interactive supports. Special interest is now focused on the physical properties of the iron nanoparticles and how they impact the performance of the catalyst,” said Wiltrud Treffenfeldt, EMEA VP of R&D Dow Chemical Benelux.

The team now plan to increase catalyst production by linking with experts from Johnson Matthey, the world's largest supplier of catalytic converters for vehicles.

Cefic calls for science-based nanotechnology regulation

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) describes nanotechnology as one of the most important enabling technologies for its members and has called on the European Commission to ensure that regulatory frameworks are science-based and proportionate. “We call for a balanced policy on nanomaterials, ensuring the protection of human health and the environment, while providing the necessary framework for enhancing innovation, growth and jobs in Europe,” says the organisation.

To this end, Cefic highlights a number of key points about nanotechnologies. Firstly, it says, Europe needs them to achieve its growth goals as they are an important driver for industrial innovation. Then comes safety. Evaluation should be on a case-by-case basis as some nanomaterials, such as pigments, have been produced in high volumes for decades and already have their safety well assessed. Third up is openness and transparency about the possible impact of nanomaterials, which Cefic describes as vital. The fourth point concerns the current European regulatory framework, which Cefic says has the capacity to govern the production and use of nanomaterials. Here, it believes, the existing REACH regulation is the best appropriate framework to use.

The fifth point is a call for a common workable system for defining nanomaterials, with consistency, harmonisation and validation of measurement methods – within and without the EU – being areas of concern. Cefic’s final point is that Europe cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities provided by nanotechnologies and that a positive investment climate for them is important. To do less would give rise to social, economic and environmental disadvantages, the organisation says.

Recent Issues