lab nano-metal manufacturing system

Monday, 15 June 2015

Advances in nanotechnology have great opportunities in a range of applications that in include health care technology, energy harvesting/storage, environmental remediation etc. In order for these nanotechnology applications to succeed, the availability of industrially viable or user-friendly nanomaterials fabrication processes and systems are essential. Currently the fabrication and manipulation of many nanomaterials require nanotechnology-skilled experts who can implement complicated and time-consuming processes.

Therefore, suitable nanomaterials fabrication technologies that are low-cost or industrially scalable, userfriendly and easy to use are strongly required. The proposed project will develop a prototype bench-top nanoMetal-Manufacturing System (nMMS) capable of fabricating a range of metal nanoparticles with the additional possibility of providing desired surface functionalization/conjugation. The nMMS is easy to use by non-expert in nanofabrication and therefore users can easily utilize metal nanoparticles for their application of interest without the need of a specialist nano-scientist. 

The technology was initially inspired by a range of scientific research activities worldwide that were and are still trying to address the fundamental physics of plasma-liquid interactions. On this basis a PhD project was proposed in 2010 with specific focus on how these very recent scientific developments in plasma-liquid systems could be used for nanomaterials applications. The research conducted with the support of the University of Ulster VC Studentship produced leading-edge scientific advances and highlighted the commercial opportunity of this new developing technology, which is represented initially by the proposed nMMS.

The specific application that this project will focus on is therefore the fabrication of nanomaterials where the commercial development of the nMMS represents a system to be sold to any customer who requires working with metal nanoparticles. The market of the nMMS (in the initial phase of the business case) can be viewed to be similar to the market of microscopes or vacuum pumps or laboratory equipment in general for research institutes, universities, hospitals, SMEs etc. The purpose of the nMMS is to facilitate customers’ needs in developing their nanotechnologies; furthermore the nMMS can serve as an educational tool to be used by teachers and lecturers in their lab-based sessions to demonstrate with ease properties and functionalities of nanomaterials.

Finally, the project will identify product development opportunities to extend the nMMS applicability and customer base in the following two directions: (a) extend the type of nanomaterials beyond metal nanoparticles to include metal-oxide, metal-sulphides and semiconducting materials; (b) develop a strategy to integrate the proposed technology in large-scale industrial manufacturing process.

Problem Being Solved

The preparation of nanoparticles (NPs) has relied on the extension of traditional laboratory chemistry which has so far served the market. However current chemical synthesis techniques present severe limitations for a viable nanomanufacturing process as required by the growing markets; both the application market and the R&D market require nanoparticles that can be produced with ease without the need of nanofabrication specialists. Current NP fabrication techniques are batch-based, require a range of chemicals, they are timeconsuming and are essentially NP-specific. Furthermore, due to fast technological advances, the ideal “nanomanufacturing” technology not only has to meet the current application requirements but should allow for sufficient versatility to meet the next generation nanotechnology applications that will become available in the near future.

Phase I

The opportunities will be exploited in two phases, where within Phase-I our nanomanufacturing system will serve customers in the R&D or Education sectors and therefore customers would be represented by Research Institutes, Universities, Hospitals, and technology-based SMEs etc.

In this phase, in order to establish credibility of the nMMS, two strategies will be implemented: (a) nanoparticles will be sold directly to large-scale nanomaterials distributors (e.g. Fisher Scientific); (b) a few nMMS will be placed and loaned free-of-charge within key institutes to promote the capabilities of nMMS within the scientific community; specifically selected nMMS will be made available to NI educational institutions with the aim of having an indirect economic impact.

Therefore in Phase-I, potential customers will envision the following benefits in choosing our technology:

· No need of a nanotechnology expert to fabricate NPs required for their specific needs and interests

· Easy to use system

· Low-cost (e.g. £10k for an educational version and £20-40k for a system with higher specifications)

· Versatility which allows a range of NPs to be produced and therefore adaptable to varying needs

· Continuous-flow operation

Phase II

Prior to Phase-II, we foresee to have introduced our technology in the market bottom-up from Phase-I so that integration on new nanomanufacturing process will represent a natural extension of the application technology development from the R&D phase to an industrial large scale process. Nonetheless we intend to study markets that we have been unable to approach and therefore the same advantages as listed above will be perceived by the customers.

In Phase-II a larger market will be tackled whereby integration of our technology in large scale manufacturing processes will be addressed.


The technology has been already developed as a bench-top experimental set-up which is capable of fabricating both gold and silver nanoparticles.

The experimental set-up has been assembled with available components and currently can only be operated for limited periods, i.e. it can only process up to a limited amount of metal precursors to yield a given amount of NPs (not in a continuous-flow fashion). It is already relatively easy to use also for a non-specialist but essentially it is represented by separate general purpose parts that were connected together for an earlier progenitor project. 



Although the target markets for the proposed nMMS are envisaged to initially be the Education and Academic Research sectors, it is useful to put these sectors within the framework of what is happening in a Global Nanotechnology ‘Industry’ context. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology affecting a wide range of industries. It impacted $254 billion worth of products globally in 2009 and this impact is forecast to grow to $2.5 trillion in 2015. Nanotechnology’s contribution may emerge from incorporation of nanomaterials, processes or instruments used to develop nanomaterials, and even the science itself that has developed around nanotechnology. These potential contributions may be overestimated or even underreported (in that there is difficulty in linking advances in a field of science to an application). In looking at the size of the nanomaterials market relative to the size of the overall estimates for nanotechnology, one can see that the former is much smaller than the latter. Lux Research’s estimates of nanomaterials versus products from these materials (through nanointermediaries and nano-enabled products) published in 2005 suggested that nanomaterials would comprise only 0.5% of product sales or US$3.6 billion (by 2010) out of a total global nanotechnology market estimate of US$1.5 trillion (Berger, 2007).


In the 2010 to 2011 period, nanotechnology development would be characterized by nanotechnology entering new industries and focusing on near-term applications. From 2012 to 2014, nanotechnology would start to affect the industries it has penetrated in new ways, simplifying supply chains and impacting on industries, like pharma and oil and gas. Beyond 2015, they predict that nanotechnology will become routine enough that the “nano” term will largely fade from view in many industries, while overall funding finally levels off and high-profile applications like flexible organic solar cells finally approach commercial readiness. During the next two years, nanomaterials manufacturing will increasingly shift from start-ups to large corporations.

Opportunity/Partnership Sought

Professor Davide Mariotti

Room 25B09
School of Engineering
University of Ulster
Jordanstown campus
Shore Road
Co. Antrim
BT37 0QB