Green Nanoscience and Why It Matters
In this month's column from the Pivotal Leaders business network, Skip Rung, President and Executive Director of ONAMI, provides an introduction to green nanotechnology -- where nanoscience meets green chemistry in the world of cleantech.
Take away all the hype (ranging, literally, from the key to eternal life to the death of all living things on earth within eight minutes), mystery and esotericism surrounding the word “nanotechnology,” and what remains is the advancement of materials science (i.e. what chemical companies do) down to the scale of molecules. A glucose molecule, for example is 1 nanometer (nm) in diameter and a DNA helix is 2nm. The smallest viruses and bacteria measure 10s and 100s of nm, respectively.
The practical use of nanotechnology and environmental presence of nanoparticles are not new at all. Pottery glass and coatings involved nanoparticles, though the potters may not have been aware of it. And airborne nanoparticulates are at least as old as volcanoes and wood smoke.
In modern industry, “nano” takes the form of small particles of various shapes (e.g. spheres, rods, tubes, prisms), ultra-thin films/coatings or precisely structured solids for applications in electronics, precision pharmaceuticals, photovoltaics, energy storage, protective coatings, water treatment and sensing of all kinds (including medical diagnostics). For partakers in the various comforts in life, this is, by and large, a good thing. Further, the properties of nanomaterials, especially their high surface-area-to-volume ratio, lend themselves to a desirable green outcome: de-materialization – using less material to accomplish a given function. Using tiny amounts of platinum and other precious metals in automobile catalytic converters or fuel cells makes possible what would otherwise be too expensive. Semiconductor processing also uses less high-cost material per function in each successive generation.
You might say that nanotechnology gets more performance from less material by making every atom work harder.
But not all is completely well. There are concerns about nanomaterial toxicity and mobility, and current manufacturing processes for high-purity/high-performance nanomaterials tend to be very inefficient, i.e. with high E-factor– the ratio of process material input to useful product material output. The latter problem is compounded by purification processes requiring large volumes of solvents. One can argue the extent to which these issues are new or exclusive to nanotechnology (for the most part, they aren’t), or one can get down to work optimizing performance and benefit, while minimizing safety risk and environmental impact.
Enter green nanotechnology, which merges the principles of green chemistry and nanoscience (imaging, measuring and manipulating matter on the nanometer length scale) to produce safer-by-design nanomaterials along with environmentally friendly (i.e. low energy, low waste, avoidance of toxic reagents) yet scalable and economic manufacturing processes for their production.
The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry include such things as design for safety (human and environment), waste reduction, and both energy and materials efficiency. Nanoscience and related materials research is providing an increasingly powerful set of tools for accomplishing these objectives, including:
- Worker protection – Personal protective equipment and protocols for preventing worker exposure (good news – micron-scale filter meshes can work very well; and more good news - nanoparticulate exposure outside the factory is less likely, for several reasons)
- Hazard assessment – High-throughput methods (e.g. embryonic zebrafish assays) and related informatics for material hazard assessment and eventual predictive toxicology
- Greater output – Safer aqueous synthesis routes that also result in higher material yields
- Tunable properties and waste re-use –Versatile libraries of functional groups and attachment chemistries that optimize performance and reduce risk – and even allow for re-use of otherwise waste material
- Solvent reduction – Dialysis-like purification processes that drastically reduce solvent or water use
- Quality and scalability – Continuous flow fabrication processes that promise both volume scalability (low waste, cost) and higher quality (tighter dimension control, fewer side products)
- Breakthrough technologies – Nanostructured thin film and solid object formation methods that promise breakthroughs in electronics manufacturing, photovoltaics, catalysis and more
The above topics and more are the subject of ongoing research and commercialization efforts (in both established and startup companies) in our community, notably the ONAMI Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing, the NSF Center for Green Materials Chemistry at OSU and several companies in the ONAMI commercialization gap fund portfolio (especially Voxtel, Dune Sciences, Inpria, Crystal Clear Technologies and Puralytics).
ONAMI’s annual Greener Nano conference series– most recently held in Portland June 16 to 18, 2010 – has become a top forum for discussing and advancing this important industrial and environmental issue: obtaining the enormous benefits of nanoscale science and technology by designing out the downsides from the very beginning. We expect to hold “GN11” in Portland next year. In the meantime, check out the GN10 presentations.
Skip Rung is President and Executive Director of Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), which unites Oregon’s research universities, the “Silicon Forest” high technology cluster and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in its dual mission to grow “small tech” research in Oregon and to commercialize technology in new startups and existing businesses. ONAMI has used $42M in state investment to quadruple (since 2004) Oregon’s federal and private research volume in the fields of solid state materials, green nanoscience, nanometrology, and microtechnology-based energy and chemical systems; and to start an internal gap fund which has enabled 15 startup companies to leverage over $65M in private funding and $5M in federal funding.
The Pivotal Leaders business network aims to grow the Northwest cleantech industry by cultivating leadership in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. Through this twice-monthly column, members of the Pivotal Leaders network take turns discussing some of the most pressing issues and trends facing cleantech entrepreneurs in the Northwest and beyond.