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Scaling the heights

Pete Dobson

FASTER COMPUTERS, better detection and treatment of disease, more efficient energy storage: these are just some of the proposed advances to be enabled through nanotechnology.

Already, nano-enabled products such as cosmetics, sports equipment and electronics are on the market. They are made lighter, faster, stronger or prettier by using materials with at least one dimension under 100 nanometres, at which scale many materials assume new and sometimes useful properties.

According to a BCC Research report issued last year, the global market value for nanomaterials, nanotools and nanodevices hovered around $16 billion in 2010, and is expected to increase to nearly $27 billion by 2015.

But before we get caught up in the ticker tape parade, there’s a gap between promise and widespread adoption, and it’s one strewn with a minefield of regulatory issues and consumer sentiment.

So what’s appearing on the horizon and how do you commercialise these nano-enabled products, moving them from research and development through to the market?

Prof Peter Dobson, who was in Ireland earlier this month for a conference during NanoWeek, has some insights borne of experience. One of his key pieces of advice is not to sound the trumpet unless you are sure your piece of nano (or any other technology for that matter) offers a viable solution to a problem people really want to solve.

“I would advise everyone not to push the wonders of their technology. They might think they have got something very nifty but that isn’t enough to sell it,” says Dobson, academic director of Begbroke Science Park in Oxford. Begbroke hosts research and commercial activities in nano tech.

“You have got to say, ‘Have I got a solution here for an existing problem?’ If the answer to that is yes, you then look at that problem and ask very seriously, ‘How is my nanotechnology going to solve it, and is it going to solve it in a cost-effective manner?’ If the answers to that are also yes, then you go ahead. I would never recommend in any field to start off with the technology and push it: I would adopt what I would call a solution-driven approach.”

Dobson has something of a vantage point from his experience with companies spun out of his research at Oxford University. Oxonica developed doped titania nanoparticles that are used in commercially available sunscreens. The firm’s cerium oxide nanoparticle technology, which makes diesel more efficient, is now owned by another Oxford-based company, Energenics.

But Dobson also went through losing a company when it was close to market.

“That is a terribly sad story,” he recalls of Oxford Biosensors, which was founded in 2000 and folded in 2009. The technology they developed was ‘too disruptive for any licence deal’ and the costs of gaining regulatory approval proved overwhelming.

“We developed a sensor for substances, in a pinprick of blood, which would be markers of cardiac risk. We were within eight or nine months of having a commercial product on the market, but we ran out of money.”

Dobson describes it as ‘extremely painful’ to get so close after tens of millions of dollars in investment, and he now uses the company as a case study from which students can learn in his lectures.

More generally though, he sees potential for nano in ICT, healthcare and energy. In ICT, nanomaterials could fuel a fundamental shift in approach in manufacturing, he explains.

“The really big crunch is going to be when we run out of space on a silicon wafer for scaling down in size any more. And we are already approaching that limit,” he says. “I suspect we are entering an era when we might be looking at something other than silicon to make the device. I suspect we are on the threshold of somebody inventing a transistor or a processing device, a memory, based on molecules that could be self-assembled. Some people predict that graphene, the single layer of graphite, might be the material.”

In healthcare, using nanoparticles could detect markers of disease early in the body and deliver drugs in new ways. But there’s much left to cover from a regulatory standpoint, according to Dobson.

“There will be a lot of hard grunt work to be done now in assessing the materials and their effects in the human body before we release them onto the market,” he says.

“It’s generally estimated that we are four or five years ahead of where we predicted we would be on the road map. But the downside is that the road map hadn’t really looked at the cautionary things we need to adopt with the regulation and manufacture.”

Breakthroughs also beckon in energy storage. Nanomaterials stand to have a major impact on batteries and supercapacitors, he adds.

But there are hurdles here also: “People regard nano with a bit of suspicion. I think on the regulatory front you have the same issue, with areas as diverse as healthcare on the one hand and energy on the other,” he says. Bringing the products to market isn’t cheap either. “I believe as a rule of thumb, in going from research to development to deployment, the costs go in the ratio of 1 to 10 to 100.”

And apart from satisfying the regulators and emptying out your pockets, what about getting buy-in from consumers, who need to be comfortable with embracing the nano-enabled products?

“It’s extremely difficult. You would just need one powerful lobby group to really have a blitz on the web and it could kill a product,” says Dobson. “A lot of lobby groups put out misinformation and it’s very hard to counter that. People like to see bad news; they don’t like to see good news.”

However, the general challenges aside, he sees Ireland as having a strong base in nano. It’s a sentiment echoed by Thomson Reuters, which ranked Ireland eighth in the world for the quality of research in materials science (which includes nanoscience) in the first decade of the 21st century.

So what does Dobson reckon we need to do to cling to nano in the current economic climate?

“I think you should hang on to what you’ve got and try to back the winners,” he says. “I have a horrible fear that in the UK we are not investing enough in this translational stage. But in Ireland, you have attracted some big international blue-chip companies: you have got that going for you.”

He mentions the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (Crann at Trinity College Dublin and Tyndall National Institute in Cork), which has links with industry giants such as Intel and Hewlett Packard, and points out a new collaboration between Crann and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia on solar energy.

Dobson also mentions Prof Kenneth Dawson’s work, centred at University College Dublin, on examining how nanoparticles interact with living systems.

“When it comes to exploiting some of the nano-bio [applications] or advances in healthcare, Kenneth Dawson’s group would be really well placed to capitalise on it.”

But he believes we could also beef up the nano side of agriculture and food to our advantage. “You have got such a powerful agriculture and food [sector], and nanotechnology is an obvious way to add value to that, maybe in packaging or food processing,” he says. “You have got to be aware of regulatory [issues] but I think there’s enormous scope there.”

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Ben Roeves