Nanoparticles Remain Big Attraction

Myriad potential applications are emerging but safety testing remains a concern

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Nanotechnology is driving important innovations at companies such as Dow, BASF and Solvay. Academia also is coming up with industrially relevant nanoparticle-based advances — for instance, heat transfer fluids with significantly enhanced thermal conductivity.

Dow Chemical Benelux, Terneuzen, the Netherlands, has been working with Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands, for two years now to develop a process to produce ethylene and propylene from fast-growing trees and grasses.

The process relies on new kinds of iron catalysts that consist of tiny nanoparticles separated from each other on carbon nanofibers. In laboratory tests, the catalysts have proven highly effective at converting a biomass-derived synthesis gas into ethylene and propylene without producing a large amount of unwanted methane, which can be a byproduct of iron-based catalysis processes, notes the company.

“Dow Chemical Benelux continues to collaborate in the development of catalysts with the University of Utrecht to produce lower olefins that can be used for polymer manufacturing from syngas. This is a large program of national importance for the Netherlands and involves industry, academic and government partners. 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,” says Wiltrud Treffenfeldt, vice president of R&D for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Meanwhile, Dow also is halfway through a six-year, $10-million strategic partnership with the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

“We currently have multiple ongoing collaborations with the university. These reach many areas of relevancy to Dow including the development of bio routes to monomers, the development of new materials with applications within the electronic material business and also exploration programs on new routes to low-cost carbon fiber,” notes Treffenfeldt.

Three key focuses here are high-performance cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries, circuitry for lithium-ion batteries, and the use of genetics to reprogram bacteria to manufacture important chemicals.

“Dow has many ongoing collaborations with partners where the performance of the materials or the transformation is governed at the nano scale. Some examples are new materials being developed with the University of Illinois [Champaign, Ill.] with potential application in the electronic materials industry and new systems with potential application in controlled release of actives. Other examples include studies of materials that self-assemble at the nano scale — with relevancy to water purification applications,” adds Treffenfeldt.

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, also has a wide variety of initiaves involving nanomaterials. For instance, the firm has spent more than five years developing its iGloss clearcoat automobile gloss coating. Traditionally such coatings are polymers but iGloss combines two different materials in a nanostructured hybrid.

Between 90 and 95% of the hybrid material, depending on the area of application, consists of organic material that forms the paint matrix. This makes the finish flexible and elastic and ensures a high level of weathering resistance. The remainder consists of inorganic silicate nanoclusters that are embedded in the organic matrix. These are distributed uniformly and densely throughout the coating and are particularly hard and scratch resistant.

The organic and inorganic components are covalently bonded and very elastic. This allows the clearcoat to immediately spring back to around 90% after, for example, abrasion. Conventional clearcoats typically achieve 70% elastic recovery in the same situation. Also, with iGloss, microscratches that occur are significantly flatter and, therefore, less visible.

Automakers worldwide now are in the process of implementing the technology.

BASF also is pressing ahead with its long-standing work on organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). Displays made from OLEDs render colors more vividly than the liquid crystal displays used today, and can be more energy efficient as well as thin and flexible.

The company also is exploring the diodes for lighting applications. OLEDs consume only half as much electricity as conventional energy-saving lamps and reportedly are more energy-efficient than inorganic LEDs. Moreover, they offer new design options in lighting technology.

The Smart Forvision concept automobile (Figure 1), developed in collaboration with Daimler Benz, showcases the potential application of OLEDs for lighting. The car also features other nanotechnologies, including infrared reflective films for better heat management, high-performance foams for improved insulation, high-performance composites for lighter-weight construction, and transparent solar cells for power generation.

The company also remains committed to its work with metal organic framework (MOF) materials. These crystalline nanostructures allow storage of natural gas and other gases such as hydrogen. They also can be used in other applications including gas separation and purification and in catalysis.

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