Making dreams come true: EU scientists turn tiny ideas into real materials
Technology relies on new ideas. And in recent decades, there has been an explosion of new ideas about materials just a fraction of the size of a human hair. Nanomaterials - materials on the scale of nanometres - promise to improve and even revolutionise products from electricity cables to personal electronics to solar panels.
Turning new ideas into real materials and technologies, however, can be tricky. Relying on trial and error or luck isn’t good enough. And it can be an expensive business trying out many different material options. Now a three-year project funded by the EU as part of its Horizon 2020 programme, called CO-PILOT, promises to help.
Aike Wypkema of TNO
Aike Wypkema and Maurice Mourad of TNO in the Netherlands, who coordinated the project, explain how CO-PILOT will help to turn researchers’ ideas into real materials for real-world applications.
What is the issue that you want the project to tackle?
AW: Over the last 10-20 years, there have been an enormous number of new ideas from academia on ways of making novel, unique particles, of different sizes and shapes, with amazing properties. This is great, but what happens next? Often there are only very small amounts of the new material, so the potential end user cannot tell whether it is practical or has any value.
This is the challenge we want to address: we want to develop infrastructure that can make larger amounts of these novel particles, very precisely. End users would be able to evaluate these first prototypes for their products. So it’s not just a dream but a dream come true.
What do you hope to achieve with the project?
MM: Our project has three parts. First, we develop recipes for new materials and validate them for new applications, which we do jointly with industry. The kind of materials we are talking about is nanocomposites, materials built from a matrix of a polymer or plastic with special additives that bring additional functions and characteristics.
Secondly, we focus on the additives themselves, how to synthesize or manufacture them, and how to measure their properties (or metrology). We have developed specialised metrology set-ups jointly with small companies or SMEs that produce these instruments and are validating them for the chosen cases.
The final part is combining all these recipes and measurement modules to set up a pilot line to produce the new materials. In fact, we want to set up a network of pilot lines – in several locations or regions in Europe – that have some things in common but are complementary.
In practice, this means that at TNO we can produce 15 litres of nanomaterials at a time, while our partners at the Fraunhofer have equivalent production equipment but ten times larger. We also work with another institute, SKZ, in the east of Germany in Selb that can process the additives we produce into composites.
How did you become involved in this project?
MM: There is a need for research and technology organisations – or RTOs – like ours to get industry to see that what we do is applicable for them and their development. But it is difficult to build a new pilot line and get enough users. So we thought that it could be possible to build new facilities with other RTOs like ourselves if we had a commitment from users to do product development with us. That’s how CO-PILOT came about.
There is also a real need for SMEs, for example, to try out new recipes and new products. But it is very expensive to set up new infrastructure for analysing materials, so it is difficult for them to assess if a new technology is scalable, reproducible, or good enough quality. So we want to offer not only infrastructure, in the sense of a production line, but also characterisation and knowledge of these systems for them.
What have you achieved so far?
AW: Most of the facilities are up and running. At the moment, we are busy integrating the metrology instruments – which are crucial to making the whole processing of nanoparticles more efficient. The new systems we have built and evaluated are now going to be distributed over two different pilot plants, so both will be equipped with the same kit.
MM: We are working with partners on a very broad level. We have some partners that are interested in validating their product as an additive for specific composites, so they want early batches of material to assess if their products are up to scratch. We use the phrase ‘technology-readiness level’ or TRL, which in this case would be quite high.
But we also work with partners on the development of new materials and metrology at a much lower TRL. This is good because we run these efforts in parallel and our end users get an overview of industry’s interests, the latest research and what might be available in years to come.
The first aim of our project was to establish a network – both a physical network and a knowledge network of capabilities. So we looked for SMEs that wouldn’t have the chance to develop a product from scratch. We now have a wide range: including companies interested in fillers for fire- or smoke-retardant insulation for cables. Although this is a relatively mature field, current solutions on the market are not environmentally friendly enough for the future. Another interest lies in making specialty products for niche applications in electronics such as displays, touch-sensitive screens and LED lighting, which have seen an enormous surge in recent years. Similarly, we have a partner interested in making coatings for solar cells.
What has been the most exciting aspect of the project for you so far?
AW: It has been very interesting seeing one of our project partners, a little spin-off company from a university, that now has several millions of euros in investment funds and is planning to build a pilot plant.
MM: That was great and very exciting, but I also liked it when we had new kit delivered that had been specially built for the project to serve the needs of the consortium as a whole. You can touch actually the fruits of your hard work!
How do you reach out to SMEs?
MM: We reach out a lot. We go to companies ourselves and have a programme at TNO where part of our group is located in an industrial setting through which we try to reach out to any small company in the region directly, through workshops, conferences and fairs, networks and intermediate companies. We go to great lengths but we still get surprised… all the time! Possibly because some of the more innovative SMEs may only have four or five employees, while the larger ones – 100-150 employees – may not have their own R&D departments.
What are the benefits of working with all these different companies?
AW: A sense of real life, of urgency. You also see a lot of different ways of working. It brings a lot of challenges – but that’s healthy, I think.
MM: Honest answers – a company might say, ‘yes, this is interesting’ or ‘no, this is not our cup of tea’. Sometimes that is good as it leads you somewhere unexpected. For me as a scientist, it is also great. I don’t want to work in splendid isolation. There is great satisfaction in helping SMEs. We want to see their ideas moving from paper to real life. At the end of the day, we don’t just want to do science but also help industries develop new products, new plans and speed up the process.
What are the key ingredients for a successful project?
MM: I think you need synergy and trust between partners, as well as excitement and the ability to work closely together. We learned a lot, not only from SMEs, but also from the other RTOs that took part. There are new opportunities, new things being tried and that’s what makes us excited. But equally, for the companies that take part, they should see that what we do brings them new business, new innovations, new opportunities and new contacts.
AW: That’s how innovation works!
What advice would you give to someone setting out on this process?
AW: Think about what you want to do. What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to go? What are the big challenges? How do you want to overcome them? Then apply to the EU because the project can help you do this.
MM: My single piece of advice is to look for a group of participants that is excited about working together and learning from each other.