Design and green manufacturing of functional nanomaterials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemical & Biological Engineering

Abstract

Inorganic nanomaterials are widely used in diverse applications such as oil refining, food, coatings, cosmetics, textile, transport, healthcare and electronics and communication, with a global market worth 20 billion EURO. A recent inventory has documented >1800 consumer products that contain nanomaterials and many more non-commodity products such as industrial catalysts and separation media. However, there are limitations in terms of the sustainability of and the attainable product quality from current manufacturing.

Industry uses wet (chemical precipitation) and dry (flame or plasma) processes for manufacturing nanomaterials. Despite the advances in the latter, it has been shown that the wet processes are lot more efficient than the dry processes. Anastas and co-workers performed a sustainability analysis for wet processes, which revealed that nanomaterials manufacturing is significantly wasteful when compared to the production of bulk chemicals. This creates an enormous burden on the environment and results in unsustainable manufacturing.

Further, some of the key properties of nanomaterials cannot be obtained with existing manufacturing methods. Lab-based methods exist for synthesising nanomaterials of desired properties, however, these methods are very wasteful and uneconomical to scale-up. Hence such high value materials remain at small scales and commercially inaccessible.

A World Technology Evaluation Center report, commissioned by the USA's National Science Foundation, explicitly recommended that achieving green manufacturing by 2020 is the "holy grail" and that future research should focus on emulating natural designs to develop scalable processes for manufacturing nanomaterials [Ref. Roco et al., Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020, NSF and WTEC, 2010]. I have developed fully synthetic novel bioinspired approaches to nanomaterials, with rapid reactions (takes only 1-5 minutes) at room temperature in water, producing almost no waste, yet providing superior control of product properties. This method can reduce the energy usage of the reaction step by ~95% when compared with a traditional precipitation process and the materials would as cheap as the lowest grade commercial counterparts, yet provide significantly better quality and properties. However, the bulk of research on bioinspired synthesis has been performed at small scales. The bioinspired method cannot be scaled-up yet because there is a critical gap in our knowledge on its scale dependence.

This fellowship aims to apply bioinspired routes to deliver sustainable ("green"), low cost and scalable technologies for manufacturing high value functional nanomaterials. I will develop scale-up rules by modelling and experimentally measuring mixing mechanisms. I will design process chemistry to produce bespoke nanomaterials and demonstrate pathways for larger-scale manufacturing. This fellowship has a great potential to take the UK to the world leading stage in sustainable manufacturing of bespoke nanomaterials.

Planned Impact

This fellowship has the potential to make significant impacts to the scale-up knowledge, the quality and the cost of nano-products, waste-reduction and job creation. Given the large markets for nanomaterials, the impact will be high.

Industry will benefit from the green technology by producing high value nanomaterials at low costs. This will increase their competitive advantage and enable the establishment of manufacturing in the UK. Due to the high quality of nanomaterials, it is likely that there will be a large potential for entering new markets as well as exporting these nano-products.

The society will see improved sustainability of nanomaterials manufacturing by reduced energy and resource usage. Further, the fellowship outcomes have the potential to improve access to high quality products to the public at affordable costs. Considering the planned outreach and public engagement activities, the general public will have a better understanding and appreciation of these new green manufacturing technologies.

Publications

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