The struggle for novel materials


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Aaike van Vugt

CEO,

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Globally, scientists are relentlessly searching for new ways to deal with the challenges mankind is facing. From climate change to an expanding population: technical innovations are needed to improve, or at least maintain, current living standards. The shift from fossil fuels towards a carbon neutral economy is central to most of these issues; and also the most urgent one. Increasingly, scientists are focusing on nanoparticles as a key technology in enabling the transition to a sustainable future. Gaining solid control over this new domain of materials science could allow a host of novel materials with new and vastly improved properties. Unfortunately, the exploration of the properties and applications of nanoparticles is significantly hampered by one major obstacle: people are struggling to get the right building blocks.

New sustainable technologies are unlocked by new materials

Eras in human history are often directly associated with developments in technology, and specifically advances in material science. The stone age, bronze age and iron age are long past and well known among the general public. Modern times could be characterized as the age of steel, plastic, nuclear/uranium or silicon. Advances in materials are so central to human society, because new materials can abruptly decrease the costs of existing technologies, while making numerous other applications economically viable. The world needs to move to a sustainable future: in a sense a new age

Internal combustion engines will not be universally replaced by electric motors, until battery technology is sufficiently competitive. Only once sustainable forms of electricity generation, like photovoltaics, outcompete polluting power plants, will these inevitably be phased out. Economies of scale, optimized supply chains, improved manufacturing techniques and macroscopic engineering can drive down costs and increase competitiveness. However, all these can get you only so far and, sooner or later, only improved materials can enable substantial and rapid increases in competitiveness. 

Why it is so difficult to create novel materials

An engineer looks at a material and sees a physical substance with (useful) properties. Atoms are the building blocks of a material; and the countless interactions between these countless atoms give a material its properties. By changing the composition of a material and its (atomic) organization, the interactions within a material can be changed and thus it gains new properties. However, until recently the organization/structure of a material could be changed only very indirectly; making it difficult to create and test new materials .

That changed recently with the advent of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology defines a new building block, the nanoparticle, consisting of several or up to thousands of atoms. Researchers can now directly control a material to almost the atomic level; potentially giving society access to new materials with unique properties. However, since a material is made up of countless (different) building blocks, this new degree of atomic control also allows for countless new combinations.

With the latest tools in nanotechnology, researchers are exploring the possibilities of building novel materials from these uncountable number of building blocks. It is in essence a trial-and-error method, and we keep seeing people struggling with the first step: getting the right nanoparticles.

 

The research toolkit lacks a fast way for making specific building blocks

If you want nanoparticles, you have two options. You can either buy them or make them yourself. Most people eventually choose the latter option (we'll explain the reason in a separate post). Most synthesis routes rely on wet chemical methods, which can provide good control over particle size and shape. Unfortunately, these are often difficult to modify or scale. With these methods, it takes a substantial amount of effort and time to change the resulting particle size, composition or batch size; and sometimes a processes has to be redesigned entirely. Many PhD students end up spending over two thirds of their project-time just trying to reproduce and modify "proven" recipes. We have encountered too many researchers like that and is frankly a waste of energy, of talent and it holds society's progress back.

Students in our labs have a very different experience. After a short introduction to the spark generator system, they end their day with the particles of the size and composition that they wanted and ready for their actual work: validating their hypothesis. 

Seeing those two opposites was perhaps the most important driving force in starting VSPARTICLE. We are enabling researchers to find the piece of the puzzle that helps them create the whole image. To have easy and fast iterations in making your building blocks and bring you to your goal quickly. How you could fast-forward your research cycle, will be the subject of our next post. 

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