The struggle to create novel materials


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Aaike van Vugt

CEO,

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Scientists all over the world are looking for solutions to the issues mankind is facing:  climate change, the increase of human population, a desire for higher standards of living, etc.  One of the trends they are contributing to is the macroscopic shift from a fossil fuel based economy towards a sustainable and carbon neutral one. More and more scientists are exploring the possibilities of nanoparticles to create novel materials supporting this shift. Unfortunately this process is slowed down because people are struggling with the first step: getting the right building blocks. 

The development of new carbon neutral technologies relies on the development of new materials

Petrol engines are replaced by batteries and electric motors, homes are covered by high efficient solar cells and a centralised energy network is converted towards a more decentralized version. In most cases the development of new carbon neutral technologies relies on the development of new materials. For example, solar cells and batteries are becoming more efficient because we are becoming better in modifying material properties to better convert absorbed light to electric energy or storing more energy per volume.  

To understand why it is so difficult to create such novel materials,

we should  consider how an engineer looks at a material: it is a physical substance with useful, understood properties.  The building blocks that form the material are atoms, and the materials’ properties are the result of countless interactions between these atoms. Most materials contain a mixture of different atoms, forming e.g. molecules and alloys, expanding our options from little over a hundred atoms in the periodic table to millions of combinations.

Nanotechnology takes things a step further by defining a new building block, the nanoparticle, consisting of several up to tens of thousands of atoms. Why these nanoparticles themselves are so interesting deserves a separate post (or even a book series or two). Instead we just look at the numbers: a hundred building blocks just became billions of building blocks with unique properties, from which we can build an uncountable number of materials. 

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

 

The researchers toolkit is missing a fast way of making specific building blocks

If you want nanoparticles, you have two options: make them, or buy them (in a separate post we’ll explain why many people that buy nanoparticles end up synthesizing their own). Most synthesis methods rely on wet chemical methods, which can provide beautiful control over particle size and shape, but often are difficult to modify or scale. Changing particles size, composition or batch size takes a significant amount of effort, and sometimes a complete redesign of the process. We have met with too many PhD researchers, in fields such as energy storage, catalysis and electronics, that have wasted over two thirds of their project time trying to reproduce and modify ‘proven’ recipes, so that they could get started on their actual project goals. 

Students in our labs had a very different experience: after a short introduction and exploring the spark generator system a bit, they ended their day with the particles of the size and composition that they wanted. And they could start the 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 fast and easy 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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