Deloitte Features NanoMech in its 2017 Exponentials Watch List for Science and Technology Innovations
Tech Trends 2017
Mark White, Tom Nassim, Jeff Carbeck, Asif Dhar
February 07, 2017
FOCUS: NANO-ENGINEERED MATERIALS
The word nano is often used to describe something unusually small. For example, Tata Motors developed a compact automobile primarily for the Indian market it calls the Nano. But beyond its diminutive descriptive usage in product marketing, nano has a much more precise definition. Using one meter as a measuring stick, a nanometer is defined as one billionth of a meter (that’s 1/1,000,000,000). If this is hard to imagine, try using a single carbon atom as a measuring stick. A single nanometer is about the size of three carbon atoms placed side by side. In comparison, a single human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide.
Nano-manufacturing—the process of making things at nano-scale—represents an important emerging capability. To create things smaller than 10 nanometers, we typically turn to advanced chemistry; to some degree, one can attribute the pharmaceutical industry’s achievements to its ability to create precise molecules at these length scales. More traditional manufacturing technologies, such as machining, can get down to features that are close to the size of a human hair, but that leaves a thousand-fold gap in length scales from making molecules to machining. Nano-manufacturing is a set of technologies and techniques that enables making things at this range of size.
The drive to develop nano-manufacturing capabilities comes from a variety of different challenges and opportunities that emerge at this scale. Perhaps the most visible driver has been the demand for cheaper and higher-performing computers. Moore’s law, the periodic doubling of transistor density—the number of transistors that can fit on a chip—is a direct result of the development of machines that can create everfiner patterns of semiconductors. In 2014, Intel shipped chips with 14-nanometer resolution. The smallest features on these chips were spanned by fewer than 50 silicon atoms.
Medicine also drives demand for nano-manufacturing. Life emerges at nano-scale through a complex set of molecular “machines” that copy DNA and synthesize proteins; the molecules that carry out these processes are 10–100 nanometers in size. Nano-manufacturing could be used to make objects that either mimic this process—for example, to manufacture proteins that can then be used as drugs—or inhibit it directly to treat disease.
A third area driving the development of nano-manufacturing is the role of nanostructures on surfaces, in the form of coatings, lubricants, and adhesives. Nanostructures can prevent water from wetting a surface, making water-resistant fabrics and mirrors and windows that don’t fog. In a similar way, nanostructured surfaces can prevent the formation of ice—for example, on the wings of an airplane, making it much safer to fly and eliminating the need for the repeated application of liquid de-icing agents. An important business application today addresses wear and friction. These physical factors, as well as adhesion, are a product of the interaction between surfaces at the nano-scale.
So what are some current examples of nano-engineered products that are likely to impact businesses today or in the near future?
In addition to integrated circuits, examples of products made through nano-manufacturing include nanoparticles of silver that kill bacteria and are integrated into clothing and medical devices to prevent infection; nanoparticles of titanium that block UV light and when integrated into a lotion or spray and applied to the skin prevent sunburn; and nanoparticles of pigment that make brighter paints and coatings that prevent corrosion.
Manufacturing asperities—imperfections remaining on surfaces after modern milling and machining techniques—are commonly at micron scale, but lubricant molecules are still larger than that. By changing the surface features at nano-scale, or by introducing nanostructured materials between surfaces, friction can be reduced to provide super-lubrication or can be enhanced to provide super-adhesion. NanoMech makes a nanostructured lubricant designed to mitigate these effects for critical mechanical components such as gears, bearings, valves, and chassis points. It is designed to address issues like performance under extreme pressure, anti-wear, anti-friction, corrosion protection, and extreme temperature stability in order to enable extension of service life and reduce maintenance cost of mechanical systems. Beyond the fact that the lubricant or coating is engineered and manufactured for specific business use cases, rather than inventing wholly new ways to make nanostructured materials, the company uses off-the-shelf manufacturing technology and includes both top-down fabrication and bottom-up assembly in its process.
However science-fiction-like nanotechnology’s capabilities might sound, applications are becoming evident today. For example, NanoMech’s AtomOil and AtomLube are self-replenishing, which means as friction rubs the nano-manufactured lubricant molecules apart, additional molecules are drawn into the interface. Applications may include equipment for oil and gas production; engines and other machines used in the marine, agriculture, and mining sectors; and macro-manufacturing techniques, including die casting and machining.
JIM PHILLIPS, CHAIRMAN AND CEO NANOMECH
At NanoMech, we consider ourselves pioneers in nano-mechanics. We design and engineer products at nano-scale while continuing to produce them at macro scale. Our company slogan is, “We make atoms work harder.”
In the world of industrial lubricants, there’s an old saying: The best maintenance is low maintenance. Nano-engineered lubricants and coatings help our clients in the manufacturing, energy, automotive, and defense sectors increase mechanical performance, efficiency, and durability while reducing downtime. These designs also support sustainability: At nano-scale, we can eliminate materials traditionally used in lubricants such as chrome and petroleum products.
If all of the problems in mechanical systems and manufacturing are at nano-scale, then it follows that the solutions must be at nano-scale too. Our solutions are made possible by a powerful mechanical systems lens through which we view both present needs and future opportunities. Consider the potential market for these products: By some estimates, each day every human on earth uses an average of 10 machines. As the population grows, so will the number of machines in operation, all requiring products like ours. The ability to engineer at nano-scale is helping us meet this demand. Over the course of six years, NanoMech has grown from one product offering to 80. Moreover, we’ve been able to drive these levels of growth using off-the-shelf components. As a practice, we take machines designed and utilized for other purposes and adapt them for use in making nano-engineered and nano-manufactured products. We occasionally see companies approach nano-engineering by building the machines they need from the ground up. Working in nano-scale doesn’t require that you reinvent the wheel; doing so is, in my opinion, a waste of time and money.
Expect to see nanotechnology take off in the next two to three years with the expansion of robotics, which represents an intersection of the mechanical and electronic worlds. Longer term, we will likely see a proliferation of nanotechnology solutions in niche markets. For example, the pharmaceutical industry is already engineering new molecules at nano-scale. And more will likely follow. As we journey into the future, materials science can be that catalyst for realizing new possibilities.