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Why It’s Important to Commercialise Nanotechnology?

Why It’s Important to Commercialise Nanotechnology

The commercialisation of all scientific fields is one of the fundamental reasons why society advances. In times gone by, there was a focus on developing new manufacturing methods, new medicines from traditional drug delivery approaches, and basic composite materials, as these brought the best economic benefits at the time. But, as with many areas of commercialised science, there reaches a point where the advances made start to become incremental, and areas can start to stagnate. In today’s world, the focus is being shifted away from traditional methods in the hope of building a more advanced, high-tech, and highly automated society. This new society requires more efficient computers, highly accurate sensors, new ways of tackling disease and new ways of harnessing, storing and using energy. Given that many areas of traditional science have reached their peak, there is a growing need, and nanotechnology is seen as the solution to this need.

Nanotechnology is not like any other field of science. Whilst it incorporates aspects from many scientific fields, it is an area with unmatched benefits and properties that are not seen with any other branch of science. Yet, there is often a stigma associated with nanotechnology, particularly around safety—is it safe? Will carbon nanotubes be the next asbestos? But, whilst many projects around the world have focused on the safety of nanomaterials, and ensuring that they are safe for use, many people who are not within the industry—be it the decision makers in end-user markets, or the general public—still think that they are. This is one of the reasons why the commercialisation of nanotechnology, and products that use nanomaterials, is important, because once the decision makers see the added benefits of using nanomaterials and that they are safe, the market will (hopefully) open and adopt nanomaterials more and more. This will then benefit the whole of society.

Overcoming the Hype

Hype is something that has surrounded nanotechnology for a while now. The industry has been plagued by media hype, with phrases such as “wonder material”, and that one material can solve all technical problems. Whilst many nanomaterials do show excellent properties for high-tech applications, these markets can be slow to adopt new (and commercially untested) materials, so when these materials are not immediately used, the market confidence drops. Carbon nanotubes are a perfect example of this.

But it is not in the high-tech applications where we will see the most advances, it will be in the various composites, structural materials, automobiles, and consumer products that are a part of everyday life. Yes, the high-tech applications will come, but the confidence in the market needs to improve by small gains by using nanomaterials as an additive first. This is slowly happening, and more end-users are starting gain confidence that nanomaterials can be beneficial. That is, if they are used correctly (which in many cases they aren’t). This is another reason why the commercialisation of nanotechnology is important, because when each nanomaterial is ready to be used, if it can be used in many small applications first, the market will be more confident in adopting it for the high-tech applications that everyone wants to see them in.

Nanomaterials have now gone past the hype, and the subsequent lack of market confidence, and are currently on the path of gaining public confidence and are at a commercial tipping point, so there has never been a more crucial time to commercialise nanotechnology—and this ranges from increasing the production of nanomaterials to industrial scale levels, to the implementation of nanomaterials across many applications and consumer products.

The Need For A Collaborative Approach

The so-called ‘valley of death’ has been a key stopper of commercialisation over the years. The valley of death is the production region between academic work and industrial scale production. Often, the academic researchers don’t have the capacity to perform experiments and tests on scales greater than the lab, but companies are reluctant to invest in new materials at this point as there is no guarantee of scale-up success, and it is seen as too high of a risk. Whilst this relationship is getting better, there is still work to be done in creating a complete R&D pipeline from the bench to large-scale production. But, because not all private companies work with academia, this doesn’t affect the entire commercialisation pathway.

But it is not just the academic-industry collaborations that are important, the other side is the partnerships between material suppliers and end-user companies. This is significantly more crucial than academic-industry relations and is an area of nanotechnology commercialisation that is really starting to make progress. But there are differences between geographical regions to how these dynamics are played out. In some regions of the world, the relevant bodies have managed to work with end-user markets to incorporate nanomaterials and drive a demand for them. But, in some of these cases, there is a lack of supply. In other parts of the world, there is a huge oversupply of nanomaterials in areas where the commercial demand has not been generated. The commercialisation of nanotechnology is not going to flourish on a region-by-region basis and is going to require cross-continent collaborations and partnerships. In some cases, it may mean that the producers of the nanomaterials will have to set up operations in the parts of the world where there is a high demand.

To sum it all up, there aren’t many branches of science that can realise quantum computing, provide a means for targeted drug delivery, vastly improve the sensing capabilities of multiple sensor types, provide extra strength to construction materials, and make electronic devices flexible; and this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the commercial potential. The implementation of nanomaterials into consumer products, electronics, batteries, and other technologies on a widespread scale will also disrupt the market like never before. Therefore, steps need to be taken at all stages of the commercialisation pathway to ensure that nanomaterials are used to their full potential and will be the driver for future societal advances.