The Nanotechnology Series (Part 3 of 4): The Next Big Industrial Boon

This article is the third in a four-part series that explores the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) and the growing field of IoNT research and applications. Read parts one and two.

The City of Lowell in Massachusetts is named after the industrialist, Francis Cabot Lowell. In the early 1800s, Lowell invented cotton spinning and weaving machines and founded the first textile mill in the United States. This mill, which was a forerunner of future manufacturing factories, integrated all the processes needed to turn cotton into cloth.

Now many years later, Lowell is once again making manufacturing history, this time at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell in the field of nanomanufacturing.

The university has a long history of researching processes and equipment to solve problems that industry faces in a manufacturing environment, particularly in plastics engineering. Now, with the Nanomanufacturing Center at UMass Lowell, the university is a center of expertise in this particular technology. The university’s research is supported by several grants and awards including a Nanotechnology Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a center of excellence award from Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

The university believes that nanoproducts are “likely to fuel the next economic boom,” and it works with industries and government to come up with practical manufacturing solutions for commercial products using nanoscience and technology developments. For instance, researchers here are discovering how to create polymer patterns from infinitely small nanoparticles or nanoelements for use in a wide range of applications. The Center’s researchers have mastered how to do this at a very high rate in a way that has evolved from a batch process to a continuous, rapid roll-to-roll process.

The reason these polymers are so intriguing is that they are highly flexible with good tensile strength, and they are lighter and more cost-effective than some traditional polymers. They can also be embedded with mechanical, electronic, thermal, and other kinds of properties that can be used in an array of products. The Center is working with the U.S. government and companies interested in adding in EMI shielding, cloaking, antimicrobial, superhydrophobic, and icephobic capabilities.

Carol Forance Barry, the Center’s co-director and an associate director of the NSF Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, explains a bit of the process. “Our researchers mix nanoparticles into polymers to create a nanocomposite that can be used in different materials,” said Barry. For instance, some organizations are looking for nanoproducts with better barrier properties, while others are looking for better mechanical or electronic properties.

A particular area of interest is novel substrates for flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), which could be included in products such as sensors, electronics, displays, RFID, and wearables. The university recently received funding from NextFlex, a manufacturing consortium dedicated to FHE. “Companies interested in FHE want to go from silicon-based electronics, which are very rigid and relatively brittle, to something that’s much more flexible,” said Barry. “We’re making flexible substrates that are electronically tunable, so companies will be able to print on top of those substrates.”

According to Barry, the researchers have also explored how to create polymer patterns for metamaterials, or cloaking materials. “Companies now can have flexible substrates that will block a certain amount of electronic signature in the microwave or visible region, depending on the size of the features that they are creating,” Barry said.

Another application area is nanosilver, which would provide antimicrobial properties. “We’re experimenting with different ways of adding silver into the polymer – mixing it directly, putting it on as a top layer, and also through a coextrusion system with silver and another material,” Barry added. “These products could be used in medical applications where these is a need provide a barrier to bacteria.”

One final area of research Barry discussed was using nanoscale technology in polymers to counteract ice buildup on airplanes: “A coating of nano particles and polymer can create a superhydrophobic surface on plane wings that would be a barrier to water, so there would not be any icing.”

What’s next? The research at the Nanomanufacturing Center is continually focused on how small products can go. “We think we can get as small as 50 nanometers in size when we work with more fluid materials, such as liquid silicone rubber used in medical devices,” Barry said. “We are also looking at omniphobicity, which would create a barrier to both oil and water.”

Don’t forget to check back for the final article in the series next week.