Mapping the future of nanotechnology: in materials, health/medical, and energy

July 7, 2006

Brussels, 06 Jul 2006

An EU funded project has published a series of roadmaps, providing an overview the current situation and future of nanotechnology in three fundamental sectors: materials, health and medical systems, and energy.

The past years have seen an unprecedented growth in research and development (R&D) activity in the field of nanotechnology, propelled by the belief that nanotechnology represents a radically new approach to manufacturing. Experts believe that the technology will revolutionise practically all industrial sectors as well as everyday life, and that this revolution is not so far in the future. Knowing how nanotechnology will develop in the coming years, as well as which applications will be more relevant, will be of considerable value to those planning for the future.

NanoRoadMap is funded under the 'nanotechnologies and nano-sciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices' thematic priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The NanoRoadMap consortium gathers eight research and industrial partners from the public and private sectors from the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Israel.

A total of 12 roadmaps are grouped into three sectoral reports, which give details of the properties of each technology, as well as the challenges and barriers to their current and future applications.

The report predicts that nanomaterials will be developed the most over the next 10 years. Nanomaterials are novel materials whose elemental structure size has been engineered at the nanometre scale. At this dimension, materials exhibit greatly improved or totally new behaviours and properties. Because of their ubiquitous nature, nanomaterials can find application in a variety of markets, ranging from catalysis to membranes for fuel cells. Carbon nanotubes are the best-known nanomaterial. However, the wide spectrum of possible applications envisaged, the report says, makes it difficult to estimate with a reasonable accuracy the dimension of future markets.

One market that will see an impact is the medical sector. The report notes that research into the rational delivery and targeting of therapeutic and diagnostic agents is already quite advanced, and nanotechnology will be increasingly used to create systems which can allow drugs to target specific areas within the body. With the help of nanotechnology, the medicine is moving towards more individualised treatments. Using particles smaller than 50 nanometres, or even 20 nanometres, drugs or drugs carriers can move through the walls of blood vessels, easily interacting with molecules on both the cell surface and within the cell, often in ways that do not alter the behaviour of those molecules.

However, despite the huge expectations surrounding the use of nanoparticles for medical purposes, the technology is still at an early stage of development, and the report cautions that several problems need to be solved or circumvented to attain results. For example, the interaction between nanoparticles and 'intracorporeal targets' need still to be explored to in order to increase understanding of the complex biological basic principles governing the impact of these specific applications.

According to the report's experts, one of the most important challenges is linked to the possible side effects or potential cell toxicity of available nanoparticles. It is important that any side effects do not prevail over the therapeutic effects of the drug. Public support at the early stages of the research is a priority, says the report, and an attempt to somehow simplify the approval processes (without, of course, any loss of quality and security within the process itself) should be considered.

Nanotechnology is also considered potentially promising all along the energy pipeline, from production to transmission, to distribution, conversion and utilisation, offering alternative ways of energy generation, storage and saving. According to the report, while the technology is only at an early stage of development, European research into nanoscience is already prevalent in the key alternative energy sources solar energy, thermoelectricity, rechargeable batteries, and supercapacitors.

European industry is also seen to be competitive in a number of areas. In nanotechnology-related heat insulation and conductance, for example, the position of European industry is thought to be good or excellent by most of the report's experts. In solar cells, there are a number of large European companies and some start-ups that the experts consider to be in quite a good position. Also in rechargeable batteries and supercapacitors the position of European small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) is rated from satisfactory to good.

However, the report suggests that these are notable exceptions, finding that European industry is lagging behind its counterparts in the US and South East Asia. In the case of thermoelectricity, the vast majority of companies cited by report's experts as contributing the most to advancing nanotechnology in this field are based in the US. The competitive position of European industry also varies depending on the sectors and size of a company - large enterprises or SMEs.

The energy roadmap reflects an overall difficulty in all three sectors under review - transferring knowledge on nanoscience from academia to industry. Given that many of the barriers encountered in one sector are present in others, the report suggests the creation of multidisciplinary centres to advance knowledge transfer on materials development/application and their own pilot production facilities. These centres will favour cooperation, facilitate access to sophisticated equipment, help to transfer research results into products, scale up production processes in line with industry requirements, and train people. Both academia and industry, most of all SMEs, would benefit from such centres, says the report.

The report's recommendations are summarised below:

  • fundamental research for understanding structure-property-processing relationship at the molecular level;

  • computer modelling and simulation at the nanoscale;

  • online tools for characterisation, process monitoring and control; metrology;

  • developing a standard regulatory framework and common approval procedures;

  • identifying and pre-developing materials, applications and capabilities that respond to the stringent needs of mass production, thus reducing the risk associated with their development;

  • scaling up production;

  • improving collaboration between academia and industry and technology transfer;

  • providing education and skills both for young researchers and co-workers;

  • answering increasing concerns on health, safety and environment issues;

  • fostering transparent discussion and information with all the stakeholders on the benefit and risks of nanotechnology.

The reports in full

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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