The series: We look at the manufacturing industry which is using technology to create “smart factories” fit for long-term global competitiveness.
Clothing that safely conducts electricity or walls in buildings that are fire-resistant sound like fantastical products from some far-off future, but new breakthroughs in nanomaterials mean both are moving closer to reality.
Kitchener, Ont.-based NanoQuan, for one, says it has come up with a process for adding electrical and heat conductivity to plastic. The company believes its advances, as well as similar improvements by other startups working within the manufacturing industry, are set to transform how products are made – and what they can do.
“We’re creating plastics and rubbers with properties they didn’t have before,” says Ryan Gerakopulos, chief executive and founder of the startup. “It’s gone from lab-scale technologies to industrial scale – we’re at a tipping point.”
So far, nanomaterials – or substances assembled from microscopic particles – have been mostly hype, Mr. Gerakopulos says. Scientists have for years offered the promise of materials and products with veritable super properties, such as micro-thin, extra-strong steel or batteries that can be charged nearly instantaneously.
They’ve been able to simulate or create these products in laboratory settings, but efforts at mass commercialization have largely been stymied because of nanomaterials’ tendency to stick together when blended into composite substances. That, in turn, diminishes their super-properties.
To that end, NanoQuan says it has patented a dispersion process that incorporates fillers and widely disperses the nanomaterials throughout the composite, which gets around the clumping problem and helps the substance maintain its abilities.
“You can actually realize the performance improvements that nanomaterials claim to be able to provide,” Mr. Gerakopulos says.
NanoQuan, which was founded in 2014 and is now operating within the University of Waterloo’s Velocity startup incubator, has attracted several dozen clients with its technique, mostly in North America and Europe, he adds.
In July, the company was also one of 10 chosen by Stanley Black & Decker Inc. to be part of the power tool maker’s Techstars additive manufacturing accelerator program. Each participant gets US$20,000 in funding in exchange for 6 per cent of its common stock.
NanoQuan has five employees and is in the process of raising funding.
Mr. Gerakopulos says his company’s conductive plastics have particular appeal to clothing makers and video game companies, who could use the materials to create more effective wearable technologies such as performance-measuring athletic wear or gesture- and motion-sensitive gloves.
Finnester Coatings Oy, which is testing NanoQuan’s products, believes there’s a big industrial market for its conductive coatings. The Finland-based company has received requests from its customers in the transportation, energy and construction industries for such coatings, but so far has been unable to fulfil them because the technology wasn’t there yet.
Chief executive Ari Hokkanen also sees potential demand from hospitals, which have pressing needs to eliminate static electricity from hallways, operating rooms and equipment. Conductive plastics can help with that by channelling electricity away from sensitive areas.
“NanoQuan will give us the possibility to make products that have all the features they have today, but adding the conductive feature without losing any properties,” Mr. Hokkanen says. “This is something that nobody else can do at the moment, at least in Europe, so it could be a major benefit for us to open up new markets.”
Demand for paints and coatings, including advanced nanomaterial composites, is indeed poised for solid growth over the next few years. The industry’s global value will rise at a compound annual growth rate of 5 per cent to US$214 billion by 2023 from US$155 billion last year, according to New York-based Zion Market Research.
Dublin-based Research and Markets expects significant expansion for nanocoatings in particular with a compound annual growth rate of 24.5 per cent, for a value of US$15.8 billion by 2023. Most of the demand is expected to come from the automotive, health-care, electronics and energy sectors.
Manufacturing experts agree that nanomaterials are about to make the jump from promising lab experiments to useful real-world products. Canadian companies such as NanoQuan and Boisbriand, Que.-based Raymor Industries Inc., which makes nanotubes for electronics, are well positioned to take advantage.
“Nanostructure coatings are here and have proven to be very interesting and attractive,” says Javad Mostaghimi, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto. “It’s not widespread yet, but it is coming. They are very promising and I’m sure they will be widely used in the not too distant future.”
If nanomaterials’ move from promise to realization does indeed happen, all manner of products – from video-game controllers to hospital instruments – could see significant near-term improvements.
“There’s heavy demand from industries for new materials,” Mr. Gerakopulos says. “This era of material science is becoming fundamentally important.”