3.3.2 Drivers and Barriers to Innovation
Drivers of the materials industry are clearly chemical companies. Most material properties may be changed and engineered dramatically through the controlled size-selective synthesis and assembly of nanoscale building blocks. This requires the creation of particles that can be prepared by processes such as vapour phase condensation, physical size reduction, or flame and pyrolysis aerosol generators. However, the wide ranging synthesis approaches have a number of key challenges that may be summarised as follows:
- The ability to scale-up synthesis and assembly strategies for low-cost, reproducible, large-scale production of nanostructured materials, while maintaining control of critical feature size and quality,
- Control of the size and composition of nanoclusters,
- Control of the interface and distribution of nanocomponents within the fully formed materials.
However, the most significant problem is the potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials. Currently, very little is known about the pathways into the human body and the possible impact of nanomaterials to health. Up to now several kinds of nanomaterials like nanocrystalline metal oxides or fullerenes are used in commercially available products such as sunscreens, shower gels, soaps and cosmetics. The impact on health and the environment is not sufficiently clear yet.
For example an international research team investigated how carbon-based nanoparticles interact with cells. They found strong biophysical evidence that nanoparticles may alter cell structure and pose health risks depending on the exposure conditions and the interaction between nanoparticles and other compounds in the human body. This can also have significant implications for the commercialisation of products. As long as the consequences of using nanomaterials in commercially available products are unknown some industrial players have serious reservations to use these materials in products even when nanomaterials for specific applications promise a better performance. The same properties that nanomaterials are designed for may cause health and environmental problems. One example is that with decreasing particle size the surface area to mass ratio becomes greater. Therefore, the specific surface and reactivity increases. This property is desired e.g. in the case of catalysts but can also lead to greater toxicity for living organisms.
Therefore, risk assessment of nanomaterials and the development of strategic programs that enable relevant risk-focused research are internationally recognised topics. The OECD Joint Meeting of the Chemicals Committee and the Working Party on Chemicals, Pesticides and Biotechnology has started to investigate in the area of risk assessment of nanomaterials to increase the safety of nanomaterials in order to help to realise the benefits of nanotechnology. In this context legislation plays also an important role. Even when the chemical directive REACH of the European Union does not even mention nanomaterials explicitly some other directives are on the way. One example for that are the guidelines for nanoparticles in cosmetics from the European Parliament which come into effect in 2012. Clear nanoparticle product labelling and specified safety testing are part of the EU guidelines. Directly after the guidelines passed the European Parliament some organisations required a quicker solution to bridge the time gap until 2012.
Due to lack of information, there are up to now many uncertainties under which conditions nanomaterials are likely to pose health and environmental risks. From this arises an important hurdle for the commercialisation of nanotechnology related products. In addition, other commercialisation aspects can also represent significant hurdles.
The obstacles for successful nanotechnology applications, based on a company survey which was carried out in Germany, highlighted that the lack of financial resources plays a significant role (c.f. Fig. 3).
Investment costs and the lack of funding along the value added chain represent hurdles that exceed any other obstacle. This central problem of financing innovations has a considerable impact on the whole innovation process. It is interesting to see that the obstacle ‘legislation' does not play a central role. The interviewees did not regard the legislative framework as a primary source of problems. This is might not be representative for all fields of nanotechnology related applications and materials, e.g. for medical/pharmaceutical products.
Another current challenge is the economic/financial crisis which can be assumed to be far from over. Harper summarised five possible influences of the economic crisis on Nanotechnology in a white paper. He has given arguments that especially venture capital funding of nanotechnology start ups is thin on the ground. Beside a number of possible negative effects the white paper points out positively that now many companies have a clear market focus and address real and critical needs in a cost effective manner.
Recent survey results of European micro, nano and materials enterprises indicate that almost half of the responding small and medium-sized high-tech companies were affected by a decrease in orders and in sales. About two thirds of the responding companies are expecting negative effects on their businesses development in 2009.
At the current stage it is virtually impossible to predict all consequences of the economic crisis on nanotechnology related products. This includes also the nanomaterials sector. According to the authors view, it can be expected that the future development will slow down further and will not only affect small and medium-sized companies but also global players.
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