Nanotechnology is the application of scientific knowledge to manipulate and control matter at the nanoscale in order to make use of size- and structure-dependent properties and phenomena, as distinct from those associated with individual atoms or molecules or with bulk materials. This field presents new opportunities for the development of everyday products with enhanced performance, potential reduced production cost, using less raw material and leading to an eco-efficient manufacturing processes. Fitting neatly with the European Union agenda for smart, sustainable and responsible growth, nanotechnology will potentially help address key societal challenges facing the region, such as the medical needs of an ageing population, more efficient use of resources, developing renewable energy to meet the enhanced commitments on energy efficiency, carbon emissions reduction and climate change.
Following the European Commission guidelines, nanotechnology has a key role transversal to several sectors. The semiconductor sector, for example, supports over 100 000 direct jobs in the region (and thousands more, indirectly). Europe must secure its role in other emerging nano markets as well, taking the opportunity to develop profitable companies in new materials, processing equipment and device technologies. Europe’s pharmaceutical industry, for example, stands to benefit from the growth in the nanomedicine sector. But, while the region is at the forefront of research, it risks being usurped by the US, which is taking a lead in the number of patents, with a rapid progress in commercialization.
Nanotechnology also presents an opportunity to rejuvenate traditional industries, like chemicals and catalysts, papermaking and agriculture, bringing innovations in sustainability, processing, energy efficiency, recycling, emissions control and waste treatment. These sectors stand to be transformed, giving Europe a clear margin of difference and added value over the global competition.
Solutions to the most major challenges facing Europe such as a secure affordable energy supply and reduced greenhouse gas emissions could also be provided by nanotechnologies and innovations in existing technologies for an effective promotion of the sustainable development, as imposed by an eco-efficiency mission as a part of a broader concept regarding sustainable production and consumption. According to the International Energy Agency, big investment is needed to overhaul the world’s current energy system by 2050 and limit climate change to 2˚C. While this represents an enormous challenge, it also presents a technological opportunity: more efficient solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, energy conversion technologies, energy efficient insulating materials and carbon capture membranes, to name but a few, will be required. In the next five to ten years alone, the low-carbon energy market including energy efficient technologies and alternative fuel vehicles, could be worth more than 1 billion euros. In addition to the economic opportunity and the environmental imperative, the European Union (EU) also has a legal obligation, having pledged to a 20% reduction in emissions, increase in renewables and improvement in energy efficiency by 2020.
However, there are still question marks about the application of nanoparticles and nanomaterials, mainly because of the lack of knowledge about their properties, applicability, but also due to concerns over possible adverse impacts on the environment and health.
The rate of integration and use of nanotechnology in the industrial sector didn’t follow the research pace and investment of the recent years. Lack of knowledge, enhanced by the absence of rules governing the sector and the lack of instructions about proper manipulation, handling and processing of materials at the nanoscale, lead to the need to find a balance that reflects a common language among stakeholders, in particular, industry and universities/research centers, to diminish existing gap.
The urgency of enhancing the implementation of nanoengineering in products and services is a top issue of the international agenda. The available funding for this area reinforces its importance. Furthermore, relevant developments are being conducted by universities/research centres, with a very low transfer rate to the industrial sector.
The relevance of nanoengineering for innovation is a reality scientifically well documented. Despite this fact, its effective and practical application is still a challenge that must be assumed in order to define guidelines of intervention to a deep collaboration between stakeholders. Being so relevant, the university and business effective collaboration for (in)novation, competitiveness and personal enrichment, several steps must be followed (or reinforced) in a hierarchical intervention, in which all the agents must be aware of their role. However, considering that the physical infrastructures, for that purpose, already exist (such as incubators, competitiveness and transfer knowledge units), the main question remains: Are the actors really communicating and, consequently, committed? That’s the biggest challenge: The need for a social change in order to overcome the current obstacles: distinct entities dynamics and “languages” between stakeholders, as well as responses/feedback to society demands. Consequently, the gap in communication (mostly regarding quality) must be narrowed to pursuit the excellence in R&D, in universities curricula and the effective dissemination and final application at the industry.
The work developed under the scope of this project intends to provide a tool to assist the narrowing of the gap that still exists between R&D in research centres/universities and its application at industry, by means of providing a common language translated in to the development of an index that expresses and measures the usability of a trinity of nanomaterials/production technology/product – developed in universities and research centres – into the business environment, considering both stakeholders’ demands. Therefore, the major outcome intends to be a contribution to improve the industry competitiveness and economic growth through the innovation process.
The overall tool is based on a decision making support model tool, that gathers the main actors of (and for) nanotechnology deep and practical usage, the manufacturers and the users. The model follows a structured modular and systematized approach, that analyses a nano-based product from its origin to its practical usage, embracing four major modules: Raw material; Production; Product; Application.
– Raw material (module one) comprises the raw material characterization, the reliability of the supplier and a cradle-to-grave Life-Cycle Assessment approach, by means of considering the raw material’s recycling process;
– Production (module two) focuses in the financial, health, environment impacts, measuring (qualitatively and quantitatively) the costs and standards compliances related to nanomaterials production/manipulation/assembling;
– Product (module three) analyses the potential of the nano-based product according to its performance for the specific application. This module has the particular relevance of the effective establishment of the communication channel between the developer and the potential user due to the fact that the performance indicator is dependent of the market needs and demands;
– Application (module four) considers the current TRL of the product and the type of innovation that it offers, incremental or radical.
The output NTU index presents four characters, one per module, that offer a versatile tool, allowing the improvement and management of each module independently.