Nanotechnologies – technologies that work with matter on the nanoscale of size between 0.1 nm and 100 nm – have proven potential for impact in advanced fields, including materials, computer technologies, transportation, consumer goods, food, and medicine. While the sector is strongest in North America and Asia currently, Europe is still a leading region for nanotechnology research and development.
The Europe 2020 strategy is the top-level strategic document outlining how European industry can remain strong and competitive in the future while tackling global challenges such as climate change and the impact of a growing population.
In it, nanotechnology is identified as a critical factor in Europe’s successful development as an industrial power.
Globally, research funding for nanotechnologies is growing at a near exponential rate, with European Union member states accounting for nearly a quarter of the total research investment. There are over 4000 nanotechnology companies in the European Union, and research centers in every country across the continent.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the use of matter on the nanoscale of size in an industrial process. At this scale (below 100 nm), the peculiar laws of quantum mechanics begin to govern interactions between matter. So, nanotechnology can also be defined as the exploitation and application of the discoveries of quantum physics.
This broad definition means that nanotechnology is naturally interdisciplinary. Nanotechnology encompasses research from fields as diverse as molecular engineering, microfabrication, engineering, energy storage, semiconductor physics, molecular biology, organic chemistry, and surface science.
Nanotechnology applications abound in advanced manufacturing and other areas of complicated modern industry. Food technology, medicine and pharmaceuticals, and consumer electronics all rely on developments in nanotechnology to bring everyday products to the market.
Nanotechnology in Europe
Within Europe-wide and state-level policy frameworks, funding priorities, and research ambitions, nanotechnology is seen as a key enabling technology for advanced industry.
It occupies an important place in Europe’s ambitions for a knowledge economy based on cutting-edge innovation both in European industry and the academic community.
This importance is reflected in the specific attention provided to nanotechnology leadership in European Commission funding. For example, a recent fund committed millions of euros to projects achieving industrial leadership for European companies in nanotechnology.
The objective of this funding priority is securing leadership in nanotechnology for European businesses. Nanotechnology is seen as a high-growth global market that can stimulate scientific and technological advances, and nanotechnology investment and adoption generate high value for European economies.
European level funding calls also tend to have a strong focus on responsible development, safety standards, and technological advancement for social benefits.
Phoenix: Europe Wide Nanopharmaceuticals Infrastructure
One example of Europe-wide innovation is the Phoenix project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme.
The project is developing manufacturing practices that will ensure that nanopharmaceuticals can be developed and deployed effectively from the laboratory to the market – whether the developer is a small business, start-up, research laboratory, or national health organization.
Currently, testing and manufacturing facilities for novel nanopharmaceuticals are unaffordable and inaccessible to all but the largest pharmaceutical corporations with the deepest pockets. This stifles innovation.
As well as developing and deploying best practices for Europe’s nanopharmaceutical industry to ensure the best possible testing and manufacturing processes are followed, the Phoenix project is also creating a new European-level infrastructure that all research centers and laboratories can make use of.
Evaluating Future Nanomaterials’ Performance and Safety
Nanotechnology’s development has given rise to a plethora of new nanomaterials. Many of these have been discovered or developed in Europe, such as graphene, which was first described by scientists working at the University of Manchester (UK).
The next generation of nanomaterials faces a challenge in terms of risk assessment and technology development. Nanoparticles, in particular, display complex behavior that tends to resist the classification and stress testing processes that characterize new materials assessment in larger-scale fields.
To tackle this, a new project coordinated by Helmholtz Zentrum München, Harmless, is creating new tools, guidance, and decision-making support for assessing risk factors in the next generation of nanomaterials.
Subwavelength Nanostructure Research
Nanostructured surfaces manipulate energy and matter around them in unexpected and interesting ways. In nature, nanostructured surfaces include moths’ anti-reflective eyes, lotuses’ self-cleaning leaves, and butterflies’ colorful wings.
In industry, nanostructured surfaces can significantly alter and enhance multiple product types. Reducing reflectivity in photovoltaics, anti-glare properties in automotive parts, and hydrophobic self-cleaning properties for smart packaging all rely on nanostructured surface innovation.
An EU-funded pilot project, Sun Pilot, is developing a new cost-effective platform for making subwavelength nanostructure fabrication methods accessible to Europe’s entire nanotechnology sector.
Large Scale 3D Printing with Nanoscale Control
Large engineering structures like turbines, bridges, and industrial machines, are currently manufactured with traditional, subtractive processes. These techniques do not allow nanoscale control over surface and material features like anti-corrosion and hardness.
A new project, Grade2XL, is developing wire arc additive manufacturing processes for large-scale manufacturing that can have this kind of nanoscale control built-in. The project is being funded by the European Union, with the bulk of work carried out in the Netherlands.
The Future of Nanotechnology in Europe
Nanotechnology will likely become an enabling technology for a diverse range of sectors in Europe in the next few decades. Therefore, strong leadership in nanotechnology in the region will underpin future leadership across industry, research, and development in Europe.
This is especially true for manufacturing. Many analysts argue that a strong manufacturing base is critical to an overall strong economy, and European policymakers see the kind of advanced manufacturing that is enabled by nanotechnology as key to ensuring a future for the regional manufacturing sector.
Nanotechnology will continue to rise in Europe in the next few years, but its growth must be nurtured with strategic policy and funding commitment to ensure the region achieves its potential for numerous and diverse industries well into the twenty-first century.
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