Alan Dalton, Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Sussex, has developed a way of producing nanomaterial inks and assembling them into coatings. Joining Advanced Material Development (AMD) as its Chief Scientific Officer has allowed Dalton and his lab to expand their research to find nanomaterial technological solutions to real world problems by working with companies from the automotive, packaging, telecommunications, retail and defence industries.

“Nanomaterials are small building blocks that can provide disruption”, said Alan Dalton, Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Sussex talking about nanomaterials, tiny objects approximately 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. “We can make things stronger, we can make things lighter. We can begin to interact with the biological world in a different way. We can fundamentally change things.”

Dalton’s lab has developed a way of producing nanomaterial inks – stable liquid dispersions with a range of nanomaterials – and assembling them into coatings which can be placed on a range of substrates using commercial printing techniques, such as ink-jet printing. “That process is basically the platform for a range of technologies that we are looking at,” said Dalton. “We’re interested in how you take nanomaterials that have incredible functionality, in terms of electrical, thermal and mechanical properties, and assemble them in a controlled way into a real material structure, like a coating or a composite, translating those properties from the nano-scale to the macro-scale.”

Dalton has been carrying out research in this field for over 25 years working on a variety of nanoparticles ranging from carbon nanotubes, to graphene, a two-dimensional material made from carbon atoms that is strong, flexible and conductive, to fullerenes, which were first discovered by Professor Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex, who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996. Despite Dalton’s work manipulating materials at the atomic level, he remains very much focussed on the bigger picture.

These new nano-materials can be synthesised and assembled in a multitude of combinations via vacuum deposited or solution-processed methods onto a variety of substrates and objects. The potential number of devices, systems and applications are vast. Advanced Material Development (AMD), a company founded in 2017, aims to commercialise applications developed initially in Dalton’s lab, mainly focussed on solution-based material systems.

Joining AMD as a founder and Chief Scientific Officer has allowed Dalton and his lab to move into more industrial and applied focussed research to find product solutions to real world problems. “It’s really about having the end user in mind in terms of what the important problems are to solve,” Dalton said. “Then we develop a mechanism to assemble the nanomaterials to solve it.”

This sentiment is echoed by John Lee, the CEO of Advanced Material Development. “World-scale challenges, nano-scale solutions – that was our tagline from the start. We are a solutions provider, at the end of the day. We go out and find out who’s got a challenge to address and then we talk with the research team to see if we can do something about it.” John, who was previously a financier in the City of London working in energy and clean tech equity markets brings a strong commercial focus to the work. With his brother Richard Lee, also a founder and the company’s Chief Commerical Officer, the company has raised around £2.5 million in investment to buy key equipment and fund further research at the University.

AMD has exclusive commercial rights to the intellectual property developed through the partnership, and the University receives royalties on any commercialisation of the intellectual property. The company’s commercial product is trademarked as nHance.

Smart tyres: automotive industry

AMD and the Dalton lab are already collaborating with companies and organisations from the automotive, packaging, telecommunications, retail and defence industries. They are developing highly stretchable and conductive inks based on materials processed in the laboratory for a large automotive company, which could become the platform technology for smart tyres. “It could, for instance, predict failure in your tyre. And that’s a very interesting application for graphene because not many other materials, in fact, no other materials do that,” said Dalton.

Reducing the use of metals: retail and telecommunications industry

They are also working with a major UK retailer, which is aiming to become a zero-waste business and to reduce emissions, by eliminating metals from their radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are currently used to identify and track products. The printable carbon-based antennas perform as well as RFID tags, are potentially cheaper and don’t require any metals. The global retail industry’s capacity to adopt new technology is potentially quite fast, compared to other industries, and is large, with the global RFID market is set to reach £17 billion by 2024.

In collaboration with another commercial partner, M-SOLV, Dalton’s lab has also developed a flexible and extremely tough touch screen for phones based on thin silver nanowires, which are a thousand times thinner than a human hair. When combined with graphene technology, the technology provides a viable alternative to the currently used material, indium tin oxide (ITO), which is brittle. It’s also expensive to source, as it’s a rare metal only mined in China and Australia. If these applications were scaled up and brought to market, they could significantly reduce the amount of metals used in the retail industry.

Combating counterfeiting and improving traceability of items

AMD and the Dalton lab have developed a process of incorporating their proprietary nano platelet inks into various substrates, including textiles, to combat counterfeiting. “It’s like a DNA. Each minute particle has a unique signature,” said Lee. These nano particles have a unique optical signature allowing the inks to be seen with an optical spectrometer device. As the specialist ink is absorbed into textile yarns by printing, it is incorporated on the molecular scale. Even if you were to tear the fabric apart or burn it, the inks would still be visible to the spectrometer.

This technology could be applied to a range of materials, including sensitive defence technology or expensive materials containing metals, such as power line cables, to be traced anywhere. In certain African countries power line cable theft is rampant, with the cables often destined for markets in China and India where booming economies have created insatiable demand for copper and aluminium. Chinese and Indian buyers could, through enforcement, become responsible for checking the origins of the cables prior to buying them. “If you make the items traceable then purchasers become accountable,” said Lee.

The technology could also be useful to corporations or governments aiming to crack down on waste when mandated by regulation and then incorporated at the point of manufacture. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs unveiled a new Resources and Waste strategy in 2018, which makes businesses and manufacturers responsible for paying the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste. Novel barcoding systems able to trace waste stream recycling would enable the businesses and government to properly enforce the strategy.

Camouflaging and cloaking devices: defence industry

A similar use of the technology can also be applied to camouflage electro-magnetic emissions, such as Infra-Red, radar and radio waves. Defence scientists are clearly interested in such applications in order to help avoid detection by infrared guided weapons and infrared surveillance sensors. AMD has received research and development funding from the UK Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) and defence agencies in the US to develop the technology further.

Wearable medical technology and scaffolding for growing organs: medical, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry

The lab has also created a cheap, wearable, medical device. The liquid sensor, which conducts electricity, which would allow medical professionals or parents to monitor sick babies in remote parts of the world. Made from an emulsion of graphene, water and oil, the sensor is so sensitive that it picks up very small signals, such as a baby’s heart and breathing rates, when attached to the body. Currently, wearable sensors attached to a monitor by wires is used to monitor babies. As their feet and hands are tiny, they often fall off and the wires restrict the child’s movement. The new technology, which includes conformal and stretchable printed electronics coupled with new ultra-low power wireless technologies, would work like a fitness tracker providing real time data updates to a smart phone.

And, in what feels like a nearly sci-fi application of the nanomaterial technology into what’s being called nanostructured surfaces, inanimate carbon tubes – tubes made of carbon with diameters measured in nanometers – can be used on textured surface scaffolds to grow organs. “We have grown embryonic stem cells on carbon nanotubes, got them to proliferate and then used electrical signals or mechanical signals from the substrate to force them to differentiate into heart cells, or cartilage structures, or whatever,” said Dalton. Research in this field is being led by Dr Alice King, a lecturer at the University of Sussex in Applied Materials and Interfaces. While getting approval for further research in this area could prove challenging, this could potentially allow early drug tests to take place without harming animals.

Huge market potential

While the UK is currently a global leader in nanotechnology, both Lee and Dalton warn against complacency. Expectations for graphene, discovered in 2004, were high, and yet currently remain unfulfilled. They want research in the field to begin to bear results, which is why they’re focussing on developing nanomaterial inks. “I think for UK plc in the next five years, the low hanging fruit is in this technology,” said Dalton. “Using nanomaterials as functional coatings is cost effective and simple. It’s where I think we have an opportunity to make an impact.” Many of the nanotechnology applications they are developing are in large and vibrant global industries, such as retail, defence and the automotive industry with huge market potential.

“I think we’re on the edge of something major,” said Lee. “But it’s not easy. There are no real applications yet for these materials. That’s what we’re doing here. If we spend wisely, the next ten years could be ground breaking.”

By Suzanne Fisher-Murray, Research Communications Manager, University of Sussex