New $6.9m effort to make nanoparticle manufacturing in S’pore cheaper, more efficient

SINGAPORE – A new Singapore-based research project that aims to speed up the manufacture of nanoparticles – which are used in everything from Covid-19 vaccines to sunscreens and spacecraft – was launched on Monday (July 11).

The $6.5 million effort – called the Accelerated, Manufacturing Platform for Engineered Nanomaterials (Ample) – will develop a manufacturing platform that can be rapidly scaled up to produce up to 100kg of nanoparticles a day.

Current nanomaterial manufacturing techniques are time intensive, inaccurate or bulky, said Dr Nicholas Jose, one of the project leads for Ample.

However, this new platform could help to reduce the time needed for such materials to come to market, he added.

This experimental platform, conducted by the Cambridge Center for Advanced Research and Education in Singapore (Cares) and NTUitive, the innovation and enterprise company of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), is expected to be commercialised in around 2024, said the two Singapore institutions in a joint statement on Monday.

While Ample will initially focus on manufacturing antimicrobial zinc oxide particles, which are used in sunscreen and self-cleaning coatings, the technology can also be used to manufacture other products, they said.

This includes, for example, biological capsules that are used to encase mRNA in Covid-19 vaccines, and advanced coatings for spacecraft.

Dr Jose said: “We can see nanomaterial applications all around us – in paints, computers, cars, medicine, and textiles, to name a few.”

He added that the microscopic particles, which can be up to 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, can enhance the performance of current products and even enable the development of new products.

NTUitive chief executive David Toh said: “The success of this multidisciplinary project… will put Singapore in the lead position to produce novel nanomaterials, a field where the nation is already at the forefront.”

Dr Jose, a Cares research fellow, said usually, nanomaterials are slowly made in large containers with high temperatures, pressures, and toxic chemicals, or be produced quickly yet imprecisely through techniques like grinding or burning of larger molecules.

This process of slow experimental scaling up leads to a slow lead up time of between 10 to 20 years for a nanomaterial to come into the market.

As a result, the long timeline to commercialisation makes investors and industries reluctant to invest, creating a “chicken or egg” dilemma.

He added: “Some of the first materials like graphene, which was discovered in 2003, still have not reached economically viable tonne-scale production.”

Graphene, which can conduct electricity, is being studied for use in gene therapy and to create more durable hydrogen fuel cells for cars, among other things.

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