Published on May 15th, 2013 | by Anneli Hidalgo0
The nanotechnology field in Scandinavia is powering ahead with plentiful research projects, enjoying a strong influx of research cash. There’s also a lucrative and interesting intersection of nanotech with cleantech.
In February 2013, Sweden got a great honor: the European Commission chose Graphene Flagship, centered at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, as the research leader organization of a 10-year, billion-Euro project to study the nanomaterial graphene. Graphene, which is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, is considered a wonder material, with expected applications in myriad fields, including flexible phones, lighter-weight components for cars and airplanes, and advanced batteries.
A global position
While investment money has slowed down in general to cleantech and climate change innovations, the funds are flowing fast to study all types of nanomaterials and their properties. The recently formed Swedish industry organization Swednanotech estimates that roughly 750 million SEK was received in 2011 for nano research – by 2013’s end the total is expected to be 30% higher. Patents for nanotech inventions, and citations in mainstream scientific journals, are also on the rise from Scandinavian researchers.
Swednanotech’s main aims, according to CEO Åsalie Hartmanis, is to help Swedish academia and industry maintain a global position of prominence – especially in light of the fact that when a promising nano technique or material is ready for commercializing, it isn’t Swedish companies, but rather American companies and others, that she says come calling.
“The inquiries and offers are from American and other companies to buy the inventions,” Hartmanis said. “We don’t want to drain the Swedish knowledgebase in that way.”
Hartmanis says each of the Scandinavian nations tends to have a specialized area of nano research: in Finland the emphasis is on light and printing; Denmark tends heavily toward nano medicine and life science research; Norway has a national nanotech strategy focusing on improving basic industries, while Sweden has traditionally been strong in life science, biomedical and nano material research.
Nanotech companies, once a promising service or product is created, face the same issue cleantech companies do in Scandinavia: while agencies such as Sweden’s Vinnova are proactive in the initial stages of a young company’s life, it is hard to get funding to go the distance to commercialization.
Nanowires and wastewater management
Researchers at Swedish universities are working intensively on nanowires, which will open up the possibility of cheaper solar photovoltaic cells. The tiny nanowires, according to researcher Michael Käll, function as antenna, sitting in rows and grabbing radiation more effectively for a solar cell. Lund University scientists working with the nano antennas have achieved a solar cell that is 13.8% efficient – getting nearer to the best efficiency of what are called ‘planar’ solar cells.
Swedish company Sol Voltaics AB is one of six projects recently chosen by the Swedish Energy Agency to receive significant grant money to further solar nano technology research and product commercialization in Sweden. Sol Voltaics is using a process called aerotaxy to produce this nanowires, and is working with the Lund researchers with the hope to commercialize the nanowire photovoltaic solution when the team achieves 30% efficiency.
As Damir Asoli of Sol Voltaics notes, the current list of investors in the company does have some major Swedish names, such as Stockholm’s Foundation Asset Management, Industrifonden, and Teknoinvest. Yet Norway’s Nano Future Invest and Scatec’s Alf Bjørseth are also betting on Sol Voltaics, and Asoli said the company will need investment from “all over the place” to get to commercialization of its nanowires.
“There is a lot of buzz around nanowires, and that’s good,” Asoli said. “But we will need another round of financing, more cash, and more supporting agencies.” Asoli won’t say exactly when its gold-based nanowires will get to market – only that Sol Voltaic is planning to be the first out with the technology.
Nanotech and cleantech share the potential to find new ways to deal with some of the globe’s most pressing problems such as climate change and finite natural resources. While solar represents the most active overlapping area between cleantech and nanotech, it is not the only one. Wastewater management is another promising area, with companies such as Swedish Nanologica AB producing porous materials for wastewater filtration and separation, and Denmark’s AQUAPorin making water-selective membranes for purification.
A spirit of cooperation
Nanotechnology has suffered from some negative press regarding the possible ramifications to humans of introducing nanoparticles into food, cosmetics, and other consumer products. Swednanotech’s Hartmanis says she feels Swedish scientists are ‘quite active’ in nanosafety and the government is working on an action plan for safe handling of nanomaterials; the Danes for their part have created a unique ‘Nanodatabase’ that lists more than 1,200 different products which contain, or are purported to use, nanomaterials.
As far the intersection of cleantech and nanotech companies, Hartmanis says what is most important is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration between large companies, which have more resources, and their smaller counterparts, which may be at the cutting edge of innovation, like Sol Voltaics.
“To mature the nanotech industry, we’ll have to bridge the gap between academic research and business, get closer cooperation between large and small companies, and also get manufacturing to the next step,” she said.