Nanotechnology is in the spotlight, with a cover story in BusinessWeek and plenty of headlines in the popular press. Most of the publicity is focused on advanced applications like particles that help diagnose cancer, or new carbon materials for the next generation of spacecraft.
But all the flash and glitter obscures the news that plastics-related applications also are enjoying the benefits of nanomaterials.
``A lot of the applications are not high-tech - these are things you use every day,'' said William England, technology director of Ashland Composite Polymers, a unit of Dublin, Ohio-based Ashland Inc. ``We believe nanotechnologies are going to have a big impact on everyday products.''
Few processors are trumpeting their success, but the fact is that thermoplastic- and thermoset-based nanocomposites, most using small clay particle fillers, have been commercialized in a variety of end markets. And many more are in development.
England spoke at the Ohio Nanotechnology Summit, held April 4-5 in Columbus. While many of the talks and papers focused on advanced - and expensive - carbon nanotubes and related materials, the meeting also featured plastics compounders, processors and consultants who shared snippets of news on their early nanosuccesses.
``There's a lot out there. Some I can't talk about,'' said Phillip Wilson, president of Inspired Innovations LLC, a Hillsboro, Ohio-based consultant to polymer firms. Wilson, formerly a top technology official for Magna International Inc. and Textron Automotive Co., said he finds that increasingly, he is advising his clients to use nanocomposites.
``People are using nanomaterials to solve problems,'' he said. ``If you have a product that is marginal and it needs help, [using nanocomposites] is a cheap way to improve a material and get you over the hump.''
Wilson gave an example: body panels for trucks made from sheet molding compound modified with nanoclay. The material allowed a customer to cut the weight of a 140-pound component to 103.6 pounds.
Who else is using nanocomposites? How about Aspen Research Corp., a St. Paul, Minn., research and development subsidiary of window and door giant Andersen Corp. Wilson said the firm is working with wood-fiber/thermoplastic nanocomposites in the construction sector. Wilson and Aspen also helped a client replace extruded aluminum in a rooftop application.
Avon Lake, Ohio-based compounder PolyOne Corp. has commercialized several nanomaterials, including both polyolefin- and nylon 6-based compounds with names like NanoBlend.
Roger Avakian, PolyOne's chief technology officer, said the benefits of nanocompounds include higher strength, electrical conductivity, flame retardance, enhanced processability and melt strength, improved barrier and thermal properties and reduced shrinkage. The materials also offer antibacterial and ultraviolet light-protection properties.
The cost of the materials means customers use them to take advantage of combinations of benefits. For example, a customer may use a nano-based nylon 6 film in a stand-up pouch because the material gives the pouch the rigidity to stand up, the ability to withstand hot-fill temperatures and improved shelf life thanks to better barrier properties.
For structural applications, the materials show promise, but customers will be cautious, Avakian said. Testing is under way on many products.
Ashland's England, who is based at the company's tech center in Dublin, said nanoclays have shown real benefit in SMC truck panels, both in making them lighter and in paint performance.
``A small amount of [nanoadditives] has a big impact,'' England said.
Maxwell Wingert, an Ohio State University student, presented a paper on extruded polystyrene foam insulation board using nanoadditives. The clay particles help make the foam very dense, which he said gives it structural and insulating properties that processors already are using in commercial applications.
``As far as I'm concerned, nanotechnology is here,'' Wingert said.