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New nanotech unit learns from nature

  Wednesday, 04 l 08 l 2010 Source:  The Straits Times   
By: Victoria Vaughan

Consortium brings scientists and firms together to develop commercial products from nanoimprint materials in lab

nanotechLOTUS leaves grow from muddy soil yet remain clean without the use of soap, a gecko can stick to the ceiling without any glue, and butterfly wings shimmer with colour with no chemical dyes.

A new research collaboration hopes to translate these natural “skills” into everyday products.

The Industrial Consortium on Nanoimprint (Icon), launched yesterday, brings together scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and companies such as United States plastics manufacturer Nypro, to help bring nanoimprint materials from the lab to commercial applications.

Icon will start work immediately on a three-year project to develop an anti-reflective nanoimprint material based on knowledge learnt from the eyes of flies and moths.

Mr Tatsuo Shirahama, president of Innox, which produces touch-screen material for cellphones and is a member of Icon, said: “The opportunity in Asia will be huge for this material for display screens on television sets, for example. I believe Icon can help us to manufacture this technology at about half the cost of current anti-reflective materials which need more stages of production.”

Mr Bernard Nee, executive director of the New Technologies Group under the Economic Development Board (EDB), agreed that the market potential of nanoimprinting is “big” as it is expected to be a US$1.6 trillion (S$2.1 trillion) market by 2013, according to market research company RNCOS. The research also pointed towards a 52 per cent growth rate in the Asia-Pacific region.

The second project, which will start in November, involves creating an anti-bacterial material.

Icon’s chair, Dr Low Hong Yee, a senior scientist at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) under A*Star, said: “Shark’s skin is antibacterial due to its complex micro and nano surfaces which are uncomfortable for bacteria to stay on. We take clues from nature and then improve on it.”

Such antibacterial material could be used in a hospital setting or at home for table surfaces, for example.
Other nanoimprint materials are frost-free and can repel water.

Nanoimprinting emerged in 1995 and is mostly used in the development of computer chips, where the plastic creates a mould for the microchips.

This means that all the tools working on such materials are very small. Comparing a nanometre to a
metre is like comparing a golf ball to the planet.

In 2003, IMRE started to look at using the plastic itself and imprinting nano patterns on it to create new materials. In order to mass produce these plastic materials, new tools and machines must be developed. Currently, only 20cm by 20cm pieces of nano material can be made.

By next year, Dr Low hopes a lab-based, largescale manufacturing process will be developed so that prototypes can be made. These processes will then be taken on by industry members of Icon for mass production and use on everyday goods.

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