Nanoparticles at the push of a button
Aaike van Vugt is the CEO and co-founder of VSPARTICLE, a company which supplies nanoparticle production technology. The spark ablation technique developed by the VSPARTICLE team is poised to revolutionize the field of nanotechnology by addressing root issues which have been hobbling research and industrial adoption time. The groundbreaking claims made by VSPARTICLE have met with some skeptical controversy, but Aaike has refuted the critics, and spoke to the Nanotechnology World Network (nWN) to illustrate how his company plans to make nanoparticle based industrial production of batteries, solar cells, sensors, and electronics a reality.
Aaike became enamoured with nanomaterials during his master’s thesis. “The first time I went to a microscope and I zoomed in on the nanoparticles, suddenly a magical world appeared that I’d made at the push of a button”. This magical world was highly labour intensive. At the time, the only option for nanotechnologists was to use wet synthesis to obtain their materials. Procedures were arduous, and highly temperamental.
Traditional nanoparticle synthesis requires metal salts to be combined with various precursors. “In the end you have this liquid with nanoparticles which are coated with all kinds of chemicals. You have to remove all the chemicals, surfactants, and stabilizing agents”. Aaike saw this process as unnecessarily involved; there had to be a better way. “It took [researchers] months, sometimes even years, to optimize their nanoparticle synthesis”. This synthetic technique was stymying the speed of research. VSPARTICLE was established to combat this, and enable researchers “to focus on research as opposed to becoming nanoparticle synthesis experts”, and now, “I can make you these nanoparticles in a day” Aaike avers.
Spark ablation was developed by Andreas Schmidtt-Ott, another of VSPARTICLE’s co-founders. During this process an electrical spark is applied to an inert gas in the presence of the material which is desired on a nano-scale. The result is a concentrated nanoparticle vapour. This technique is suitable for “metals and semiconducting materials, about ⅔ of the periodic table”. Particle size varies according to three different parameters, residence time, flow rate, and spark energy, each of which can be modified at the push of a button to provide a wide range of possible particles from a material.
Assuming you wanted to develop a new gas sensor by testing the sensitivity of particles with different sizes. Conventional testing would require that first you establish an entire chemical pathway to synthesize each separate size of nanoparticle. With spark ablation, you can print nanoparticles at every scale you wanted to test, and a few more sizes just to be safe, within a day.
Alongside the increase in research speed due to increased nanoparticle synthesis speed, research speed is also increased by spark ablation’s increased reliability. The more steps in a pathway required to produce a particle the greater the margin of error, each successive step magnifies this margin, and by extension the likelihood that the experiment shows an invalid or obfuscated result. Due to the highly controlled environment within the spark chamber, this risk is now effectively negligible.
But there’s no reason to increase research speed if research is not actionable. Often the journey between research and industry is a long and arduous one. Processes which are used in the lab are not always economically viable on the industrial scale. However, the spark ablation technique can be, and has been, scaled to industrial production capacity. This hastens nanoparticle development at all stages of the industrial chain. The same core-technology is used to produce nanoparticles in a lab as in a factory, and the moment a discovery is confirmed, the settings of one machine can be sent to the other so that instantaneously, these particles are being seen on the production line.
Conventional nanoparticle synthesis is far from redundant however. While the VSP-G1 developed by VSPARTICLE greatly increases research efficacy, it is still only applicable to a (admittedly large) range of materials. Organic materials which cannot be processed by the VSP-G1 will require traditional methods in order to be synthesized on a nanoscale.
Nanotechnology is one of the burgeoning areas of science; as we increase our capacity to control the nanoscale of our surroundings we’ll be able to take advantage of countless technological advances. This explosion of capacity requires an outlet capable of handling the volume of both research and production. VSPARTICLE’s spark ablation technique is an answer to this.
CEO and co-founder