9 Sep '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
We’ll take a closer look today at Tomsk Polytechnic University and its innovative plasmochemical synthesis project aimed at developing titanium dioxide- and silicon dioxide-based nanocomposite materials. Although not yet a start-up, the technology it is working on has far-reaching impact and one day could even be part of a technology used to synthesize fuels.
As part of a three-year, $1.4m project Tomsk Polytechnic University has designed, built and tested a special pulsed electron accelerator to facilitate plasma chemical reactions.
As a result of these tests, the researchers have created a trial run of nano-disperse composite titanium and silicon oxides that Pavel Nosov from TPU’s technology transfer center claims uses “technology that is unmatched both in Russia and elsewhere in the world.”
The developers’ long-term plan is to set up a company within three years with support from TPU’s Technology Incubator and generate first year sales of $1-6m. As part of the Tomsk special economic zone (SEZ) the new firm would be in line to receive considerable tax benefits and other support which the founders hope will enable them to start manufacturing on a commercial basis nano-powder production units with a capacity of 100kg per hour.
With Russian patents already in hand, the researchers are also planning to seek international patent protection and are also looking into plans to license their technology.
More than a century of innovation
Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) is one of the oldest scientific, educational and R&D centers in Russia’s trans-Urals area. Set up in 1896 as Tomsk Institute of Technology, it is now one of Russia’s new National Research Universities with a broad mandate for scientific activity and R&D-focused entrepreneurship.
TPU ranks fifth in a rating of the RF’s 164 technology-developing universities. It incorporates ten departments, 100 chairs, three research centers focused on high voltages, nuclear physics and nondestructive testing, 68 research labs, and Siberia’s only nuclear reactor for training and research purposes.
A reported 2,100 professors train an estimated 24,000 students, including 600 from across the globe.
Oxides, treasured but costly
Oxides are estimated to account for more than 70% of all nanomaterials used in R&D and production. In its crystal form nano-dimensional titanium dioxide powder is widely used as a pigment, photo catalyst, gas sensor and biosensor.
In addition to nano-dimensional titanium dioxide, researchers across the globe are working to discover a whole new spectrum of interesting properties contained in a titanium dioxide- and silicon dioxide-based composite material.
Altering the structure of titanium dioxide with the use of amorphous silicon dioxide is believed to be an effective way of dramatically augmenting catalytic reactivity, high reflectance and other special properties that titanium dioxide possesses, while at the same time reducing the cost of a material synthesized.
The biggest impediment to commercialization is the prohibitive production cost—mainly energy to create unique nano-dimensional metal and oxide powders.
Saving energy, cutting costs
TPU’s technique to address this problem is to align reaction and gas-discharge zones to create high-temperature heating of reagents without heating the reactor walls. The result, researchers claim, is a substantial reduction in energy costs.
The process also uses so-called non-equilibrium plasma chemical methods which create energy content at internal degrees of molecular freedom that far exceeds that in equilibrium condition.
By utilizing this advanced technology the developers have been able to contain gas temperature within a maximum 300-400K range, further reducing heating loss as well as facilitating product hardening (stabilization).
How it works
The actual synthesis works by employing a special pulsed electron accelerator that uses an electron beam ejected into a plasma chemical reactor. The beam triggers a chain of non-equilibrium chemical reactions in the reactor’s gaseous medium.
According to Mr. Nosov, the use of chain synthesis mechanisms and no separate hardening phase enables the size of particles produced (between 20 and 200nm, depending on a purpose of production) to be finely controlled. The process also reduces impurities because the synthesis can be conducted at room temperatures.
Because the entire process uses closed-cycle technology there are no emissions into the atmosphere, making it eco-friendly.
A global market
Global consumption is estimated to be “millions of tons a year and growing,” according to Mr. Nosov, putting increasing pressure on producers regarding both high customization and tough environmental and energy-saving standards.
The new Tomsk project expects to target both Russian and international nano-dimensional oxide markets. In addition to domestic customers, the most promising overseas markets include China, Japan, Germany, and the U.S.
The developers hope their technique will bring about a whole new set of energy-saving technologies to create extra-pure nano-dimensional materials. Using the plasmochemical method will purportedly enable low-cost synthesizing of powders that contain two or even more oxides in one particle, considerably extending existing product lines.
Pulse plasmochemical synthesis can also be applied to solving global energy problems,TPU’s Nosov believes. One day it might even be used to create a new technology to synthesize fuels.