This evidence was taken at a meeting of the working group on November 19th 2003 and was written up by the secretariat. It has been approved by Dr Reip.
Dr Reip gave a short presentation to the Working Group to give an introduction to QinetiQ Nanomaterials ltd, its history and products.
QinetiQ Nanomaterials ltd is one of QinetiQ’s largest investments of it’s own money (as opposed to MoD money) after the RV Triton demonstration ship. Originally, DERA’s (QinetiQ’s predecessor) interest in nanomaterials was the use of ultrafine aluminium in explosives.
Unable to acquire ultrafine aluminium in the required quantities or quality at reasonable prices, DERA turned to Tetronics, a plasma torch manufacturer, to develop a gas phase production system, in the early 90’s. Tectonics managed to produce 1-2kg/hr of 100nm dry passivated powder with the plasma torch technology, and supplied small quantities to support DERA’s research programmes through the 90’s .As the technology was scalable, QinetiQ licensed the technology and have set up their own manufacturing facility at Farnborough employing about 10 staff, as a wholly owned subsidiary called QinetiQ Nanomaterials ltd.
The plasma technology employed involves a 9-12,000° centigrade plasma in
which the feedstock is vaporised. It is then quenched in argon gas, collected
and bagged. The current plant is able to manufacture ultrafines in a number
of materials depending on the feedstock. The company is also experimenting with
a range of other structured particles and coated particles. Evidence The Chairman
asked if there were other similar technologies available elsewhere. Dr Reip
responded that there were now a large number of manufacturers of ultrafine powders,
especially TiO2, using a large array of processes. However there are certain
things that the gas phase technology can do that wet chemistry processes cannot.
There are, however, a couple of other thermal technologies including laser ablation
which apparently had been used in China to produce a large range of materials
(allegedly including nano liquorice and nano ginseng). The laser ablation process
worked well, but was less scalable and the lasers involved were expensive. The
QNL gas phase process does have certain major advantages in terms of volume
Definition Dr Reip’s definition relied on size alone. The nano powders that he was producing were in the region of 20 - 100nm. As a source of nanomaterial, he was aware of the potential novel properties, but at this point they were focussing on the inherent advantages in small scale materials. Health and Safety The company took what it felt to be sensible precautions when handling nanopowders, but relied on existing H&S regulations and industry best practice to guide them. The manufacturing process was very simple, involving powder, gas and cooling systems only, with no solvents. A laminar flow booth was used in the packing of the powders with the major risks of exposure being around packing and maintenance. Generally, the company relied on common sense to reduce personal exposure to the powders and was assessing various types of personal protection equipment on an ongoing basis. Releases to the atmosphere were not seen as a significant problem given the precautions taken; the background load of nanoparticulates in the air was noted.
In addition to the general heath and safety regime at the company, all members of staff were monitored in a programme run with input for QinetiQ’s occupational health department. This was primarily a “watching brief” on employees’ health and it was not clear how the monitoring was being carried out or what was being screened for.
The company has about 512 customer contacts in 42 countries, but as the vast majority of product supplied would end up incorporated into stable products, the company had not been approached for H&S advice on handling the products. Dr Reip indicated that product specifications varied from the very precise (42nm from a Japanese customer) to major multinationals wanting to “try a few things out”.
The main risk to health and safety in the operation of QinetiQ Nanomaterial’s plant was seen to be routine maintenance. During such maintenance, the plant was purged with 1000l per minute of argon gas which was then passed through HEPA filters before discharge. The HEPA filters were then recycled or disposed of depending upon the materials that had been produced and their condition Care had to be taken not to allow some powders to mix (i.e. aluminium and various oxides,) in this situation due the possibility of a thermite reaction being initiated.
Asked if health effects might constitute a commercial risk for the company, Dr Reip answered that he felt it was a concern, but that the company felt safe enough working within existing guidelines and using best practice. If clearer guidelines were available, Dr Reip felt they would be useful if they were introduced on a worldwide basis. It was suggested that the regulations would shift, but that there was insufficient evidence at present for them to do so. Additionally, it was not yet clear what research on toxicology needed to be done. Although Trade Associations might be in a position to sponsor such work, the associations in the sector were probably too segmented at present.
Dr Reip did express concern that countries where health and safety concerns were taken less seriously could pose a long term threat to manufacture of nanopowders in the UK.
Dr Reip thought the global market for nanopowders was about $400m, but the price was strongly influenced by supply and demand. For instance, nanopowders for sun creams had a market of about 3000 tonnes per annum and the price has fallen from $5000 per kg to $2000 per kg in the late 80s and currently stood at around $20 per kg. Some applications were quite mundane and not hi-tech, but still required sophisticated materials.