QinetiQ Nanomaterials Ltd, the wholly owned QinetiQ subsidiary, has just commissioned its nano production facilities at Farnborough, UK. QinetiQ Nanomaterials believe its plant to be the UK’s first production facility dedicated to the volume production of specialist nanomaterials, with each of the two production rigs capable of producing up to several kilos of material an hour.
A huge variety of oxides and metal powders can be produced, each with ‘engineered’ characteristics that can have a commercial value of anywhere between tens and several thousands of pounds per kilo. ‘The nanotechnology revolution will increasingly impact on all our lives as its true potential is steadily realised,’ explained Dr Mike Pitkethly, Commercial Director of QinetiQ Nanomaterials. ‘Our objective is to produce commercial quantities of a variety of materials. These will then be made available to potential customers for evaluation in their own production processes and in quantities that enable them to undertake realistic demonstration trials.’
QinetiQ's long-term business model, however, is not to only manufacture and supply materials from the Farnborough plant. Instead, for applications where significant volumes of materials are required and once the viability and performance of the materials has been proved, the plan is to replicate and build production facilities on customers’ production sites.
The process that QinetiQ has pioneered to produce up to two kilos per hour is the plasma vapourisation process. Here, a feedstock material is fed into a high temperature plasma ball, which acts as a clean heat source. The feedstock material is vapourised on contact with the plasma and carried away from the hot zone on a gas stream. The vapour is rapidly quenched, the material then condenses and rapidly solidifies to form nanometer-sized powder particles, which are then carried through to a collection system. By controlling the process parameters a range of materials can be produced in a range of particle sizes. Pure metals, passivated metals (with a thin oxide layer), oxides, nitrides and other alloys and compounds can be produced.
QinetiQ is currently examining more than 25 nanomaterial projects, with intellectual property being developed in a number of areas ranging from portable power sources through to safer explosives and improved cosmetics.