Highlights Chip technology
In the NanoNextNL program a number of projects was started and lead to innovative science and application. Below you will find a number of examples of projects from the NanoNextNL program.
Chemical factory on a chip
No more large industrial areas full of chimneys but a series of miniature factories on chips. That is the future of the chemical industry. Using such microreactors it is possible to produce new materials in a safer, faster, cleaner and more environmentally friendly manner. NanoNextNL partner FutureChemistry is developing such specialised microreactors.
Microreactors form one of the greatest promises in the chemical sector. In the quest for more environmentally friendly, cleaner and more efficient chemical production processes these reactors, with dimensions of several centimetres, can provide an attractive alternative. Furthermore, processes in a microreactor are easy to scale up: if you want to produce more of a certain substance per hour then you simply set more reactors to work. In addition, microreactors can also provide a safe alternative for processes that require explosive mixtures. A chip with microlitres of explosive fluid will simply cause less damage than a large vessel if something goes wrong.
Microreactors consist of a chip that contains microscopic channels with a diameter as small as the thickness of a human hair. In these channels the various chemicals are brought together and they can mix, react or be separated.
Safe with gas
However, not only fluids can react explosively. The same holds true for some types of reactive gas as well. Pieter Nieuwland, research director of FutureChemistry, explains why it is so difficult to work with such reactive gases: ‘There is a large gas bottle in the laboratory that chemists only need a minute quantity of gas from. But how can you safely get that gas in your flask and how can you dose that properly?’
To make working with these gases easier, FutureChemistry developed a microreactor that can process small quantities of gases in a dissolved state. The gases are dissolved in a liquid in the module. Subsequently the fluid and gas jointly go to a microreactor. After the reaction has taken place the product created is separated from the fluid.
Gas module developed by FutureChemistry
Within NanoNextNL, FutureChemistry is collaborating with several universities and companies on new possibilities to add to its products. An example is a gas-permeable membrane in the gas reactor that makes the accurate dosing of the gases possible.
The gas module has now been installed at several clients of FutureChemistry. Within a NanoNextNL project the possibilities of scaling up processes are being explored. ‘The development with the FutureChemistry has taken a different direction after the completion of the gas module: at FutureChemistry a scalable process is being developed for the production of nanoparticles by making use of natural raw materials. Now, at last, besides demonstrating a scalable process we have also succeeded in developing a new material with a wide range of applications’, concludes Nieuwland.
Measuring the composition of a gas quickly and cheaply
A Ukrainian orders natural gas from a Russian supplier. However, will he receive the type of gas he has paid for? To analyse the composition of the gas quickly and cheaply at various locations along the pipeline, the company Qmicro is launching a handy device based on technology developed within NanoNextNL. ‘We expect to be able to sell several thousand devices per year from 2016 onwards,’ says business development manager Vincent Spiering.
How can a technology developed for a healthcare application end up in the petrochemical industry? ‘With a forerunner of our company, we were involved in a NanoNextNL project focused on measuring tuberculosis in mucus,’ says Spiering. ‘We sought an easy, cheap and portable technology to be able to measure small quantities of viruses in a person’s mucus or breath, with the goal that the technology could be used cheaply and easily to establish diagnoses in poor countries. Within that project, Qmicro developed a miniature gas chromatograph that can measure the composition of gasses in a very short amount of time. That proved to be a valuable technology in many areas, including the oil and gas industry.’
Spiering says the technology will be introduced to the petrochemical industry in 2016. ‘With this device, we will offer a cheap alternative in addition to the large industrial gas chromatographs used in factories. Those industrial chromatographs are expensive devices that need at least half an hour to complete an analysis. Our equipment can be used to quickly provide an extra check of another part of the production process or transport.’
Plug and play
The new gas chromatograph has several advantages due to its small size, explains Spiering. ‘The analysis is much faster: instead of 30 minutes, we need just 30 seconds to be able to determine what the composition of the gas is. In addition, we only need a small quantity of gas and we provide the complete assessment in a box.’ The model that he shows is plug and play and consists of a box several dozen centimetres in size, to which you can attach a separate cartridge with a maximum of four ovens. ‘These cartridges contain various columns with which you can measure different gases. The ovens ensure that you can discern the different gases even faster. An operator does not need to have any understanding of the analysis. He only needs to use the correct cartridge and our device provides a readout of the gas composition within 30 seconds.’
The supplier of the small gas chromatograph Qmicro is working together with minority shareholder DEMCON, which is developing the hardware and firmware for the device. From previous companies, Spiering still has clients and a network he can use to test the first prototypes. ‘And we have received funding from NanoNextNL to further develop our product. We are putting the finishing touch to a prototype that we will send to several clients in 2016 on a trial basis.’
Nearest market first
Meanwhile, Qmicro is able to keep its head above water without the need for external capital, says Spiering proudly. ‘We generate enough income from our consultancy work, in which we are collaborating on the design and development of gas chromatographs and other tailor-made microchip products.’ With their own gas analysis product, Spiering wants to gradually penetrate different markets. ‘We will first start with natural gas producers, because that market is closer to us and less laborious than the medical market where you are confronted with obstacles, such as strict rules from the Food and Drug Administration. Nevertheless, one day we could well end up in Africa with a table-sized tuberculosis detector.’
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