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Posted: August 3, 2010
Singapore's first nanotechnology consortium gives industry access to nanoimprinting technology
(Nanowerk News) Walls that are as colourful as a butterfly's wing, new non-slip materials, adhesives that do not leave sticky residues, waterproof and anti-bacterial surfaces for everyday use? What's more amazing is that these can be produced without using chemicals or potentially harmful, eco-unfriendly coatings but merely by carefully engineering the surface or 'skin' of materials using a unique method called nanoimprint technology (NIT). IMRE scientists have used the method, which involves making uniform, nanometer-sized structures to create a specifically patterned surface that produces a unique property. These often mimic natural surfaces, for example the structures found on lotus leaves so that the new materials are imbued with its waterproofing properties.
Since its introduction as a high-resolution nanopatterning technique in the 1990s, NIT has been proven to produce nanometer-sized structures of greater complexity using fewer processing steps, while minimising wastage of materials. It has since evolved from being a potential next-generation lithography technology for the semiconductor industry to a platform process technology that is applicable to a wide range of industries.
Over the past few years, IMRE has seen requests from the industry to explore NIT for diverse applications triple in number. Responding to this need and because of the vast opportunities that NIT has to offer industries in applications such as optical components, biomedical devices, consumer products and even construction materials, A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), together with EDB, IE and SPRING, have launched the Industrial Consortium On Nanoimprint (ICON).
ICON will be launched with 2 industry projects that demonstrate the versatility of nanopatterning – anti-reflection surfaces and anti-bacterial surfaces. These joint projects are the first two to be launched during the initial 3-year phase. The projects will begin in collaboration with ICON's first group of members, namely Singapore's DSO National Laboratories and Solves Innovative Technology Pte Ltd, Nypro, Inc. (US), Innox Co., Ltd. (Japan), NTT-Advanced Technology Corporation (Japan) and Youngchang Chemical Co., Ltd. (South Korea).
ICON's project on anti-reflection surfaces aims to develop structures that have additional surface functional properties, such as self-cleaning, using novel nanoimprint processes developed in IMRE. The anti-bacterial surfaces project aims to use NIT to create a chemical-free, eco-friendly alternative to existing technologies that prevent bacterial attachment to surfaces. The project also aims to create a database of different surfaces to study how they affect bacterial attachment as there is currently no available design rule on effective anti-bacterial surface topography.
"The goal of ICON is to open up NIT's many benefits to industries and to get them to adopt this versatile technique into some of their existing processes", said Dr Low Hong Yee, Head of IMRE's Patterning and Fabrication Group which is driving the consortium.
"ICON is a proactive way for research institutes like IMRE to give back to our stakeholders – industry and ultimately the community", said Prof Andy Hor, Executive Director of IMRE. "We are confident in the potential of nanoimprint technology and are equally confident that industry will see results in their bottom lines by leveraging on this technology!"
Echoing these views, Prof Low Teck Seng, A*STAR's Deputy Managing Director (Research), and Executive Director, Science and Engineering Research Council said, "A*STAR is keenly aware of our vast technological capabilities and the need for transferring these technologies to industry, which ultimately benefits the public at large. Industry consortia are but one of the many avenues A*STAR uses to shorten the route, and timeframe, that our research takes to reach your homes."
"Nanotechnology is increasingly pervasive and Nanoimprinting is an area that Singapore is well suited to develop due to our strengths in precision engineering and electronics", said Mr Bernard Nee, Executive Director of EDB's New Technology Group. "We are excited about the potential of this public-private partnership which will not only benefit our Singapore industries but also enable us to push new frontiers in display, bioelectronics and solar energy. Such collaborations will be increasingly important in the next phase of our growth."
"Our involvement in ICON gives Nypro the opportunity to leverage advanced research and technology development initiatives in close proximity to the manufacturing plants capable of commercialising the outcome. This model creates an iterative working dynamic connecting market demands and product needs to the research designed to enhance future products. A higher probability of success and faster time to market can be achieved working in this environment", commented Mr Michael McGee, Director of Technology from Nypro Inc., a leading global solutions provider in the field of manufactured precision plastic products which recorded sales of approximately $1.1 billion in the last financial year.
"We were sold on the benefits of nanoimprint technology from the start and having a platform like ICON that helps put that technology into practice was all the convincing we needed to join the consortium", said Mr Tatsuo Shirahama, President of Innox Co Ltd, Japan, which specialises in the design, development, production and sale of functional nanostructured films for light management and other applications. Innox is confident that NIT can enhance the anti-reflection properties of the company's current display industry-related plastic films by bringing down the optical reflectance to just 0.1%.
"R&D may be seen as unaffordable for most SMEs but in order to stay ahead of others, innovation and R&D are key. ICON is an excellent platform for SMEs to tap on the available resources in A*STAR and jumpstart R&D at a nominal cost", explained Mr Koh Teng Hwee, Managing Director of Solves Innovative Technology, a local company that worked with IMRE to build the first made-in-Singapore tool for advanced manufacturing of nano-sized structures. The production-grade tool is faster and more accurate with features such as double-sided imprinting to reduce processing time, a customised dosing system, and imprinting in vacuum to prevent air bubbles, for precision patterning.
The members of ICON will not only gain first-hand access to the advanced nanoimprint developments in A*STAR but will be able to work on joint, shared cost projects to develop new products and applications resulting in potentially huge savings in R&D costs and resources. Training of their manpower in nanoimprint techniques and tools as well as the prospect of networking with companies that cover the entire spectrum of nanopatterning services are sweeteners for membership.