Growing nanotech trade hit by questions over quality

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Booming business may mean surge in shoddy supplies.

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Big business? Interest in nanomaterials, such as this nanowire, has driven a rapid rise in supply and demand. Credit: ERIC HELLER/SPL

The surge of interest in nanotechnology has created buyers and sellers of materials who aren't properly equipped to do business, analysts have warned.

A survey of nanotechnology companies has revealed a series of problems with the supply of nanomaterials — tiny tubes, wires and cages with dimensions of just billionths of a metre. Batches may be contaminated or the nanoparticles are improperly shipped and clump together during delivery. “We heard one horror story after another,” says Matthew Nordan of Lux Research, the New York-based consulting company that published the survey on 8 December.

One semiconductor company found that almost one-third of a sample of carbon nanotubes it had purchased consisted of iron left over from the production process. “Not only is the iron not what the lab paid for, it's a contaminant that would never be allowed in a semiconductor fabrication facility,” notes the report, which drew on interviews with more than 100 managers.

Nordan says that the recent explosion in research funding for nanotechnology is partly to blame. In the United States, government spending in the field has increased sixfold since 1997 and now stands at almost $1 billion a year. Nordan and other industry experts suggest that customers and suppliers have rushed into the field, and have yet to develop good systems for working with each other.

Some of the worst complaints concerned university laboratories that sell nanomaterials as a side business. One buyer complained to Nordan that “every professor who wants a beach house, and who works on nano-something, has started a company”.

But customers also come in for criticism. Peter Eklund, a nanotechnology researcher at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, is a founder of CarboLex, a nanomaterials supplier based in Lexington, Kentucky. Eklund says he has received only two or three complaints in seven years of business, and all have related to poor handling by researchers. One customer complained that the tubes were shoddy, for example — but after discussing their research, Eklund found that the researcher had inadvertently vaporized the tubes while attempting to purify them.

“There is a lack of communication between manufacturers and customers,” agrees Mark Banash, the senior engineer at Zyvex, a nanotechnology firm in Richardson, Texas. Banash is the force behind one potential solution to the problem: he runs a certification scheme, under which suppliers are approved if they reach an agreement with Zyvex about the characteristics of the nanotubes they sell and their ability to supply them on time. One supplier has already signed up and Banash says two more should be approved in the next few months. Although the scheme was designed for Zyvex's needs, Banash hopes it will also help other firms to choose suppliers.

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