I recently met with Anais Venet at Promethean Particles in Nottingham.
I talked to her about the kind of innovation they have developed with nano particles, and an innovative reactor that can produce a dispersed nano-copper, a material perfect for conductive inks. This challenger technology, I discovered was born out of Nottingham University and offers a unique opportunity for producers. I found out why.
You all seem really energised about this new potential, explain to me why?
Nano-copper is normally produced as a powder and not in liquid dispersion. We have created and patented a multi-nano material reactor system that can produce, amongst other things, liquid-based nano-copper. This means the product is safer to produce and to handle;and may be of much higher quality for the user and more effective.
Why is that?
First of all, many of our customers are requesting powders and then they must redisperse the powders into a liquid for their application, be it an ink or coating for example. By producing dispersions, Promethean can reduce production steps for its partners to produce an application-ready product. The second point is that when dry nano powders are redispersed into a liquid, they are simply never as effective. Imagine the process of putting flour into water – the flour will remain lumpy (aggregated) unless significant energy is inputted (by stirring!)The dispersed copper nano particles produced using our unique reactor system show vastly improved performance in terms of reduced particle size and reduced particle agglomeration. Producing conductive nanoparticle dispersions requires a balance between producing a stable dispersion but at the same time keeping it nicely conductive; this can be achieved with our nano-copper dispersion. Maintaining the copper in a liquid dispersion allows us to keep the copper oxide-free which is not the case with copper in powder form. So this helps tremendously to get the conductive properties in the most stable possible way.
You mentioned that it is also appealing as a lower cost material?
Yes. Silver is the traditional material used to print conductive tracks in printed electronics applications. And obviously silver is a precious metal so therefore expensive. With our nano-copper we have managed to produce a material with comparable conductivity to sub-micron silver materials, but at significantly reduced cost. So we believe this product offers huge advantages in terms of cost-saving and this has generated significant interest from customers who would like to explore the possibilities, particularly for large volume applications.We are uniquely positioned as our reactor technology is patented and as far I know we are the only people anywhere in the world who are able to continuously produce quality nano-copper as a dispersion, which is stable, conductive and oxide-free.
Where is this being used?
We have developed through a formulating partner anano-copper inkjet ink and screen printing paste for RFID tags (a potential replacement for bar code identification and tracking of products at large scale) for example. We are also working on a project with different companies to apply copper on textiles for antimicrobial applications to reduce infection or disease spreading within hospitals. But this has potential across a range of different industries from lighting to wearables to photovoltaics.
So you must have invested in R&D and in terms of equipment to be able to achieve this breakthrough?
Yes we have new offices, and a new production facility. The business was initially formed as a spin-out from Nottingham University and we operated within a small manufacturing and laboratory facility. We were then fortunate to be part of a European funded project called SHYMAN, which provided the funding for us to revolutionise our manufacturing capabilities. As a result. Promethean now owns the world’s largest continuous multi-materials nano particle manufacturing plant (in excess of 1,000 tonnes per year of nano particles, dry equivalent).
So you make nanoparticles for ink manufacturing mainly for the print industry?
Yes we make nano particle dispersions. For example, nano-copper, nano-silver and we also manufacture dispersions for ceramic pigment inks. We manufacture the dispersions, not the inks, which are used by the ink manufacturers/formulators. We work with OEMs, ink manufacturers, additive manufacturing, 3D Printing, integrators and also printheadand printer manufacturers.
How do you work with your customers then?
We tend to work closely in collaboration and partnership with customers and generate bespoke solutions to their problems,which hopefully allows us to improve a current formulation or add new properties.
After a feasibility study, we can either manufacture the material on behalf of our customer, or we can provide the client the option to acquire one of our reactor systems and control their manufacturing chain in house on their own premises. As we understand that everybody’s needs are different, all four reactors are custom-made as per our partners’ requirements and offered as a turnkey solution with a start-up and maintenance package.
What does the customer benefit from, apart from the reactor technology?
At Promethean we are very flexible! We understand that every customer is different, that’s why we work with our partners to understand their current and future needs to offer custom-made solutions.
Promethean is not only unique due its multi-tonne nano material production capacities, the company also possesses a very particular know-how and a successful patented technology which is based upon a continuous process (not batch process) which offers cost effective high-quality materials. Our flexibility is key as we want to offer a tailored solution to our partners.
We have a team of brilliant scientists who, on top of being chemistry experts, know our systems inside out and understand the variables that dictate the characteristics of the target nano material.
Customers that are looking for an “established” material can contact us and buy it ‘off the shelf’, for others who want something more tailored, we can implement a short feasibility study.Promethean could then manufacture on their behalf to get the same cost-effective material or, we offer the opportunity for our customer to purchase a custom-made reactor to operate on their own manufacturing site. We have something for everyone!
Who are your competitors?
Genuinely we don’t have a direct competitor as our technology is unique, as is the capability to produce numerous nano materials at such a large scale. We want to work closely, collaboratively and in partnership to create new possibilities.
How does the partnership process work?
When a customer contacts us we will help them to solve problems with their current formulation, production or R&D needs for example. We will run a feasibility study to help them realise what specific material(s) would be most suitable for their individual application.Our flexibility is one of our strengths, we cater to all requirements.
By working in partnership, a customer may have an existing material that they want to enhance – but they may need our expertise to help them to do this; or they may need something completely new – we can help them turn this into reality.
Our new manufacturing facility is a game-changer in the nano materials industry.
Please tell us about the production facility?
Our production facility is incredible. We moved here in May and now have a multi-tonne, multi-nano material production plant. This changes everything for the business, we can test and produce onsite at different scales, from grams to multi-tonnes per year, using a continuous process, which is unique in the nano materials industry.Our largest reactor can produce a variety of nano materials in excess of 1,000 tonnes per year.
The beauty is that now we also offer the possibility to acquire a custom-made reactor as a turnkey solution. This will allow companies to access a proven technology which is continuous, scalable, reproducible, reliable, stable and safe but also versatile due to the different materials which can be produced on the same reactor. We are offering a unique solution.
In printed electronics we deal with a large range of customers starting from ink formulators and OEMs up to end users. Some need our formulating skills, others our know-how on specific materials.Some want our help to enhance an existing formulation whilst also benefiting from a continuous manufacturing process which can make the process more cost-effective and remove unnecessary steps in the manufacturing chain.
Who is your ideal customer?
I don’t think we could say that we have one ideal type of customer as we deal with so many various partners. The key in all partnerships is communication so we always seek feedback which allows us to optimise our products depending on the customer’s needs.
We are very flexible in what we offer. We have some dispersions available “off-the-shelf”, we can carry feasibility studies for a more tailored material, we can produce on behalf of our partners or if our partners would prefer to manage that in-house, we would offer the possibility to acquire a reactor which is custom-built depending on their requirements.
Do you think Ink Chemistry is the biggest issue for industrial print?
We are not an ink formulator, so it is important for us to understand the issues that people are facing within the industry as this could have an impact at our level too.In order produce a successful ink, you need to optimise the raw material dispersion right from the start. For us it is important to understand the complete value chain and, in particular, focus on incorporating features that will be beneficial within the final application as early as possible. Everything relies on collaboration and maintaining good relationships. This is important to generate the best results.
How do you develop new products and ideas for applications?
We think that it is about opening our eyes and seeing an opportunity, this might be something completely new, this might be filling a gap in terms of a product offering in the market or improving an existing solution. You also have to be patient as from R&D till commercialisation;this will require time and investment.
We are always looking at the market to find new potential, if we come across a need in the market or if we spot a new potential application, we reach out to the partners or end users we believe we could help. Networking is crucial, by interacting with people across various industries you can share about what you believe could help taking the industry to the next level and put in place some projects with other partners to provide a complete solution.
It takes time, patience and expertise to be able to get there. It doesn’t happen overnight and we also need to be careful not to spread ourselves too thinly as opportunities are numerous and new ones always pop up. Innovation comes with risk but you don’t need to jump off the cliff blind, you need to be able to take carefully managed risks, which are making the right choices, both for your business and for the industry.