How provide for innovation?
Many of our projects are initiated by basic research. We cooperate closely with various universities, such as the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW), the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and the Institute of Materials Engineering and Plastics Processing (IWK) and often assist in the transition of research projects to commercial production. For carrying over the initial test results to production we have equipment that is suitable for further tests as well as small series with production of 10 to 20 kilograms per hour. But production equipment is also available that can produce up to 1400 kilograms per hour. As a result, innovative products can quickly find their way to the market. In addition, all our machines are in separate rooms with closed circuits, so that contamination can be prevented. This is very important with nanomaterials in particular.
The company Polycompound from Sissach specializes in the incorporation of nanoparticles in plastics. Each year it processes amongst other things more than 1000 kilograms of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), which are long cylindrical structures with a diameter of less than 10 nanometers. Safety in the processing of these tiny particles is extremely important, especially since the effects of CNTs in the human body have not yet been conclusively studied.
Peter Imhof, Sales Manager at Polycompound, has been working with nanomaterials himself for around 10 years. He is not only a regular guest in the i-net Technology Circle NanoSafety, but also serves as adviser to the Federal Offices for the Environment (FOEN) and Public Health (FOPH). In this interview, he explains what measures are needed when working with nanoparticles and what regulations still need to be defined more precisely.
How did Polycompound come to work with nanomaterials?
Peter Imhof: To some extent that has something to do with me. In 2004 I was working as Product-Manager with a well-known company trading in polymers, raw materials and fine chemicals in Basel, where I came into contact with nano products for the first time in the field of phyllosilicates. In 2008 I had the privilege of presenting the first version of the safety matrix for nanomaterials in Bern, where I was one of the first people from industry to offer practical experience. In 2009 I moved to Polycompound and remained true to nanotechnology. Besides phyllosilicates and CNTs, nanosilver was also a topic of interest. Other additives in the nano field, such as flame retardants, came along later.
What are carbon nanotubes actually used for?
CNTs can reinforce a material or increase its electrical conductivity. Soot is usually added to cables to make then conductive. But the soot also reduces their flexibility and makes the cables more brittle. When CNTs are added, the same conductivity can be achieved with a much lower concentration and without essentially altering the mechanical properties, making the cables more durable. CNTs are used in a variety of applications, especially when the product has to meet more stringent requirements without the positive properties of the basic material being lost. The problem is that additives with nanotubes are still very expensive. This is a psychological barrier – as are the safety issues that remain to be clarified and the uncertainty surrounding nanomaterials.