Delft start-up VSPARTICLE is dedicated to boosting nanomaterials research in Europe via its VSP-G1 technology – a fast, easy, and accessible way of automating the production of advanced nanomaterials that all researchers can use.
VSPARTICLE is on a mission to speed up research in new nanomaterials by automating the production of advanced nanomaterials. The company introduced the VSP-G1 with the philosophy that making nanomaterials for research should be quick and easy. With the option for a four-month trial period the technology will be accessible for any researcher.
Each material has certain physical properties: steel, for instance, conducts electricity, and gold has a melting point of 1,064°C. But there is also a different reality hidden in researchers’ labs; it is the world of the nanoparticles, and that is where start-up VSPARTICLE from Delft plays a role.
Indeed, properties like conductivity, stiffness, colour, all the physical properties that are specific to those materials, change – and that opens a whole new world of possibilities.
New materials can be created with still unknown properties, only matching and mixing while playing with the size of the particle.
According to Aaike van Vugt, CEO of VSPARTICLE, this ability to create new materials at nano-level is crucial for innovations that can, for instance, provide solutions for climate change.
“New generations of batteries or solar panels can become reality only if we are able to create better materials,” he says.
The evolution of these products is dependent on the hard work researchers are conducting to make them more efficient and accessible. Europe is currently at the forefront of these research fields but needs to keep up its pace to stay competitive with countries like China and the US.
Currently, most researchers are forced to spend a significant part of their valuable time on preparing the right nanoparticle, or nanomaterial, for their research. In most cases, though, they merely want to get access to these new materials in order to use them in research for the improvement of products like batteries, solar cells or sensors. This is why VSPARTICLE now enables every researcher to try the nanoparticles generator for a four-month trial period, so they will be able to prepare samples and be sure this is what they are looking for.
Applications of nanoparticles and nanomaterials
The applications of nanoparticles can be found in many areas, some already present in our daily lives, others still in development. Examples of applications include:
- Development of new catalysts e.g. to speed up the conversion of CO2 into solar fuels like methanol;
- Nanotoxicity, i.e. understanding which nanomaterials are present in the environment and how they influence our health;
- Cancer therapy, i.e. using magnetic or radioactive nanomaterials to develop targeted therapies;
- New materials for batteries and super capacitors to enable electric cars to accelerate faster and have a longer range; and
- Printing of metal oxide gas sensors for IOT applications.
How can we make nanoparticles and nanomaterials?
Today, researchers have only two options to get access to nanomaterials for their research.
Make them themselves
Nanomaterials are usually made in the lab by using wet chemical synthesis (e.g. colloidal synthesis or impregnation) or by using highly complex fabrication processes in vacuum systems. Even though these processes seem simple at first glance, it can easily take multiple months to optimise all the parameters and to get the desired result.
Buy the materials online
As an alternative to ‘making them themselves’, a lot of vendors have started to sell nanoparticles online. These nanomaterials are stabilised in liquids and are shipped in small jars.
Besides shipping time, quality control is one of the biggest issues in this case. The materials are so small that it becomes very challenging to check whether you received the specified material. Extracting the nanomaterial from the liquid and integrating it into the final products are often major hurdles that researchers need to overcome. Moreover, the solvents and chemicals are removed by a heat treatment which also influences the nanomaterial.
“Nanoparticle from a jar are often no nanoparticles at all but agglomerates of small particles or particles with a surfactant layer,” warns Van Vugt.
With the introduction of the VSP-G1 and its accessories, any researcher can have quick and easy access to their desired nanomaterial.
Is it really that simple?
Initially, most people cannot believe that making nanomaterials can truly be so easy. However, by the end of the four-month trial period researchers are convinced because they actually see their research speeding up. Indeed, the machine is directly delivered at the lab, installed by a researcher from our team, and tested. Upon delivery the system can be operational within half an hour, and it requires only three simple steps to make your ideal nanomaterial:
- Install the desired electrode material. This is the material that will be converted into nanomaterial. More information can be found about the materials VSPARTICLE provides on the VSPARTICLE website;
- Place the substrate in the appropriate accessory. Depending on the type of substrate (flat, porous or powder) VSPARTICLE provides different accessories; and
- Press the button to start the production of advanced nanoparticles.
Just one year on from the launch, the company is already working on new solutions to integrate more tools adaptable for new applications. With a strong international distribution network and the four-month trial period starting at €9,950, VSPARTICLE wants to support any researcher in creating new nanomaterials.
Who is VSPARTICLE?
Based on decades of fundamental aerosol research at the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, VSPARTICLE was founded in 2014 to bring the technology onto the market. Van Vugt founded VSPARTICLE together with Professor Andreas Schmidt-Ott and Dr Tobias Pfieffer because the nanomaterials they could make within a few hours took some of their colleagues months of hard work. During the first two years, the lessons learned with the prototype systems present in the group of Schmidt-Ott were combined to create what is now known as the VSP-G1.
However, the team wondered if it would be better to sell the nanoparticles produced with the machine or to proceed with the research and enable everyone to independently make their own particles using the VSP-G1. They decided on the latter. “We realised that the possibilities are endless and chose the best scalable process,” Van Vugt says. “This way we could make a bigger impact.”
The three spent the first two years on improving and simplifying the particle source. “We prioritised the simplification of the process,“ Van Vugt says, “in order for our customers to only have to push a button.”
They sustained the research thanks to Delft University of Technology grants and income from prizes they won. At the beginning of 2017, the first particle generator was produced.
The start-up has delivered systems to research institutes, R&D labs, and universities in the Netherlands, Germany, the USA, and China and has an international sales network. Van Vugt states: “We are prepared for a lot, but you never know when you suddenly grow faster.”
The future of nanomaterials
VSPARTICLE understands why the European Union sees nanotechnology and advanced nanomaterials as key enabling technology. Humanity’s ability to create new materials has proved to be critical in the evolution of society. From the Stone, Copper and Iron Age we are now in the ‘silicon age’ where smartphones, computers, and self-driving electrical cars are enabled by powerful computer chips. At VSPARTICLE we believe that we will proceed into the ‘nano age’ where manufacturing will start at the atomic scale.
While VSPARTICLE is currently focused on helping researchers, it has also started bridging the gap between research and industry. Most new nanomaterials are stuck in the research phase since the industry is lacking the right tools to effectively scale up production. Besides automating the production of advanced nanoparticles, VSPARTICLE has made big improvements in scaling the production to industrial quantities and integrating it into a complete manufacturing process.
In 2019 VSPARTICLE intends to introduce the first manufacturing machine for the semiconductor industry where nanoparticles can be used as building blocks to produce components like sensors, redistribution layers or 3D packaging.
The future of Europe in nanomaterial research
Although most production has moved to Asia the EU Task Force for Advanced Manufacturing Technologies for Clean Production says there has been a “strong re-emergence of [the] EU manufacturing sector in technical, environment, and social terms” in the last years. VSPARTICLE believes that by bridging research and industry it can contribute to the development of a more sustainable and stronger manufacturing future in Europe.
According to the EUROPE 2020 strategy, mastering the generation of new materials (which includes designing, researching, and developing new technologies) remains key to achieving the goal of the European innovation policy.
VSPARTICLE foresees a bright future where humanity will be able to unlock the full potential of materials at the nanoscale to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges like climate change.
Aaike Van Vugt
Co-founder and CEO
This is a commercial article that will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 27, which will be published in June, 2018.