Q&A with Professor Ton Peijs
Tell me a bit about your background:
My main area of research is in Polymer Nanotechnology. I received my PhD from Eindhoven University of Technology and joined Queen Mary, University of London in 1999. I am now also a visiting professor at Eindhoven University of Technology and the Institute of Chemical Engineering and High Temperature Chemical Processes at Patras University.
My research interests cover the whole technology platform from processing and characterisation to the performance evaluation and applications of polymers and their composites. In recent years, my work has mainly focused on the utilisation of nanoscale architecture in polymers and composites, the creation of high-performance fibres for advanced all-polymer composites, intelligent fibres for smart textiles, and the development of novel materials based on renewable resources.
I am also a director of Nanoforce Technology Ltd, a spin-out company, wholly-owned by QMUL, devoted to nanocomposites research for exploitation by industry.
What are the biggest challenges you have seen in the nanocomposites sector?
Currently, the challenge is to find a way to get the large amount of research in this area translated to industrial products. Despite the vast amount of research in nanocomposites over the last 2 decades relatively few industrial success stories are known.
Although nanotechnology can offer improvements in mechanical properties e.g. strength, modulus and dimensional stability, GFRP or conventional fillers still rule. However, there are some other areas in which nanocomposites have already, or are now starting, to find applications, including:
- Decreased permeability to gases, water and hydrocarbons – there has been some success here in plastic beer bottles.
- Thermal stability and heat distortion temperature – some successful applications but, again, often glass fibres or calcium carbonate is less expensive and so is used to deliver the same effect.
- Flame retardancy and reduced smoke emissions.
- Surface appearance – nanofillers have the advantage over micro-fillers for better surface appearance.
- Electrical conductivity – there are lots of applications here with the most common being carbon black replacement in plastics for low level conductivity.
- Optical clarity in comparison to conventionally filled polymers – there is lots of research interest and a few applications in, for example, packaging, with most being in multilayer barrier films.
What do you think about the current state of nanocomposites research?
I think that nanocomposites research is particularly strong in the UK, with many academic institutions looking at ways in which these materials can deliver new and improved properties, either as new materials in their own right or as part of a current material, system or technology to deliver added value and multifunctionality to products. The story is the same around the world, in particular in Europe, USA, China, Japan and Korea.
However, for these new materials to be game changing in terms of how products that rely on advanced materials interact with us, there needs to be some major industrial breakthroughs that demonstrate what nanocomposite materials are capable of delivering.
What do you think is the most exciting area for exploration at the moment?
From a research point of view, the most exciting area is to create bioinspired hierarchical materials that are built up from the nanoscale to the microscale, but this is far from industrial commercialisation. Closer to market is the creation of carbon nanotube modified CFRP for improved mechanical properties, such as delamination resistance, combined with integrated sensing capability and improved electrical conductivity.
Are there any issues you see affecting the nanocomposites sector in the future that are being overlooked?
At present there is far too much “blue sky” research taking place with too little emphasis, focus and funding looking into the commercialisation and cost-effectiveness of new nanocomposites, this is the main reason why so many promising research materials have failed to find commercial opportunities so far.
Are there any areas in which the nanocomposites sector as a whole is making positive progress?
The key area in which nanocomposites are making commercial breakthroughs is plastics electronics, however, other areas which are close to commercialisation include the use of nanocomposites in structural multifunctional composites and in smart materials.
Hear Professor Peijs deliver a keynote presentation entitled “Processing Nanocomposites for Multifunctional Properties” at the IOM3 cosponsored Industrial Nanocomposites Conference 2015, which will be held in Stuttgart, Germany on 24-25 November 2015. Further details at http://industrialnanocomposites.com/