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Sol-Gel Technology Impresses As Market Expands

Posted on 19/01/2018

How the UK can take advantage of the exciting properties offered by sol-gel technology.

Making glass-like materials at much reduced temperatures has always been a unique advantage for sol-gel. This technology, as opposed to the more traditional processing techniques, enables densification to be achieved at a much lower temperature. This is important as we strive towards lower energy costs and achieving more resource efficient manufacturing in the 21st Century.

Sol-gel processing also allows the operator full control over defining the end product when creating the starting metal oxide network. While the network could be made either porous or non-porous, the end product could also be functionalised for such a purpose. Porous networks allow immobilisation of molecules that are capable of responding to a particular environment, resulting in the ability to design application-specific sensors and smart coatings. This technology also offers the route to make monoliths, which can be used as bed reactors in separation and purification technologies.

The flexibility of materials produced using the sol-gel process allows coating of flat surfaces, irregular shapes or particles (either to work as a shield, a carrier to assist with dispersion or as a cage to achieve partial interactions with the outside environment). As a result, coatings have become the biggest area of sol-gel technology finding applications as either primer or thin protective film in many sectors such as automotive, aerospace, electronics and biomedical. Industries utilising composites have benefited for a long time from sol-gel technology, with the ability to modify glass fibres as well as reinforcing polymers.

Functionalised sol-gel nanocoatings, such as anti-fog and anti-reflection, have found wide use in automotive and construction industries. However, despite the numerous benefits of this technology, the global growth rate of sol-gel is considered relatively slow with current market value of a few billion dollars. KTN approached Dr Fanya Ismail, Sol-Gel Process & Surface/Interface Expert at SGMA, a company that specialises in the sol-gel process, for her views on the barriers affecting the growth of the technology and how the UK can take advantage of the exciting properties offered by the technology.

According to Fanya, the barriers affecting the growth may be due to several aspects. Least of all sol-gel is still not treated as a technology on its own and often overshadowed by nanotechnology. “There has been a lack of investment over years in researching the basic science resulting in diluted benefits, imposed limitations on current applications and restricting the future full potential of this technology” says Fanya.

“Despite the draw-backs and lack of recognition, the future of industry might see an increase in the visibility of sol-gel in the worldwide technological arena. Market demand driven by the rapid speed in innovative developments such as electrical cars, Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, advanced composites, smart homes & cities, means the future holds new applications for sol-gel. Aspects such as fast cured materials, functionalised additives along with multifunctional coatings and sol-gel based products that could be used as a single step solution in industrial assemblies may well be the main drive to witness increased visibility.”

Countries such as the US, Japan and Germany are using sol-gel to indirectly enhance their manufacturing capabilities and produce better quality products, according to Fanya, whilst the global market for sol-gel is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2019 with US worth about $1.1 billion alone [1].

What about the UK? Fanya says we’re lagging behind in this field. “This might be due to the wider perception that has developed within the industry a couple of decades ago that sol-gel coatings do not work. However, recent advances in the art of combining sol-gel with existing and recent technologies such as graphene brings endless opportunities to develop future coatings to fuel Industry 4.0.”

What you think? Can the UK capitalise on the opportunities that sol-gel technology brings and can they face the challenges the 4th industry revolution brings without sol-gel? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment on the Advanced Materials LinkedIn group.

Source: [1] BCC Research: Sol-Gel Processing of Ceramics and Glass