For Israel, the Future Is Here and It’s Smaller Than Ever

Nanotechnology promises to be the basis for new materials custom-made for their end use, including plastic bags that extend the freshness of food and even pilotless drone aircraft

Prof. Doron Aurbach
Ofer Vaknin

Researchers and manufacturers around Israel are working to develop fabrics, plastic bags, car batteries, pilotless drone aircraft and weapon systems using nanotechnology, the development and manufacture of materials and products at the molecular and even atomic levels. It is expected that by 2025, there won’t be a single industry that doesn’t make use of materials created by nanotechnology. Even now, less than a decade after the establishment of six vibrant nanotechnology centers in Israel, it’s clear to researchers that the technology can upgrade products and give them a competitive advantage on a global scale.

As with any research and development effort, the first to develop innovation gets the prize. About 150 companies in Israel are counting on that. They include Vulcan Volta Batteries, which hopes to use the technology to extend car battery life; Carmel Olefins, which together with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology is developing plastic bags that extend food freshness; Ein Shemer Rubber, which is using nanotechnology to improve rubber’s flexibility and strength; Omen High Pressure Dye Casting, which is applying the technology to improve the properties of aluminum used in motor vehicles and Israel Aerospace Industries, which along with Plasan, the company at Kibbutz Sasa that customizes vehicle protection, and Elbit Systems, is using the technology to improve aviation components.

Prof. Doron Aurbach of the chemistry department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan heads his department’s electrochemistry group, which is in turn a partner in the university’s Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials. The research center is one of the six established over the past decade, along with centers at Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute.

Bar-Ilan took it upon itself to lead the application of nanotechnology to the energy sector in Israel and around the world, Aurbach said. One of the institute’s most advanced projects is working on giving a major upgrade to the familiar lead-acid car battery. The integration of nanotechnology, focusing on new materials, can double battery life, he said.

The institute is not satisfied with doubling battery life and is working to extend it tenfold through the use of advanced nanotechnology materials. “We already have an improved product for cars,” he said. “We’ll take charged batteries that last two years and enable them to work 10 to 20 years.” The batteries can also be used, among other applications, in drone aircraft.

The government’s decision to establish the nanotechnology centers included $250 million in funding over five years, part of which is from the government, with the rest from academic institutions and private donors. To further the project, the Israel National Nanotechnology Institute was established.

“Nano can beat existing materials in strength, flexibility and durability over time,” says Rafi Koriat, who is in charge of cooperation with industry and academia at INNI.

“What’s unique about nano is that the field, which deals with materials at the level of the atom, builds materials from the bottom up in a way that is not possible to be done otherwise. We examine the final product that the research is supposed to produce and build the best raw material for the product. That’s the opposite of other things, which begin with the raw material and create the product from it. The more size decreases, the range of possibilities become almost unlimited, and the laws of physics change. We’re creating new materials that didn’t exist previously in nature,” Koriat explains. He adds that nanotechnology can be used to create entirely new products, but it can also enable major improvements to existing products.

Better and cheaper

The most important customer for nanotechnology developments is traditional industry, even though it finds it difficult to adopt even less-sophisticated technological advances. To help bridge this gap, the Economy Ministry’s Office of the Chief Scientist, headed by Avi Hasson is providing R&D support for integrating nanotechnology into traditional industries.

Koriat highlights the importance of the approach, noting that traditional industry accounts for 35% of Israeli jobs, compared to just 10% for high-tech. “Industry that doesn’t integrate nano in developing products will be disappearing within 20 years,” he claims, but he adds: “It’s not worth doing everything through nano. We are looking to see where one plus one equals 10, because this involves a substantial investment and we need to look at the return.”

Nanotechnology at Bar-Ilan University.
Ofer Vaknin

Six years ago, Koriat established the Nanotechnology Consortium under the Chief Scientist Magnet program. The goal was to use nanotubes, which as the name suggests are tiny, tube-like structures, to improve existing products. When combined with other materials, they can make them stronger and more stable or give them antibacterial properties. The consortium brought together 13 companies, including Elbit Systems, Elta Systems, Plasan and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, as well as leading researchers from universities and research institutes. Aurbach was one of those brought on board.

Elbit, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries are already making use of the knowhow collected by the consortium, for example to reduce the weight of airplanes by integrating carbon chips into parts, weapon systems and electrical capacitors. Another company, KiloLambda, is looking into applying the technology to optics and protective surface coatings.

Vulcan Volta Batteries joined the consortium about a year after it was established, when other participants realized that it too could benefit from the technology. “Vulcan is important to us because it represents the greatest distance between high-tech and traditional industry,” Koriat says. “It makes batteries, the manufacturing technology of which is unchanged for almost 60 years. There is no internal research and development there.”

Vulcan took on an engineering graduate from the Technion who had represented the institution in the consortium and had carried out a series of experiments. “They took an existing battery at the company and replaced its electrodes,” Koriat recounts, explaining that a battery is dead when the electrodes break down. The prospect of the use of nano materials that are more durable over time provides a reasonable prospect of improving these batteries,” he says. Over three years of experimentation, the company achieved extraordinary results. “At Vulcan they doubled battery life, from two years to four years,” he says. “The significance of this is that you can sell an improved battery at a much higher price while the cost of the improvement is relatively small.”

There are several cars running with the new Vulcan battery at the feasibility stage before it is put into mass production. One of the cars is being driven by Koriat himself. Successfully applying nanotechnology at the initial stage, he says, has also spawned strategic cooperation between Vulcan and the French firm Arkema, which produces the nanotubes.

There are potential nanotechnology applications in a huge range of industrial fields. Tortech Carbon Nanotube Technologies, for example, which is part of Plason, produces nanofibers to filter water, Koriat notes, separating water and oil. This in turn has applications for Israel’s newly found natural gas reserves.

NanoMaterials, which was founded based on knowhow from the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Reshef Tenne, produces and sells lubricants for the automotive industry, extending the life of equipment and improving performance by substantially reducing friction. The lubricant is also used as a coolant in the chip processor industry, where it provides cost savings. Another company, Hanita Coatings, uses nanoparticle technology to coat plastic sheeting with an extremely thin metallic substance for various uses and as shade to absorb ultraviolet radiation.

Research by professors Shmuel Kenig and Amos Ofir of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design has led to successful application in the packaging industry, where nanomaterials that absorb oxygen are being used to package meat, extending its shelf life and improving the product. Additional research led by Kenig led to the development of a steel coating that provides protection from wear.

Impressive accomplishments, but low budgets

One of the tracks in the Chief Scientist’s Office for supporting research and development in traditional industries, currently in the development stage, calls for evaluating and choosing four companies for a pilot program. They will receive financial support as well as the services of a nanotechnology researcher for a period of two years, for the purpose of integrating nanotechnology into the manufacturing process.

There are around 1,200 researchers in all working at nanotechnology centers affiliated with Israeli academic institutions. Some have already seen the technology they developed applied to industry, primarily at companies such as Elbit, Israel Aerospace Industries and in the energy sector.

Israel is considered one of the countries where good results have been achieved with a relatively small budget (around $70 million, from government and industry sources). This compares to about $3 billion a year invested each in the United States and the European Union. There are around 200 companies working in nanotechnology in Israel. About 20 are major firms such as Elbit, IAI, Intel and Plasan, while the others are startups and small companies that grew out of research.

“In the European Union, they say that by 2025, there won’t be a single field that doesn’t have nano, and that’s also the direction that we are seeing,” Koriat says. At the end of this month, a nanotechnology conference will be held in Israel at which 400 projects will be presented involving nanotechnology available for industrial application. The conference organizers expect that those attending will include multinationals that have opened R&D centers in Israel. “Nano can be adapted to Google’s self-driving car, to Facebook’s databases and cybersecurity and to compress picture databases,” Koriat notes.