Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, which effectively opens the door to correcting all possible weaknesses and vulnerabilities of a particular material, or even alloys that can yet still be improved despite further development from the base material.
In a recent paper outlining the ‘Potential applications of nanotechnology in transportation’ (J. Mathew et al. 2018) which includes air transport as one mode of transport hospitable to nanotechnological innovations, there are a range current and forthcoming applications with huge potential, however each application is accompanied by their own concurrent challenges.
For example, through the use of Carbon Nanotubes or CNTs, traditionally used materials can achieve enhanced thermal, mechanical and electrical properties, with high strength and large weight reductions of up to 20%, an almost unparalleled reduction in recent years from the implementation of a single innovation. Other current applications of nanotechnologies include nano-filters, anti-glare coatings, GMR sensors, fuel additives and nano-catalysts, although as with any new innovation scalability and technology readiness are issues that must be sufficiently resolved.
As a result of some of the assumptions listed already, the European Commission have categorised Nanotechnology as a Key Enabling Technology or KET, and as a result the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) are reportedly working to reduce the uncertainties about the potential impact of nanomaterial on health and the environment, in part by supporting the development of a ‘sound regulatory framework by providing informed science-based advice’.
The most recent review of policy relating to nanotechnology was the Second Regulatory Review of the European Policy on nanomaterial in 2012 which examines 8 key areas, namely: Research, Industrial Innovation, Infrastructures, Education, Social Aspects & Ethics, Risk Assessment, Regulation, and finally International Cooperation & Dialogue. Regarding the area of Industrial Innovation which Aerospace is mostly impacted by within this regulation, IPR for fundamental knowledge, regulation and metrology were emphasised as three key subtopics important for the reviewed regulation to address.
However since this review, the rapidly emerging technology has matured a great deal with many more applications feasible today, than those possible in 2012, with further applications already on the horizon such as nanosteels or low-friction aggregate components, it will be important therefore for the aerospace industry to ensure they are maintaining the capacity to implement such innovations, and engage with policy-makers regarding the opportunities and challenges of said innovations to ensure they are deployed effectively.
Multiple research actions in this field are providing essential support for Europe to become a leader in this field, with this complex and essential Standardisation already with a great deal of momentum. Europe’s Aerospace Industry can thus better prepare for future developments with increased understanding and certainty emerging as a result. With recent reports forecasting large growth in the coming years until at least 2021, the aerospace industry, among others, and policy-makers will have to cooperate for nanotechnologies to achieve the desired economies of scale, and to ensure the industry has both the human and financial resources to capitalise on this and maintain Europe’s leading position in this emerging global sector.