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Nanotech’s place in the sun

NANOTECHNOLOGY developed by UWA researchers as part of a ‘Centres of Excellence’ program is poised to revolutionise the sunscreen market and is set to attack the cosmetics, microelectronics, baby care and homeware industries.

Advanced Powder Technology was formed in 2000 to commercialise the work of Professor Paul McCormick and his team of researchers and is now a multi-million dollar business.

APT began sales of its core product ZinClear last year and is currently in discussions with major cosmetics manufacturer Revlon

Advanced Powder Technology Pty Ltd product development manager biomedical, Dr Hugh Dawkins, said while the application for the nanotechnology lay in several industries, it’s most recent success was in helping sunscreen manufacturers produce clear zinc using its product, ZinClear.

“It’s totally transparent and doesn’t have a thick coating; it has a beautiful feel,” he said.

ZinClear is essentially zinc oxide nanoparticles that are formed using APT’s patented mechanochemical process, which allows APT to produce tiny zinc particles.

Dr Dawkins said the multi-million dollar mechanochemical break-through had come as a result of problems with work on a separate project.

“They [the researchers] had trouble with a particular process; it kept exploding,” he said.

“They thought they would slow down that process by throwing some salts in. They soon realised they had done something quite different. They had developed discrete nanotechnologies.”

That development meant that tiny nanoparticles could be created and kept separate from one another, making the zinc transparent.

For consumers of sunscreen it means better protection and sun-screen products that contain fewer chemicals.

“Zinc oxide is well regarded as the best broad spectrum UV absorber,” Dr Dawkins said. “Zinc oxide is a natural broad spectrum protectant but has had limited use because of its white and thick coating.

“It was first launched in the 1940s by a South Australian company and known as white zinc or pink zinc. Its market penetration was limited to sailors and sports people.”

The new technology has been well received by sunscreen manufacturers, according to Dr Dawkins, with three manufacturers now using ZinClear in the manufacture of their sunscreen products.

Bareskin, produced by Ramprie Laboratories, has ZinClear added to it and is endorsed by Surf Life Saving Western Australia. Wildchild and Wet Dreams sunscreens also use ZinClear.

“The SPF component of sunscreen measures the sun protection factor, its ability to block UVB,” Dr Dawkins said.

“SPF 30 means you can be in the sun 30 times longer than your skin would normally allow. That blocks UVB [wavelengths of light associated with cancer and sunburn], but SPF 30 plus broadband spectrum means something has been added to block UVA [wavelengths of light associated with skin ageing].”

The development of nanopartilces – and specifically zinc oxide nanoparticles – means that all the benefits of zinc can now be applied to sunscreens, but without the thick coating.

In fact, sunscreens that used ZinClear should contain fewer chemicals, Dr Dawkins said.

“These transparent sunscreens can only be made using chemical cocktails.

The chemicals protecting against UV sit on the surface of the skin but are absorbed into the skin and break down with exposure to sunlight,” he said.

“We know these chemicals are considered to be safe but the long-term effects are unknown. We are now getting larger amounts of chemicals for a longer period of time and more frequently.”

The breakthrough in the development of nanopowders generated global interest, with Korean elec-tronics giant Samsung Corning investing significantly in the hope of using the technology for the microelectronics market.

“In 2000 Samsung Corning were interested in nanoparticles,” Dr Dawkins said. “Its parent company Corning USA has 50 per cent of the micro electronics market.

“They found out about the process produced by APT and took a 10 per

cent stake in APT as part of a program to set up a joint venture company.

“They invested $6 million for a 50 per cent stake in the spin out from APT, Advanced Nanotechnology.”

He said APT’s nanotechnology process had great potential for the electronics market.

“Nanoparticles are often used in superfine polishing,” Dr Dawkins said.

“If the particles are too large, if the particles agglomerate, it will scratch the surface. If you scratch a semiconductor chip, that’s $10,000 out the door.

“The next step is the cosmetic market.

“Sunscreen was where there was the strongest need but we are looking at the cosmetic market.”

He said the product could be used in foundation formulas and for daily moisturisers.

Other future applications could include floor coverings.

“The chemicals required to protect the skin from the sun are the same things needed to protect surfaces, blinds, wood etc,” Dr Dawkins said.

“The chemicals on wood break down and the UV gets through and over time damages the wood. Zinc won’t do that. You can treat the timber to a natural look and it won’t break down.

“For surface coverings there won’t be the whitening, so there will be better colours.

“They will be more clear and vibrant and will be protected from UV.”

The Australian Research Council (ARC) contributed about $250,000 to APT research from 1990-1999 and ANT was awarded an R & D Start grant of $2.7 million.

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