"Spicy world of NanoScience"
Experiments carried out at the A.A. Blagonravov Institute of Engineering Science (IMASH), Russian Academy of Sciences, have proved that instruments based on nanostructured composite made of zirconium oxide exceed steel analogues in terms of acuity and reliability. Specialists at the A.A. Blagonravov Institute of Engineering Science assume that in future the new material will press steel by a number of positions and will solidly capture its own niche in many industries. Valery Alisin - head of laboratory at the A.A. Blagonravov Institute of Engineering Science – describes researchers’ hopes related to zirconium.
Valery Alisin: “The nanostructured material based on zirconium oxide possesses a domain structure, there are no grain boundaries, that is why acuity degree of a scalpel made of it is several times higher. Such scalpel is practically everlasting»
The project entitled “Development of synthesis and processing technology for nanostructured composite materials based on zirconium oxide and production of pilot batches of details for triboengineering purposes” has been implemented by a number of research and medical institutions in the framework of the Federal Target Program “Research and development for priority directions in science and engineering for 2007–2012”. Parent organization – A.A. Blagonravov Institute of Engineering Science, Russian Academy of Sciences. Amount of financing – 100 million Rubles
The two-year gap
Why is it zirconium oxide that made the basis for new material synthesis?
– Machinery evolution dynamics is connected with the fact that machines are increasingly loaded as requirements to their capacity are constantly growing. One of the most important ways to promote growth of automated labor efficiency, and consequently, of technological advance as well, is connected with utilization of new materials. In the course of our project, the composite author consisting of specialists at the A.M. Prokhorov Institute of General Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences) and the A.A. Blagonravov Institute of Engineering Science (Russian Academy of Sciences) jointly with manufacturing enterprises were dealing with this task: the researchers were creating a new “tissue” – a composite material based on nanostructured crystals of partially stabilized zirconium oxide. Zirconium oxide was selected as a basis because it possesses very high fracture strength and a good combination of tribotechnical and strength characteristics that increase reliability and operational life of friction units. Omitting technical details of the process, I would say that the effort resulted in creation of nanostructured crystals and industrial production based on them. Then the researchers created wire die blanks for getting wire, journal bearing bushings, medical scalpels. All these diverse items underwent tests at departmental manufacturing.
Are there any similar technologies abroad?
– In my opinion, we have more efficient production engineering of materials: our materials are better in terms of mechanical properties characteristics, and their cost price is lower. Similar work is being also performed abroad, but we are ahead in terms of timing. Researchers abroad are only presenting publications on the research of analogous materials, but we are ready to start product manufacturing. Of course, it is very unfortunate that our time-resource will not last long: I estimate it as approximately the two-year gap, no more than that.
A nontraumatic scalpel
What is the gain of a specific item made of a new material, for example, a medical scalpel, as compared to its traditional analogue?
– The scalpel is an instrument for cutting biological tissues, the quality of which is directly connected with the edge acuity, i.e., the sharper it is – the better. Scalpels are now made of steel, and piece items for ophthalmology – are made of diamond. An ordinary metal instrument is short-lived, it gets blunt quickly as metal has a grain structure and dissolves in human blood. The nanostructured material based on zirconium oxide has a domain structure, there are no grain boundaries, therefore, acuity degree of a of zirconium oxide scalpel is several times higher. Such a scalpel is practically everlasting as it is chemically inert and its acuity does not change upon any type of sterilization. It turns out that “nanoinstrument” is winning by two factors – acuity and operating life. Acuity ensures minimum traumatism in the course of a surgical operation, which results in quick healing and a thin and barely visible post-operative suture.
When will “nanoscalpels” enter mass production?
– In the first place, when funds are found for these purposes. I am sure that zirconium oxide scalpels in mass production will not differ much in price from metal ones. Actually, material consumption on the edge part makes a small percent of the entire instrument cost. If it is compared to diamond analogues, which are comparable to in operational properties to our scalpels, the nanoscalpel will be significantly less expensive.
We are certainly planning to promote the “nanoscalpel” into mass production, but first it is necessary to solve such concurrent issues as commercial brand formation and product cost. To transform a traditional scalpel is an excellent idea, however we live in the XXIst century after all and we do understand that original instruments have better prospects for attracting manufactures’ and consumers’ attention. They are at stake now: a new instrument is being developed jointly with the Limited Liability Company «New Power Technologies» – bipolar electrosurgical scissors with inserts made of partially stabilized zirconium oxide crystals, which enable to make practically bloodless operations due to application of a certain electric field. If a patient is operated by this instrument, he/she will recover sooner and will be discharged from hospital quicker. The work related to these scissors is executed jointly with medical workers, specifically the ones from the Moscow Regional Research Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Moscow Medical Academy named after I.M. Sechenov, and other medical facilities.
What do you think, is the industry ready to manufacture zirconium-oxide-based items?
– As basic issues have been solved, it means that manufacturing can be rolled out. Nevertheless, there are certainly some nuances: it is required to reorient enterprises to innovative product release, to establish information processes for engineers and students to convince everybody that utilization of zirconium oxide bushings in machinery of the future will bring necessary results; that a medical device made of such material is better than a steel device, and so on. The material is still to pass the tests, which will also take time. Dozens of ideas are brought to a designer, and authors of each of them assure that their solution is the very best. Then something falls out but something remains. Imagine yourself acting as a person who puts his(her) signature on the document regarding the item that will ultimately “fall out”. It is unlikely that somebody would take such responsibility upon him(her)self when applying an unfamiliar material, that is why new things are always approached with alert. However, the work is under way. No doubts that time will come and our material will capture its niche in many industries.
Nanolevel and megaproblems
I cannot but mention: since recently, everybody has heatedly discussed graphene appearance, predicting bright future to it…
– So what? Have you seen graphene-based items in the stores? These are only words so far. Of course, graphene creation is boast of the world science but despite abundance of impressive publications I have great doubts that grahhene will soon become part of everyday life because formation of structures at the nanolevel causes a lot of engineering problems related to faultiness and stability of properties of obtainable material. I have the right to this viewpoint as a researcher and an engineer.
Do zirconium-oxide-based material creators expect to gain commercial profit from their development if the material successfully passes tests and is highly appreciated by manufactures in various industries? The development has certainly been patented, and you have already told me about brands…
– No, they have not estimated profit. Innovative activity and intellectual property protection in general cannot be performed between times – this is a very crucial and, in its own way, creative process, which comprises a system of corporate standards requiring professional approach. Everybody should mind his(her) own business. We began to design cutting tools because that application was obvious. More delicate and complicated tasks we are facing now are connected with friction and tear and wear (specifically, bushings of journal bearings for work under extreme service conditions, energy-saving roll bearings, etc.), possible changes in engineering approach to work with the material, as everything new has its own peculiarities. Of course, we protect the development, we have got patents. However, I have to admit that I have no experience in getting royalty, therefore it is difficult for me to discuss potential commercial benefit of patenting. The most important thing I need to do now is to conduct tests, to watch that these bushings enable to improve machinery technical characteristics, because as a person grieving for my country, I am interested in growth of domestic production quality and quantity.