Nanotechnology Originating from Nuclear Industry
Besides the development of nuclear fuel, materials for nuclear reactors and technologies for processing radioactive waste, the Institute is engaged in researching a wide range of material science issues. In 2006, VNIINM established the Rosatom Center for Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials. VNIINM’s General Director, V.B.Ivanov, told us about high-tech innovations of the Institute used in various sectors of the economy.
The term "nanotechnology" is not fully formalized yet. Therefore, it is advisable to associate this area not with only projects of creating and using items with the size of less than 100 nm, but also the areas where typical nanoindustry approaches and solutions are used. Besides nuclear technology, we are developing superconducting materials, solutions based on nano-beryllium, composite nanomaterials, high-strength nanostructured wires, a wide range of surface processing technologies, and powders for additive technologies.
How close is the work in the field of superconducting materials to the industrial stage?
Superconductors can be divided into low-temperature (LTSC), which have zero electrical resistance at the temperature of liquid helium, and high-temperature (HTSC), operating at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. In an intermediate position between LTSC and HTSC, there is magnesium diboride (MgB2), which acquires superconducting properties at the temperature of liquid hydrogen. The higher the operating temperature of the superconductor, the lower the cost of cryogenic equipment during its operation.
In the sphere of HTSC, the institute is developing the second-generation materials. The closest to the industrial implementation are the electric current limiters that protects electric machines, for example, a railway or metro train, from damage by short circuits. Electric current limiters based on superconducting materials are greatly superior in their performance to conventional devices. The working principle is that, in case of exceeding the critical current, the HTSC element loses its superconducting properties, and the resistance of the network is increasing dramatically. The electric current limiters of this type have already been developed and the serial production is to be implemented as soon as possible.
Although, in the framework of the presidential program, Rosatom should complete a major project this year, which will result in development of equipment and technologies for production of HTSC wires with the length of up to one km, we have to admit that in this area we are behind other developed countries. According to the information coming from abroad, superconductors are more and more widely used in power engineering and military technology, in particular, to reduce the weight and dimensions of electrical equipment in submarines.
Besides HTSC, the USA, Italy and other countries are developing superconducting materials based on magnesium diboride, which are characterized by relatively low cost, ease of production and good technical parameters. Last year, I met with Carlo Rubbia, a Nobel laureate, and he believes that superconductors based on magnesium diboride are a very promising direction. This material is used in the creation of a transmission line with the length of several hundred kilometers, which can transfer high currents. It should be noted that VNIINM has good experience in the field of magnesium diboride application, and if necessary, we can very promptly bring this technology to the industrial stage, but so far at the state level, the emphasis is on the development of HTSC.
In my opinion, the future of electronics is about superconducting materials, so it is advisable to invest more in this area, to seek new fields of application and to implement pilot projects. While in other countries they conduct tests, create equipment, accumulate practical experience in the creation of the conductors, in cryogenics and other related areas, in Russia, unfortunately, this subject is not yet properly addressed, although the superconductivity will provide enormous savings in our country specifically, considering the distances over which electricity is transmitted.
Another development of VNIINM in the field of electrical engineering is nanostructured high-strength electrical wire. In what areas can they be used and how does their cost compare to the prices of conventional electricity cables?
High-strength wires are made of a copper matrix containing tens of thousands of niobium filaments. Wires of this type have a conductivity of up to 75-80% of the electrical conductivity of high-purity copper with the strength of steel of up to 1500 MPa. The possible areas of application are the electrical lines that are subjected to high mechanical loads. For example, contact wires for high-speed railroads. When the speed of a train is over 300 km/h, the contact wires from conventional materials are very easily damaged. If you use our high-strength wires, the service life will be longer and the number of wire supports may be reduced.
Another interesting area of application is high-strength magnets. The magnetic fields of a few dozens of Tesla lead to high internal tensions, which literally tear the wires from conventional materials and our high-strength wires can withstand a magnetic induction of up to 100 Tesla and above, which was confirmed, in particular, by the tests conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The high-strength wires may also be used in aviation and space engineering, transmission lines, resonant transmission, etc. As for their cost, while it is several times higher than the cost of conventional wiring, but there are special areas that require exceptional strength. Rosatom is supporting this project and, according to the business plan, it should reach break-even by 2019.
Can the powders for 3D printing created by VNIINM be considered a product of nanotechnology?
The particle size of such powders is 10 to 30 μm, but their production uses techniques that are typical for nanotechnology. Moreover, in accordance with the modern requirements, these particles should have a spherical shape. Now, the country is experiencing a boom in additive technologies, but it does not have a clear understanding of their appropriate use. We have developed unique powders of stainless steel, aluminum, titanium and other structural materials, and their mixtures. There are ideas on organizing the manufacture of the fuel reactor assemblies and other items. For the time being, we are testing the software and making the first 3D articles.
What results have been achieved in the field of functional and protective coatings?
We prefer to use a broader term: surface treatment, which implies a radical change in the properties of the structure. The Institute possesses patents and expertise in this field. In production, we use over a dozen treatment processes, for example, cold gas-dynamic sputtering and magnetron sputtering. Depending on the surface and objectives, the coating can be ceramic, metal, composite and of other materials. As a result, the surface has a desired set of characteristics, e.g., heat resistance, mechanical wear resistance, chemical resistance, friction properties, corrosion resistance, radar absorption, electrical insulation, etc. In addition to solving engineering problems, we gradually accumulate experience in other areas. In particular, a very interesting project is being implemented jointly with the Russian company that developed medical hip implants, the biocompatibility of which has no equivalent in the world. The bone quickly fuses with the prosthesis that has special porous coating, which increases its service life. I hope we will bring this work to a pilot stage this year.
Besides, we have plans to create a compact portable device for coating, which can be used in various fields, for example in the housing sector to restore pipes.
What other projects are being implemented in the Institute?
Another interesting direction is the creation of products from nano-beryllium, in particular, the vacuum-tight foil and lenses for focusing x-rays. The lenses need to have elements from high-purity beryllium with nanostructure preventing dispersion of radiation. The lens system in the x-ray fluorescence devices is used for obtaining a micron diameter beam for studying items at a level close to molecular. We have developed a process of abrading and polishing the surface of the beryllium foil.
We have achieved interesting results in the field of high-energy magnetic materials. The nanotechnology in combination with the "strip casting" technology is used to obtain magnetic alloys with unique properties for the production of electric motors, generators, couplings, sensors, filters and other products.
Does the policy of import substitution help in the development of the institution?
We are working on more than a dozen agreements, including, agreements with companies in the aerospace industry and the military industrial complex, but the effect of the implementation of this policy could be better. The first problem is the lack of information on the potential substitution of foreign suppliers. The second problem is the lack of customers for R&D, because everybody needs technologies that are ready to be introduced. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to find the money for R&D because the Institute does not have its own funds. The new initiatives have not been proposed for several years, whereas Rosatom has very strict rules, according to which an investment project must be repaid in not more than three years. A significant breakthrough can be done in three years’ time only if the market is ready and there is a demand for the innovation. If there is no market, then it is very difficult to comply with this term, because you need time not only to develop a product, but also to certify and to advertise it.
When looking for funds for our projects, among which is the field of superconductors, we submit applications to the Ministry of Education and try to work with the Skolkovo Fund, but the competition is very high there, and there are many nuances in making decisions. However, we struggle for every project and for every customer.
How effective is the cooperation with other research institutions in Russia and abroad?
With respect to the traditional areas of VNIINM related to the development of nuclear fuel, we closely interact with other Russian research institutes within the structure of Rosatom. In the field of superconducting materials, we cooperate with the Efremov Institute, Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics and Automation, and Kurchatov Institute, which has the first pilot production line of second-generation high temperature superconductors. In some areas, for example, in the production of nano-beryllium, we are unique on the market, so there is nobody to cooperate with.
There are few international projects. In the field of LTSC, as it has already been mentioned, we participated in the ITER project and in the development of HTSC. Perhaps, so far it is not so interesting to cooperate with us because the leading foreign companies and institutions have gone far enough in their research. We can feel impact of sanctions, too, because our western colleagues became noticeably colder in the relationship with us.
How acute is the problem of training scientific and production personnel?
Of course, in such institutions as ours it is obvious that the level of young specialists is insufficient. For example, a university graduate, who received only general knowledge, needs at least five years to become a qualified technologist in the production of nuclear fuel. It is impossible to have a ready specialist for the specific fields under the current conditions, in principle, because if the investment is not enough for the development of the technology, it is even less enough for training.
What are the plans for the development of scientific and technological activities of the Institute?
The development of the Institute largely depends on how the state policy of innovation support will be implemented in practice. If new technologies become highly demanded, then we will develop. We have many promising innovations that can be brought to commercial production very fast. The only issue is the development of demand.
From our side, we must ensure that our developments comply with what the Civil Code refers to as "unified technology". It means that all new projects will include the creation of sufficient documentation packages so the technology may be implemented where it is needed.
How do you think you can improve the effectiveness of innovation support, and how should the relationship between scientific research and the market be organized?
We lack the so-called systemic marketing. I was studying this problem in the early 1990s, when I learned the Japanese experience, the experience of international consulting companies. It is a very complicated system, which predicts and plans the development of markets for the years ahead. Innovation must consistently be brought from concept to market, and the final stage of this process is not the finished product, but the demand for it.
It is a shame that the Russian private businesses are practically not involved in venture projects in the field of industrial technologies, and the state is not doing it in the most efficient manner. There are many ideas in our country, but for their implementation, the country needs a system that helps people to find the money for R&D and marketing. When the innovation is actively implemented, the beneficiaries are research organizations, the industry, and the economy as a whole. ■
Thanks for the interesting story.
The interview was taken by Dmitry Gudilin