Thanks to the world of the infinitely small, products can acquire unlikely functions. At Centi, innovation happens fast and always with a focus on industry.
Can plane wings be considered a textile product? What immediately springs to mind when we talk about “textiles” is, of course, clothing or household linen. Yet the word could take off in different directions. Literally, in many cases. This is what happens at Centi, better known by this imperfect acronym than by the complicated name it stands for: Centre of Nanotechnology and Technical, Functional and Intelligent Materials.
Located in Vila Nova de Famalicão, in the heart of the Ave Valley, a region with a strong textile tradition, Centi has little to do with the conventional side of the sector. A group of 40 people, with an average age of less than 30, work on research and development (R&D) projects for new materials. Many of these take on different functions thanks to the microscopic layers of things that are as varied as the new applications they acquire. Of course we are talking about the tiniest of scales, which is precisely what happens with nanotechnology. To get to a nanometre, you have to divide a millimetre by a thousand. Take a breath and then divide it by one thousand again. The result just has so many zeros!
It’s this millionth of a millimetre that allows everyday objects to be endowed with new characteristics. It might look like any other tile, but actually it’s a touch-sensitive switch just like those we play with on a lot of phones nowadays. It can be used to switch the light on and off without the need for the usual device. Other tiles produced at the laboratories include perfumed ones, which release fragrances over a long period of time, and others with self-cleaning properties. Once again, they involve working on a nanoscale to provide new functions by giving the materials innovative characteristics.
Not just ideas, but products
The main difference between this and other centres where science is made is that at Centi companies’ needs are catered for, so solutions have to be found within shorter deadlines and always with the end user in mind. Yet however much pressure there might have been, there seems to have been no problem dealing with it. Since starting up in 2009, Centi has registered 14 patents in a wide range of areas, including pyjamas that look after those who wear them, socks that count steps and communicate heart rate to a mobile phone and towels that repel dirt – drastically reducing the water bill.
There are jackets and car upholstery as well as building materials that can produce electricity at zero cost to the environment. There are also curtains and garden cushions with LED lights that come on with no batteries or sockets. They all have flexible photovoltaic panels that can transform solar energy and are so small that they can be incorporated into many different materials. “This was a really important research project for us”, explains Braz Costa, director of Centi. “It involved over a dozen European partners with very different profiles. And there were northern and central European countries that saw we had skills they didn’t.”
In fact, international recognition came before national. “We were a bit disappointed at first because we thought that firms in certain areas would come to us for solutions”, admits the director. “But it was only when they realised we were selling services to institutions abroad that Portuguese firms started to approach us.”
The fact that the website is exclusively in English is an indication of this outward-looking vision, though this is no longer so crucial, according to the director. Several Portuguese firms have already hired Centi’s services, in an effort to create distinguishing products. In the medical field, eczema-treating pyjamas have been invented and are currently undergoing clinical trials at São João Hospital in Oporto. Also in the medical world, approval is pending from the regulatory body, Infarmed, for support hose that releases drugs to relieve the symptoms of varicose-vein sufferers. These and other projects have involved various partners, in particular the three universities that are Centi partners: Minho, Oporto and Aveiro.
Part of the team has only recently left the academic world, but the other already has industrial experience, which is essential for product research, explains Braz Costa. “The ideal model should contemplate about 30% staff turnover every year.” In his opinion, if an institution like this keeps the same staff for a long time, it stagnates. “New people with a different vision have to come in to keep ideas fresh – not only in terms of the technologies used, but also in the way they can be applied”.
The head of Centi enthusiastically conveys the motivation of those who work there. “You can see the blood running through their veins!” he stresses. “They’re really into what they’re doing – it’s something that requires great passion. They love seeing their ideas turn into products, which is incredibly motivating.”
You shouldn’t think, though, that there is an immediate connection between an idea and a viable product, cautions Braz Costa. “Going to the lab and generating an idea is the easy part. What’s hard is producing it on an industrial scale with controlled costs.”
Like a factory
One of the ambitions is to make various kinds of flat surfaces functional. This could be a desk whose surface is still made of wood but hides the electronics incorporated in it for controlling air conditioning, for example. Once again, this raises questions: what’s the point in giving surfaces new functions and if there is one, who will buy them and how much will they be willing to pay? “Here we have to pursue ideas until the moment we can say: ‘OK, let’s make some products from this that will work and are worth money.’” That’s what it’s been like so far, getting this answer just right so that the budget stays balanced and the staff can be paid at a profit. Although the current crisis has increased defences, it has made some firms want to stand out even more and they have come to Centi to be a partner in this innovation process.
Centi is also able to stand out from the rest thanks to its semi-industrial capacity, which enables it to produce prototypes and help firms test their first products. This is the case of a unique piece of equipment that can produce fibres thinner than a hair with three different components. This “thread” can make materials “intelligent” by giving them invisible electronics. Though the relationship with the textile world may not always be close, in terms of technique and know-how, it’s always there.
Going back to our first question: how should we categorise plane wings? Are they a stiffened textile product or a reinforced resin? Both answers are right, as Braz Costa explains. “They are a composite made of high tenacity fibres and resins.” And in various countries it is the institutes based in the textile and polymer industries that control the secrets of these materials. Just so you don’t go back to thinking only about linen and the like.
por Alda Rocha