Nanotech research speeds up, but applications fail to materialize

Manufacturing standards, clear policy on health risks seen as elements missing in pursuit of applications
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First Published: Mon, Apr 22 2013. 10 51 PM IST
An experiment underway in the X-ray photo electron spectroscope at the Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
An experiment underway in the X-ray photo electron spectroscope at the Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Updated: Tue, Apr 23 2013. 08 18 AM IST
Slightly more than a decade after India officially embarked on a concerted Rs.1,000 crore effort to accelerate nanoscience and build an industrial base reliant on nanotechnology applications, it has doubled its share of research publications in the sector in that period. On the other hand, it has barely made a dent in being able to translate this research into usable products, says a just published report on nanotechnology in India.
“There is a long way for promising research leading to applications and only a few organizations have been able to translate some of their research to applications,” according to the study, Knowledge Creation and Innovation in Nanotechnology, prepared by the National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS).
More worryingly, key elements that are necessary to accelerate industrial applications, such as specifying manufacturing standards and a clear policy on addressing the potential health risks posed by nanotechnology, are only “at preliminary stages” and lag behind those of China and South Korea even though these countries began concentrating resources on nanotechnolgy around the same time as India.
Nanotechnology is the science of creating and manipulating particles that are a thousand times thinner than human hair. At those dimensions, many common materials behave unexpectedly. Highly water absorbent materials become water repellent. Gold for example melts at much lower temperatures and silicon absorbs a higher amount of solar energy, leading to more efficient solar cells.
Sujit Bhattacharya, a professor at NISTADS and key author of the report, said that while several government departments and top-flight research institutions were investing in nanotechnology, the surprise was that consumer goods companies—even in India—were incorporating nanotechnolgy in their products.
Thus companies such as Arvind Mills Ltd offer a range of fabrics that use nanomaterials, and Tata Chemical’s Tata Swach and Hindustan Unilever’s Pureit water filters have employed indigenously developed nanotechnology applications to make water filters.
At the other end, according to the report, the bulk of forthcoming products that employ nanotechnology applications were from the pharmaceutical sectors—Shasun Pharmaceuticals and Dabur Pharma Ltd have nano-particle based drugs for cancer in development.
Early entrepreneurs in India’s nanotechnology scene maintain that it made sense for them to offer low-cost materials using nanotechnology and then move up to more complex products.
Arup Chatterjee, chief executive officer (CEO) of Kolkata-based I-CAnNano, which makes nanoparticle-based cleaning agents, was among a group of early adopters that used nanomaterials to develop a new class of adhesives which could be used in a wide range of articles from windshields to paint.
“It was a big leap as nanocomposites (a mixture of nanomaterials) are sensitive to temperature during manufacture,” Chatterjee said in an earlier interview to Mint. “Making nanoparticles is only the beginning. Handling and using them practically is substantially difficult.”
His company has now forged tie-ups with academia to develop more complex materials and products, he said.
A hurdle in the way of India’s nanotechnology industry was a general aversion to risk and the unwillingness to explore beyond low-hanging fruit, said Rudra Pratap, chairperson of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering.
Most investors in nanotechnology based products looked for “quick returns”, and were unwilling to stay the long haul for investing in genuinely inventive products, said Pratap, who’s led his own nanotechnology start-up.
“Things like nanomaterials and paints are the easy bits and they are all done,” said Pratap. “To get beyond that you have to commit funds at an early stage for a long time.”
His company, i2n Technologies, makes scanning tunnelling microscopes that are frequently used in research labs to take atom-level snapshots of surfaces. Though his entry-level products cost two-thirds of what similar devices are priced at, Pratap said that he typically runs into demands such as “give me references from three customers who’ve used your product”.
“Such obstacles reflect a lack of an entrepreneurial mindset. More than money or institutional support, it’s this mindset that must change to foster acceptance for nanotechnology products,” he added.
Then there’s the problem with the health aspects of nanotechnology.
A recent US study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that nanomaterials potentially posed unknown health hazards. Given their small size, they could easily be absorbed via the skin or orally and lodge themselves within several organs and pose a variety of risks. These risks were relevant to India too, according to Alok Adholeya, director of the biotechnology and bioresources division at The Energy Resources Institute.
“One is occupational hazard— we have to in-build policies to ensure that (nano) science is done in a safe manner, which is not there as of now and the second is future risk,” said Adholeya. “Even though currently India doesn’t use much of nano for consumer materials, things may change.”
Adholeya, who’s in the process of preparing a study to ascertain the risks associated with nanotechnology with the Department of Biotechnology, added that currently, the use of nanoparticles in the agricultural sector was predominantly in the form of nano-fungicides and nano-fertilizers but other sectors getting involved would “rise in the future”.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 22 2013. 10 51 PM IST
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