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The God of small things

By Himanshu Kumar Singh

20 th century witnessed a multi-layered technological revolution that shaped the fundamentals of economic, societal and cultural outlook of the world. High-technology innovations such as semiconductors, information technology, transistors, optical fibers, and plastics over the years have generated new income and hope. Now, a next technological revolution is beginning and generating intense and widespread interest both in the West as well as in the developing countries. Nanotechnology is ready to take on the world.

Nanotechnology, the science of minitiaturization, has an amazingly diverse application spanning from soldiers' lightweight impenetrable suits of armor to sensors, computers, military hardware, substances that eat through metal and plastic, durable coatings, rock-fuel additives, telecommunications advances, new, better-targeted drugs and delivery systems, artery and capillary replacements - and new fashion and utility fabrics, even better sunscreen, now a hot seller in Australia. In a nutshell, the goal of nanotechnology is to create devices that are thousand times smaller and efficient than current technologies permit.

Spending in the field worldwide

Hence there is no surprise that far-sighted nations are liberally investing in the research and development of nanotechnology. Global spending is projected to be at least US$1 trillion by the year 2010. The United States spent $610 million on nanotechnology in 2002, and scaled up this budget by 39 percent to $847 million in 2003 - a big chunk goes to defense.

South Korea's government aims to invest $2.36 billion in R&D, infrastructure and training between 2001 and 2011. Singapore spent $37 million on nanotech research under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (ASTAR) in 2003.

China's Ministry of Science and Technology invested $25.36 million from 2001 to 2005 in nanotech research, under the 863 Hi-Tech R&D Plan for funding high-priority technologies. The Chinese government announced plans in June 2005 to massively increase its spending on nanotech, and will build a research center to integrate the R&D efforts of the country's top institutions, such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing University and several others.

Taiwan regards nanotechnology as the new rising star, and plans to pump $630 million into its research between 2003 and 2008. Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute has invested $290 million in a Center for Applied Nanotechnology Institutes, which will initially focus its research efforts in severaldirections.

Initiatives in India

“Government of India is promoting focused programmes in nanotechnology. It has allocated Rs. 100 crores for five years. In addition, more funds are being allocated to scientific departments by the Planning Commission,” says Dr. R.P. Singh, Director, Amity Institute of Nanotechnology who has also served Government of India as an Advisor, Department of Science and Technology.

Indian nanotechnology efforts span a wide spectrum of areas, including micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), nanostructure synthesis and characterization, DNA chips, quantum computing electronics, carbon nanotubes, nanoparticles, nanocomposites, and biomedical applications of nanotechnology. The Indian government catalyzed, through the Department of Science and Technology, the National Nanotechnology Program, which is funded with $10 million over 3 years.

India has also created a Nanomaterials Science and Technology Initiative and a National Program on Smart Materials; the latter will receive $15 million over 5 years. This program, which is focused on materials that respond quickly to environmental stimuli, is jointly sponsored by five government agencies and involves 10 research centers.

The Ministry of Defence is developing projects on nanostructured magnetic materials, thin films, magnetic sensors, nanomaterials, and semiconductor materials. India has also formed a joint nanotechnology initiative with the European Union (EU).

Academic institutions in India involved in nanotechnology

Several academic institutions are pursuing nanotechnology R&D, prominent among them are:

  • Institute of Smart Materials Structures and Systems of the Indian Institute of Science;
  • Indian Institute of Technologies;
  • Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology, and Research Academy;
  • Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics;
  • Universities of Delhi, Pune and Hyderabad;
  • Amity Institute of Nanotechnology, Noida [the first institute in India offering M. Tech (Nanotechnology) programme].

Apart from that, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s premier R&D body, holds numerous nanotechnology-related patents, including novel drug delivery systems, production of nanosized chemicals, and high-temperature synthesis of nanosized titanium carbide.

Industrial sector and nanotechnology R&D

In the industrial sector, Nano Biotech Ltd. is doing research in nanotechnology for multiple diagnostic and therapeutic uses. Dabur Research Foundation is involved in developing nanoparticle delivery systems for anticancer drugs. On the same lines, Panacea Biotec has made advances in novel controlled-release systems, including nanoparticle drug delivery for eye diseases, mucoadhesive nanoparticles, and transdermal drug delivery systems. CranesSci MEMS Lab, a privately funded research laboratory located at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Indian Institute of Science, is the first privately funded MEMS institution in India; it carries out product-driven research and creates intellectual property rights in MEMS and related fields with an emphasis on social obligations and education.

India has so far allocated about $26 million to nanotechnology research under the National Program on Smart Materials and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

As new players are drawn, increasingly, to this burgeoning field, experts are projecting a nanotechnology products and services market worth $1 trillion by 2010, and possibly double that amount by 2015. This is roughly 10 percent more that the world's total global manufacturing output. To catch up with the race and be on the happier side of the nano-divide, developing countries like India should equip themselves well.

Manpower scenario

According to Dr. Singh, “Most of the industrial products are going to imbibe nanotechnology to improve the quality, stability and utility. The students may get jobs in industries, academic institutions and in R&D labs for research. There are ample opportunities for research abroad as well as in India.”

The best way to venture into research in nanotechnology is engineering or post-graduation in physics or chemistry. If not in research one can work in a biotech company on a nanoparticle-based molecular system for detecting biological warfare agents or fabricating miniature systems for medical diagnostics.

Manpower is also needed in large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies where one can work on a new therapeutic drug or a novel drug delivery process.

Doors are always open for engineers in the field of nanotechnology. Mechanical engineers design, produce, and test machines, instruments, controls, engines, and mechanical, thermal, hydraulic, or heat transfer systems.

Chemical engineers are involved with synthesis, functionalization, characterization, and optimization of materials. They develop nanomaterial assembly processes, create test protocols and prepare reports.

Material engineers can design methods to change natural substances into new, stronger, and more resistant materials with unique properties.

So, Get ready, as the God of small things is set to rule the world within next 20 years from now.

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