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Nanotechnology: Promising Future

The Union Cabinet on 20 February 2014 approved the continuation of Nano Mission — a mission on nano science and technology — in its second phase during the 12th plan period (2012-17) and sanctioned Rs 650 crore for the purpose.[i] This has underscored the government’s commitment to pursue developments in this futuristic technology.

Nanoscience is the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at nano scale. A nanometer (nm) is one thousand millionth of a meter.[ii] At this scale the behaviour of a material differs in fundamental ways from that observed at the macro and the microscales. Nanotechnology is the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at this scale. Nanotechnology is not new; it has been explored in the past and there have also been a few diverse applications. However, it has only the last decade that has seen significant increase in interest in the technology. This has been because of advances that have enabled development of tools that now allow atoms and molecules to be examined and probed with great precision.[iii] Improving fabrication and machining technologies that allow very high precision and accuracy are enabling converting of sciences into workable models and products with implications across a broad range of domains.

Two principal factors cause the properties of nanomaterials to differ significantly from other materials:

  • Increased relative surface area.  As a particle decreases in size, a greater proportion of atoms are found at the surface compared to those inside.[iv] Thus nanoparticles have a much greater surface area per unit mass compared with larger particles, resulting in materials at these sizes being more reactive chemically than the same mass of material made up of larger particles.
  • Quantum effects. Quantum effects can begin to dominate the properties of matter as size is reduced to the nanoscale. These can affect the optical, electrical and magnetic behaviour of materials, particularly as the structure or particle size approaches the smaller end of the nanoscale.

Nanotechnology therefore relates not only to reduction in sizes but also changing or enhancing properties that could provide the potential for pursuing and developing both evolutionary as well as revolutionary applications. The major effects related to nanotechnology are improvements in information processing capabilities, development of novel engineered materials and improving functionality of materials. Integration of these at a future date would lead to more autonomous systems and nano-robotic applications.

The major impact of nanotechnology concerns producing materials that have enhanced or novel properties. The most fundamental change to materials would involve production of much lighter yet stronger materials that would result in robust and durable components with significantly lesser mass. Nanotechnology would enable wear-resistant and corrosion-resistant surface coatings that can withstand extreme temperatures. These could be applied to mechanical components as well as structure surfaces. Such materials would further enable production of miniaturised mechanical and electronic devices. There may also be changes to electronic and magnetic properties that could be used for development of smart composite structures that allow additional functionality. Such structures could also be embedded with sensors, actuators, controllers, and processors to provide additional benefits such as health monitoring, condition based maintenance (CBM) and self repair functions, thus contributing to safer operations, increased system availability and consequent cost savings. At a later stage, the developments are also expected to provide adaptive and morphing structures that would permit the construction of large complex systems. Systems may also be able to reconfigure themselves to extend and expand the scope of their mission.

Nanotechnology enabled miniaturisation and enhanced capabilities of sensors, communications, and information processing systems would dramatically change the sensing architectures and the way the information could be handled and applied. Fuel additives would enable more efficient combustion. It would contribute to construction of smaller combustion systems that are more efficient and controllable. Use of nano engineered materials would improve the performance of fuel cells, capacitors and batteries to provide increased power handling capability, more efficient charge transfer and storage capacity for electrical systems thus also leading to longer lifetimes. All these have relevance to the modern battlefield – from sensors and equipment to development of lighter but stronger and more capable platforms, from protecting the soldier to enabling him and from improving the entire networking capability to providing novel electronic display and interface systems and robotics. Its applications in the health, medicine and food technology sectors are also being researched. These are but a few of the expected applications and as the technology evolves, there would be many more.

However, at present most developments related to this knowledge intensive technology are at the very basic research and development stage. Engineering challenges would have to be overcome for translating the unique properties of micro- and nanostructures into viable products and then for progressing these towards low cost mass production. Also, most developments in the domain have been evolutionary, mainly relating to reducing the sizes and improving the capabilities of existing systems. Scientists are excited about its potential to lead to disruptive innovations in materials, products and applications, in the future.

India had recognised the potential of nanotechnology quite early and in October 2001, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had launched the Nano Science and Technology Initiative (NSTI). The government continued to play a dominant role in the development of the sector and the DST, in May 2007, launched the Nano Mission with an allocation of Rs. 1000 crore for 5 years. Its aim was to foster, promote and develop all aspects of nanoscience and nanotechnology with potential to benefit the country. The Mission is steered by a Nano Mission Council (NMC) under the Chairmanship of the Bharat Ratna awardee, Professor CNR Rao. The technical programmes of the Nano Mission are also being guided by two advisory groups, the Nano Science Advisory Group (NSAG) and the Nano Applications and Technology Advisory Group (NATAG).

The Nano-Mission has multiple objectives that include promotion of basic multidisciplinary research, infrastructure development for nano science & technology research, establishment of Public Private Partnerships and nano applications and technology development centres and Human Resource development. The potential of this technology has evoked global attention and the mission aims at exploiting this through international collaboration on Research and Development. DST has taken some major initiatives in support of these objectives including creation of Centres of Excellence and major research facilities at various locations where knowledge-base exists. Efforts have also been taken to improve awareness and education related to nanotechnology and to increase the human resource base through academic programmes at a number of government and private institutions.

Nano-Mission’s impact is evident on the academic front as India has emerged as third in the world, after U.S. and China, in terms of scientific publications in nano science and technology.[v] However, converting R&D into commercial products and applications is a major challenge. In its just cleared second phase, the mission is expected to make greater effort to promote application-oriented R&D so that useful products, processes and technologies emerge.

Concerns have been voiced about the associated risks and impacts - most of which are as yet unknown or even unforeseen - on the environment and the human beings involved with the life cycle of nanoapplications.[vi] Globally, efforts towards an accepted framework have not yielded any result. In the absence of a sector specific regime, most developments are being regulated by the laws relating to the discipline that the concerned nanotechnology is expected to address. However, interdisciplinary potential of the technology is going to make implementation of such regulation complicated and sooner or later, comprehensive laws would be required. There are also concerns about the negative impact of the technology on global security, for example the potential of some products to be used for development of WMDs or as chemical or biological agents. The Nano-mission claims to have orchestrated national dialogues for laying down a National Regulatory Framework Roadmap for Nanotechnology (NRFR-Nanotech).

DRDO has also realised the potential of this technology with as many as 30 of its laboratories pursuing R&D in nanotechnology for defence related applications.[vii] At the same time, these could benefit from developments in the commercial sector where a lot of research and development is already taking place – although restricted to specific areas that are more commercially viable. However, most of the emerging technologies have interdisciplinary applications. Therefore they have the potential to meet the requirements of military systems or provide scope for development to suit them, with suitable modifications. Newer technologies and applications could also be developed through collaborative efforts. In October 2012, the Raksha Mantri, Shri AK Antony had said, “There is a need to adopt a conglomerate, or consortium approach that involves academic institutions and industries.”[viii] Such an approach would also benefit the industry which otherwise might not be able to sustain the establishment of huge scientific and technological infrastructure. Developments from such ventures would provide national benefits.

The author is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.

 

 

[i] Vishwa Mohan, “Cabinet approves continuation of mission on nano technology”, TNN, 21 February 2014, accessed at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Cabinet-approves-continuation-of-mission-on-nano-technology/articleshow/30755252.cms

[ii] A red blood cell is approximately 7,000 nm wide and a water molecule is almost 0.3nm across.

[iii] Nanotechnology Introduction - the significance of the nanoscale, nanowerk, accessed at http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology/introduction/introduction_to_nanotechnology_1a.php#ixzz2u9iqMwkn

[iv] For example, a particle of size 30 nm has 5% of its atoms on its surface, at 10 nm 20% of its atoms, and at 3 nm 50% of its atoms.

[v] “Rao hopes India produces good research work on nano technology”, Business Standard, 03 March 2014, accessed at http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/rao-hopes-india-produces-good-research-work-on-nano-technology-114030200709_1.html

[vi] Krishna Ravi Srinivas, “Nanotechnology in India”, Presentation made to Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries (RIS), Global Ethics in Science and Technology (GEST) Project Meeting, Preston 16 March 2012, accessed at http://ris.org.in/.../Nanotechnology%20in%20India%20-%20Ravi%20Srinivas....%E2%80%8E

[vii] “Nanotechnology for Defence Applications”, DRDO Newsletter, November 2012, accessed at http://drdo.gov.in/drdo/pub/nl/2012/NL_November_2012_web.pdf

[viii] ibid

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