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Being ingenious at the nano scale

Comments / 4490 Views / Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:32

Doing Sri Lanka proud on a global scale, Prof. Gehan Amaratunga is a Professor at the University of Cambridge and the Chief of Research and Innovation at Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC). Well-versed in the field of nanotechnology, an industry which is today growing in demand globally, Prof. Amaratunga believes that Sri Lanka holds great potential to go forward and find solutions that could benefit developing countries.

Scheduled to deliver the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture tomorrow, which is presented by the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust together with IESL, Prof. Amaratunga spoke to Daily FT about his line of work and its status in Sri Lanka.

By Cheranka Mendis

Q: Why have you chosen the particular topic for discussion?Prof. Gehan Amaratunga – Pic by Lasantha Kumara

Being ingenious on a nano scale signifies how to make things reach ingenious levels when making things smaller and smaller.

A nano meter is a billionth of a meter and as you make things smaller and smaller, the characteristics of properties start to change both physically and chemically and this allows you to do completely new things. If anything is made smaller than a wave length of light (light has a wavelength of a couple of a hundred nanometres), the general thinking is that it would not interact with the light. However, light does interact and has an impact similar to that of a moving car hitting a tennis ball – there is some interaction but the tennis ball is essentially energy; and suddenly the lights starts to get concentrated in things smaller than the wave length of light.

From this you can for example engineer, or be ingenious, and have a situation where light come in and this type of material and light would essential diffract the wrong direction and come back together again. So an invisible shroud for example is something which people make by having things that are very small and explaining new phenomena which occurs at a scale of tens of nanometre times.

Q: Why have you particularly used the word ingenious?

Ingenious is particularly appropriate as the title of the lecture because it is the Ray Wijewardene lecture and the word ‘engineer’ comes from the Latin word ‘ingenium’ and ‘ingenium’ has its roots in the world ‘ingenious.’

So an engineer is a creator of things ingenious. And I think Ray Wijewardene was somebody who was ingenious and an engineer.

Q: How would you define nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is an extension of advance technology. It is about making things/units which are very small. Ultimate unit is a proton, electron, an atom and a collection of atoms that could disruptor material. We are talking about a collection of atoms of a material compound which comes to a scale of one to 10 billionth of a meter. The collection of atoms at that size has properties which are very different to having many billions and becoming a solid. In nanotechnology we are trying to exploit material of that scale to derive new phenomena and to use it.

It is exploratory because we don’t really know what is possible and that is where Sri Lanka had decided to look into nanotechnology because it gives us opportunities as a country to be innovative and to discover rather than try to follow a field that is already very mature like electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Nanotechnology is essentially an extension of human quest to discover and do new things.

Q: How is the situation in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka’s nanotechnology has had a very rapid start. The Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) is operated as a public private partnership and is owned by the Government and five companies – Brandix, Dialog, Hayleys, Loadstar, and MAS.

We have some targeted research which we do for the companies which will be useful in terms of being globally competitive; derive new ideas to stand out and to be competitive against other companies. We also work with the International Science Foundation and are looking at adding value to Sri Lankan mineral exports.

Q: Is Sri Lanka looking to compete with other giants in nanotechnology?

A: I
nterestingly, what we are doing here is not necessarily trying to compete with Europe, America or Japan, but concentrating on the problems of developing countries in terms of food, water, and clothing.

For example, for food we have developed a method for attaching fertiliser to a nano particle which targets and releases fertiliser to plants so that the fertiliser will be used more efficiently instead of throwing copious amounts of fertiliser and having it washed off. It has been a successful process and is in course of being evaluated and scaled up for commercialisation by a large Indian manufacturer.

Similarly, in garments we have developed some techniques to change the properties of a garment post-manufacture to control stiffness and to provide muscle support, etc.

There are a number of little exciting projects going on and from a Sri Lankan point of view we have been very successful. At SLINTEC, it is all manned by Sri Lankan scientists. Senior scientists are seconded from universities for this. Overall we have approximately 36 or 37 scientists working at the institute.

 Q: Could you give us an example of nanotechnology being used in the current context?

Nanotechnology is used ar two different levels.

Lipstick you put on from L’Oreal has little silver particles in them to give a glow effect with light reflection. It is not harmful for the body as the particles are small enough so that when it goes in to the body the immune system does not react. If it’s bigger, say 100 nanometres, then the immune system sees a foreign body.

At another extreme, when you take electronics and how you make mobile phones smaller and smaller, the base unit of that is a transistor and that transistor has been engineered and made physically and put into a circuit and the length of that is about 10 nanometres. Single transistor is now coming down to a dimension of nine to 10 nanometres, which is engineered through big laboratories and factories.

Nano particles such as used for lipsticks can be chemically synthesised, particles separated and then mixed to give another set of applications.

There are two major uses – either you engineer it very finely, order it and get collective behaviour, which is controlled like the electronic circuit, or we can have the properties attached to something else.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I went to school in Sri Lanka at Royal College and left in 1974 to go to USA and subsequently went to UK for university. Essentially it so happened that I was successful in academics so I got trapped in the academic system. I like to research and like the whole process of discovery and I was doing it well. Therefore I stayed in and that is how I ended up doing research and became an academic. It is a unique career as it gives you the freedom to follow your ideas and explore ideas in a focused manner so long as to achieve something at the end of it.

I started off at Cardiff University and went to Cambridge to do the PHD. I then became a Lecturer at South Hampton University and came back to Cambridge in the mid ’80s and remained there as a Professor. While holding my position Cambridge as a Professor, I am also balancing work here in Sri Lanka as the Chief of Research and Innovation at Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology.

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