Opportunities and challenges in commercialising nanotechnology

Wednesday, 20 March 2013 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Shabiya Ali Ahlam

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a prolific forum on commercialising nanotechnology under the theme of ‘Igniting the Power of Innovation in Sri Lanka’

With SLINTEC Research and Innovation Chief/University of Cambridge Professor Gehan Amaratunge as the key note speaker, the forum featured Senior Minister of Scientific Affairs Prof.

Tissa Vitarana as the Chief Guest, in addition to IPS Executive Director Saman Kelegama, NSF Chairperson Sirimali Fernando, University of Moratuwa Professor Ajith De Alwis, John Keells Holdings (JKH) Deputy Chairman Ajith Gunawardena and IPS Research Economist Anushka Wijesinha.

Vitarana commended the nature of the seminar, stating that it was of high relevance based on the context of challenges the country faces from the view point of socioeconomic development. Having mentioned on previous occasions that economic development cannot happen if focus is not driven towards science, technology, and innovation, the Minister said that unfortunately, the dialogue is yet to materialise at a national level.

Aiming to move towards that direction, Kelegama highlighted that driving innovation in Sri Lanka was now increasingly being recognised as a key determinant of the country’s long-term growth prospects. “Everyone, from the Government policy planners to private sector leaders, is keen to understand how the power of innovation can be ignited to drive enterprise profitability and faster inclusive growth,” he stated.

Kicking off the concept of innovation

With an attempt to promote innovation since 2004 by extending grants scheme for the public and private sectors, the concept of nanotechnology came to light with the help of the NSF. Fernando stated that while opportunities to create awareness in the industry sector were knocking at the door, the initiative have paid its dividends over the last few years.

“Identifying the potential in nanotechnology, we also saw and realised that along with promoting innovation in this area of work comes the responsibility to ensure that activities are carried out in the correct manner,” said the NSF Chairperson.  She added that with responsibility came the need to have relevant regulations in place. Adaptation of nanotechnology still being a fresh concept worldwide, no country has a set regulatory framework in place and methods towards this end are still in the stage of dialogue.

Nevertheless, according to Fernando, Sri Lanka has had the opportunity to partner with India and Pakistan to develop a suitable regulatory framework for the South Asia region. “It’s opportune that we look at the possibilities of improving the innovation condition of Sri Lanka, which of course was at a dismal level two years ago,” she said.  

The need to think out of the box

Drawing attention to the Economics Nobel Peace Prize won by Robert Solow in 1987, Minister Vitarana opined that it clearly brought out the fact that United Stated of America (USA) became the leading nation in world not because of investments, but because investments were made to make America the leader in science, technology, and innovation.

With the idea of thinking differently planted in the minds of the audience, he stressed that innovation is needed in every sphere of society and for that Sri Lanka needs innovative people. “Ultimately in terms of economic development what matters is the impact of innovativeness, that is the development of new ideas and its translation into products and service that sells is what counts,” he said.

Stressing that Sri Lanka is in the midst of a capitalistic economic crisis where markets are noted to be shrinking, the dire need to be competitive and innovative is prevalent according to Vitarana and said that the country could learn from experiences of other nations “without having to reinvent the wheel”.

Frowning on the thought of Sri Lanka having missed the bus when certain technologies were on the rise, Vitarana confidently expressed that with nanotechnology, which has the advantage of cost cutting, sweeping the world today, the nation could make up in the missed fields if aspects were looked from a different perspective.

“As a country we have yet to improve in this area. The colonial mindset where we are an exporter of raw materials still persists,” he said. Shedding light on the rapid development of SLINTEC, its ability to have come up with seven patent applications, and the setting up of its world class laboratory, Vitarana affirmed that if the country’s scientists, technologists, and innovators have the necessary facilities and support, Sri Lanka can certainly top the world with its innovation.

What is nanotechnology?

Certain that the majority of the audience treated the nanotechnology terminology as scientific jargon, Professor Amaratunge spoke a few words on what the field is all about. While millions of dollars need not be thrown to play in this arena, he explained, a method where any material could be shrunk and the technology employed to exploit the shrinking of the material to less than a 100th in a nanometre scale is what the nanotechnology is about. The ground breaking technology that generated US$ 6 trillion in 2011 allows the combination of smaller materials in the nano-scale to become composite and it is the interaction of a nano-particle entity that gives the macroscopic behaviour of certain products.  

Nanotechnology in commercial use

With appliances having nano-composites to give lighter and stronger elements, Professor Amaratunge explained the use of the technology in tennis rackets. “Combining nano-tubes to make composites of carbon, doing so allows having a 130 mile serve with the integration of technique, strength, and technology,” he said.  He shared that other products developed using nano technology include knee guards that are anti-bacterial, textiles that are water repellent, and socks that are self cleaning and has the possibility of removing odours among a plethora of other products made creative due to this.

The cosmetics industry is another area where nanotechnology has built its home. Professor stated that leading brands such as Loreal, having done their studies on toxicity and proved that there are no adverse affects on the scales they are working on, use nanotechnology for nearly all their products, even for their colour palettes, lipsticks and other make-up items.  

Putting nanotechnology to good use

“Opportunities are plentiful in this field,” said the Professor. To treat opportunities created by nanotechnology as priority, in 2006 the Government set a policy to promote the picking up of its advantage. The policy was also formulated to focus on adding value to mineral extracted and products manufactured in Sri Lanka. Having this embodied in the initiative, “we had set ourselves an ambitious target given where the country was with the political situation of the civil war.”

The policy document was set and two years later a dedicated R&D institute was formed where it was going to focus its initiatives in the area by having a multidisciplinary team to look at the opportunities prevailing for Sri Lanka.

Research priority

It was decided from the start that concentration would be on achieving economic development by addressing urgent issues which are both global and local. Not necessarily ‘attempting to manufacture and export iPhones to the West,’ prime focus would be on looking for solution on pressing issues such as the non-availability of having enough safe drinking water, healthcare and wellbeing, and affordable food security.

“If we could focus our efforts into addressing some of these problems, then it will allow us to create ideas, come up with practical solution giving us the opportunity for value and wealth creation,” said Professor Amaratunge, but stressed that to do so, investments in smart technology in a bedrock of science was needed to be ahead of competitors globally.

Technology transfers for development of commercialisation

So far, Sri Lanka has successfully tackled fertiliser products by nanotechnology to improve the efficacy of plant uptake. With imported fertiliser having nitrogen content that help in the increase of yield, a technique to anchor urea to a nano particle was discovered in the labs of Sri Lanka.

The hypothesis was taken to the research development centre in Batalagoda for field trials and the results were noted to be encouraging. Professor Amaratunge said that by using fertilisers interfered with nanotechnology showed increase in yield content despite using 25% less fertiliser that what was used normally.

Another work in progress would be the breaking down of natural beach sand, also known as illuminate, to extract titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is popular in the making of products such as sunscreen, paints and food colouring. Amaratunge highlighted that while Sri Lanka exported 90 metric tons of sand for US$ 2,500/ton, the country imports 5,000 metric tons of titanium dioxide per year spending US$ 4,200/ton.

Professor Amaratunge expressed that SLINTEC was looking at ways to productively extract titanium dioxide so that it could be exported after retaining the required amount for commercial purposes.

He emphasised that the end goal was to be able to extract titanium, which is worth US$ 13,000 per metric ton, but to reach to that stage heavy investments would be required to set up a plant for the cause.

Pix by Lasantha Kumara