As with any other technology, nanotechnology, in simple terms, can be defined as the study and manipulation of matter that is of a size ranging from 1nm to 100nm. Just to keep things in perspective, one nanometre is roughly the size of 10 atoms placed side-by-side. A human hair is about the size of 80,000 to 100,000 nanometres in diameter. So, nanotechnology deals with understanding, controlling, and employing the matter, whose one or more dimensions are less than the size of the hair follicle for practical purposes. But what is so significant about nano-sized particles? Why are we studying matter at the nano-scale when we have enough knowledge of the same matter at the macro-scale? Is there any difference between the matter of macro and micro scale in terms of their properties? The answer is a resounding Yes!!!
The matter at the nanoscale exhibits different properties, both physical and chemical, compared to its properties at the macro-scale. Increased magnetism, increased reaction, more electric conductivity, increased light reflectivity, increased strength and durability, etc., are a few of such differences. Let’s take an example. Gold at normal scale is yellow in colour. But when you reduce it to nanoscale, it appears red owing to the change in its light reflectivity. Similarly, soda drinks are packed in the aluminium can. But, if those cans are made of nanoparticles of aluminium, they would explode.
Fine, we’ve seen enough examples to understand the shift in the properties of matter that comes along with nano-scales. But how does that happen? This is where the surface-to-volume ratio comes into play. Smaller objects or particles have more surface-to-volume ratio. For example, a cricket ball has a more surface-to-volume ratio than a football, and a golf ball has more of it than a cricket ball. And when more surface is exposed to the environment, that triggers more reactions.
Why is it so exciting?
Basically, nanotechnology is significant in two aspects. Firstly, its size. Nanoparticles are so small entire human population could be made to fit inside a matchbox if each person on Earth was the size of a nanometre. When we could study particles of such scales and then could manufacture anything of such scale with precision, that would work wonders for future human endeavours. Lesser size is an advantage in any domain and technology. Today, transistors, which are the backbone of electronics, can be made of sizes as small as 1nm, thanks to nanotechnology. And secondly, the entire new set of properties that the existing matter offers when they exist in nano sizes. It’s like adding up to the existing repertoire of 108 elements.
A new-age technology
Nanoparticles, as we have thoroughly discussed above, are so small that they are impossible to be visible to the naked eye. So, how exactly scientists could observe it?
Scientists have been able to observe nanoscale materials using instruments such as the scanning electron microscope (SEM), the transmission electron microscope (TEM) since as early as the 1930s. The scientific community had a fair bit of idea about nanoscale materials. However, it wasn’t until the year 1959, when the American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman gave a historic seminar on nanotechnology, that nanotechnology gained the worldwide attention. Later, in 1974, a Japanese scientist, Norio Taniguchi, coined the term “Nanotechnology” for the first time. Later in the year 1981, with the advent of ‘scanning tunnelling microscope’, the dawn of proliferation of nanotechnology had set in. A Scanning tunnelling microscope enables scientists to observe 3-D images of matter at the atomic level and allows them to manipulate particles and atoms at nanoscale. Hence, the decades of the 1980s and 1990s could be regarded as the dawn of nanotechnology.
An indispensable part of modern lives
Decades of research and development in this novel field have resulted in both expected and unexpected benefits for humankind. Already there are more than 800 products commercially available in the market that are produced involving nanotechnology. It is helping to enhance the characteristics of products across a wide range of fields such as food safety, health care, textiles, etc.
It is pertinent to note that the application of nanotechnology could be classified into two phases, i.e., pre-pandemic (the 1980s to the first two decades of the 21st century) and post-pandemic (the recent advancements).
1. Pre-Pandemic phase(1980s-2010s)
During this phase, being a nascent technology, nanotechnology has made humble yet significant strides in various spheres. A few of those are;
Medicine: Medicine is probably the biggest beneficiary of nanotechnology because of the path-breaking advancements that nanotechnology has enabled.
- Nanotechnology helps treat cancer more effectively as the precision that it offers enables targeting the cells more accurately with limited or negligible collateral damage, which wasn’t the case so far.
- Research is underway to grow neuron cells on nano graphene surfaces to treat nervous system related ailments.
- Gold nanoparticles are increasingly being employed in treating cancers.
- Better Imaging and diagnosis enabled by nanotechnology have paved the way for earlier diagnosis of diseases.
- Nanomedicine is widely being used in vaccine developments. Also, technology is underway to inject vaccines without using needles, rather using nanotechnology.
Energy applications: Nanotechnology is greatly helping the world to meet its carbon reduction challenges by providing alternate production techniques to carbon-intensive techniques. It helps develop green, inexpensive, and renewable energy sources and minimizes toxicity pervading the environment.
- Nanotechnology is revolutionizing the way oils are extracted by increasing the catalysis reaction. Also, it helps in more efficient combustion of fuels in vehicles and engines.
- Nanotube scrubbers are expected to filter carbon dioxide from the power plant exhausts.
- Carbon nanotubes have much higher conductivity of electricity than conventional wires, thereby helps minimize conduction losses.
- Nanoparticles coated solar panels exhibit more efficient conversion of sunlight into electrical energy.
Environmental remediation: Helps in efficient detection and cleaning-up operations of environmental toxicities.
- Low-cost detection and treatment of impurities in water help detoxify vast amounts of water at cheaper and affordable costs.
- Molybdenum disulphide membranes with nanopores have enabled efficient desalinization of seawater, thereby providing great hope for future endeavours in turning sea water to potable.
- Helps clean industrial runoff to filter out the contaminants and pollutants before discharging into rivers.
- Nano fabric made of potassium manganese oxide can absorb 20 times more oil than the conventional materials during oil-spill clean-up operations.
Transportation: Nanotechnology offers advantages like building lighter, stronger, durable, and more efficient vehicles like aircraft, spacecraft, road plying vehicles and ships.
- “Path-breaking” benefits accrued by nanotechnology-enabled lightweight; stronger materials could be employed in any transportation vehicle. It has been estimated by NASA that a reduction in the weight of a commercial jet aircraft by 20 percent could result in a reduction of its fuel consumption by about 15 percent.
- Other benefits of nanotechnology in this sector are; power-packed rechargeable battery technologies, highly efficient thermoelectric materials for heat dissipation, lower rolling resistance in tires, better combustion of fuel resulting in lower fuel consumption, etc.
Electronics: Nanotechnology has been a game-changer in electronics enabling faster, smaller, and more portable devices.
- Transistors, which modern computer technology is based upon, have gotten unbelievably smaller thanks to nanotechnology. In the early 21st century, a transistor, on average, was 130 to 250 nanometers in size. In 2016, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab stunned the world by creating a one-nanometer transistor.
- Flexible, foldable, rollable, and stretchable electronics have become part and parcel of daily lives. They are widely being used in products like wearables, medical applications, aerospace applications, mobiles, gadgets, etc. All of this was fructified by using nanomembranes in semiconductors that form the backbone of present-day electronics.
Agriculture: Like electronics, agriculture is one such sectors that could be hugely benefitted by the application of nanotechnology. A few of those are;
- Nano coated/treated chemicals as pesticides and fertilizers for crop improvement.
- The application of nanosensors in the vicinities of the roots for crop protection through the diagnosis of root diseases and residues of agrochemicals.
- Technologies involving nanoparticles for the genetic engineering of plants.
- Treating animal health, animal breeding, and poultry production.
- Post-harvest management, like efficient packaging, increasing shelf-life, etc.
2. Post-Pandemic phase
Although this is just a continuation of the first phase, the sheer scale of path-breaking advancements happening in this phase is worth making a distinction. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity in the crisis, as the nanotechnology-based drugs have made huge strides in treating covid.
Nanotechnology in aid of covid-treatment
Prevention of covid: A filter based on single or multiple layers of electrostatically charged polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) nanofibers deposited on a mat substrate attached to masks has effectively prevented the covid virus from getting inhaled.
Nanotechnology in the Diagnosis of Covid Infections: The current standard technique for covid detection, i.e., RT-PCR, is a highly resource-intensive process. The unique properties of nanoparticles, such as their high surface-to-volume ratio and special optical properties, have resulted in their application as rapid, accurate, and inexpensive diagnostic systems with relatively less sample size and laboratory equipment.
Nanotechnology-based treatments for Covid: The latest nano-therapeutic materials have improved the efficacy of covid treatment. The polymeric nanoparticles with swift and high mucus penetration features and the development of biodegradable and non-toxic nanoparticles that could be used in the lung with minimum pulmonary toxicity have cumulatively helped treat the covid to a great extent.
Nanotechnology in the development of covid vaccines: Nanotechnology-based vaccines, labelled nano vaccines, have been developed using nanoparticles to dispatch antigens into the human body. Nanoparticles have the ability to target both adaptive (T cells, B cells) and innate (macrophages, monocytes, and neutrophils) immune systems at the molecular level. The COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccines developed by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna are encapsulated in positively charged lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) for effective delivery.
A Nanotech Detector for Heart Attacks: This could truly be a ground-breaking invention if the ongoing research succeeds.
Tiny blood stream nano sensors chips sense the signs of possible heart attack and warn the persons on their smartphone about the impending threat.
Tiny 3-D Printed Batteries: This could revolutionize the energy sector as the researchers at Harvard University announced last year that they are well on course to develop 3-D print miniature batteries that are about 1mm in size.
Revolutionizing Eye Surgery: Scientists at the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab (Switzerland) have successfully developed a magnetically-guided micro-bot inside the eye to carry out precision surgery. The researchers demonstrated the viability of the technology in tests on rabbits.
A double-edged sword: boon or a curse?
As with the tryst with any new technology, even nanotechnology poses a few risks and uncertainties. As investments keep pouring into nanotechnology, concerns regarding ethical, health and environmental aspects are being raised by various sections of people.
- Humans have developed biological protection mechanisms against various environmental agents of different sizes. However, they have hardly been exposed to particles of nano sizes so far. As a result, our bodies haven’t developed adequate mechanisms to cope with nanoparticles. Therefore, it is still a grey area where conclusive research still remains wanting. Research has shown that nano-sized particles were found to be accumulating in the nasal cavities, lungs, and brains of rats and are inducing brain damage in fish.
- The impact that nanoparticles leave on the environment is uncertain. Nobody knows for how long these particles remain in the environment, the kind of reaction that they trigger, and the way they react with other particles in the environment.
- Nano pollution, which denotes the waste materials generated during the process of production of nano devices, is hard to dispose of with the current technologies. As a result, it may seep into soils, rivers, food chains, etc.
- Also, the regulatory vacuum adds up to the existing uncertainties. As of today, most nations haven’t instituted regulatory regimes to deal with this fast-proliferating technology. An uncertain or not-yet fully studied technology that is outpacing its regulatory response spells omens.
- There is a danger of nations weaponising nanotechnology. This may wreak havoc at an unimaginable scale as particles of nano-size has altogether different properties, including higher catalysing activity.
As we have learned above, the physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials differ drastically from those of normal-sized materials. Consequently, the pace of risk assessment and testing needs to align with the technology’s spread, more particularly for the reason that nanotechnology is exponentially being used in consumer goods.
How Can India Benefit from Nanotechnology?
India boarded the Nano revolution early in the 3rd millennium. It made a humble beginning with an investment of 70 crores. In 2007, the government instituted a five-year program termed ‘Nano mission’ with a budget of 25 crore USD. The efforts have borne fruits as India posted well over 23,000 papers in nanoscience in the first five years of the mission. By 2013, India ranked third in terms of the number of papers published.
One possible way to bridge India’s abundant pool of resources and the ever-growing demands is to tap the services of nanotechnology. The new set of possibilities that nanotechnology heralds offer a great opportunity for India. Its scope in India includes sectors like;
- Agriculture:India, being predominantly an agrarian economy, would benefit big time if it could employ nanotechnology in agricultural practices. It helps in reducing the quantity of fertilisers applied, better surveillance of roots through biosensors, better packaging, increased shelf life, animal health, animal breeding, poultry production, etc. Nanotechnology would help us achieve doubling the farmer’s income, reduce the wastage of food, increase the resilience of the crops for insect attacks, etc.
- India’s climate change commitments: India has embarked on several global commitments like increasing its solar energy share, decarbonising its economy, achieving carbon neutrality, reducing pollution levels, etc. Nanotechnology provides a great opportunity to increase the effectiveness of solar panels, reducing the carbon emissions from vehicle exhaust, etc., that are in line with the above commitments.
- Textile industry: Application of Nanoparticles to fabrics provides scores of beneficial properties like increased strength, durability, resistance to stains and wrinkles, softness, and flexibility. India is one of the textile hubs of the world, and invoking nanotechnology would make an ocean of difference to the Indian textile market.
- Pharma industry: India is the pharma hub of the world, more particularly in vaccine production. Nanotechnology is proving to be a game-changer in this domain. It would not only help India ramp up its pharma production but also aid in better treatment of the huge swathe of disease-laden people in India.
The last couple of decades, India has witnessed a wide-scale progression in the areas of nanoelectronics and nanobiotechnology and is well on course to venture into many other sectors. However, a few factors, as listed below, have been preventing India from untapping its true potential:
- India’s nanotechnology revolution is predominantly public driven, with limited contributions coming from industry.
- Lacking adequate institutional mechanisms for R&D activities.
- Lack of skilled workforce.
- Insufficient funds and budgetary allocations.
- Weak and ineffective IP regime that repels global investments.
Nano technology institutes at places like Delhi, Bombay and Kolkata.
Nano mission initiated by DPT of science and technology through DBT, ICMR, and Centre of excellence in nanoelectronics.
Thematic Units of Excellence (TUEs) to play a major role in product-based research in nanotechnology.
Visvesvaraya PhD Scheme initiated by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology aimed at enhancing the number of PhDs IT Enabled Services sectors in the country.
INSPIRE Scheme to attract young talent towards science
Nano mission: GOI had initiated the mission way back in 2007 with an outlay of 1000 crores to be spent on various sub-missions
- Promotion of Nanotechnology
- Proliferating Infrastructure for nanotechnology Development
- Enhancing R&D in Nanoscience Applications
- Setting up of Development Centre for Nanoscience
- Focus on improving Human resources in Nanotechnology
- International Collaboration
ICONSAT 2020:The International Conference on Nano Science and Nano Technology (ICONSAT) is a string of biennial international conferences held in India conducted by the Nano Mission, under the aegis of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Route Map for India
Factors like demographic dividend, cheap labour, emerging manufacturing industry, etc., have cumulatively handed India a great potential edge in nanotechnology. However, bottlenecks galore are on India’s way to encashing its inherent advantages. India needs to take up the following measures to overcome these bottlenecks;
- The amount that India spends on research, more particularly on nanotechnology, is only a fraction of what the advanced players in this technology spend.
- With just 0.7% of the GDP spent on research, the figures are dismally low. Moreover, more than half of the public expenditure on R&D goes straight to defence and space sectors, leaving little room for others like nanotechnology. This trend should change. India should realise the importance of emerging technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc. Because if we don’t get on onboard these emerging technologies today, we would never be able to catch them later, as we have seen this earlier when India missed the IC chips revolution.
- India should aggressively engage in increasing the number of academic seats for nanotechnology. The number of PhDs awarded in nanoscience and technology is about 150 per year against a target of 10000 per year envisaged by the Ministry of HRD.
- Modifying the skilling curriculum of the Skill India scheme to enable the world’s largest workforce to take part in nanotechnology manufacturing processes.
- Indian government should encourage and incentivise the participation of private players, which so far has been abysmally low. Attracting FDIs, setting up a fund of funds for nanotechnology, tax exemptions, etc., would go a long way in leveraging private players’ contributions.
Over the last two decades, India has achieved many milestones in the areas of nanoelectronics, nanomaterials, and nanobiotechnology, and many are yet to be conquered. Though nanotechnology is all about ultra-small, it has elephantine potential to better the lives and economy of India and the world. We have already been using many of its products that have already been path-breaking and are promising more in the future, particularly in the fields of medicine, electronics, and energy. However, as with any other emerging technology, nanotechnology is laced with uncertainties. A thorough long-term study, international collaboration, and an effective regulatory regime could herald an ocean of new possibilities for the world.
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- Nanoscience: thinking big, working small – Curious
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