Nanotechnology: It pays to sweat the small stuff

The outputs of a new multimillion-rand project in South Africa are too small to be seen with the naked eye. But nanomaterials – made by applying nanotechnology – offer a high-technology niche to bolster the country’s ailing manufacturing ­sector and boost its global competitiveness.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials on an atomic level, with structures between one and 100 nanometres. For some context, a nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre – the diameter of a strand of hair is 80 000 to 100 000nm.

Last week, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), together with the department of science and technology, launched the Nanomaterials Industrial Development Facility, which aims to develop new nanomaterials in areas such as plastics, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, create prototypes, test products, and grow the markets for these products in the country.

This forms part of the CSIR’s R500-million Industry Innovation Partnership, established in 2013, and is the first of four facilities to be launched over the next year. The others include a biomanufacturing industry development centre, a biorefinery pilot facility and a photonics prototyping facility.

“The current mentality is import, import, import,” says Professor Suprakas Sinha Ray, director of the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre at the CSIR, who will be running the nanomaterials facility.

“We’re doing good science, but most of the time it is stuck in the lab because we do not have this facility.”

In comments to Parliament last year, the department of science and technology said that about 4% of South Africa’s balance of payments deficit in 2014 came from technology. In 2013, we imported $1.9-billion worth of technology, but only received $63-million for our ­technology exports, with this deficit continuing to grow.

Nanotechnology was identified more than a decade ago as an area in which South Africa could compete internationally, with the department of science and technology promulgating a national nanotechnology strategy in 2005.

“The deficit figures … clearly indicated that South Africa has to expand its [technology] exports dramatically,” the science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, said at the launch of the facility in Pretoria earlier this month.

“We are importing far too much in the industrial and technology space … We have to do much better and become a country that has clients rather than [just] being a customer. Our intention with this programme is to change our definition of ourselves.”

The nanomaterials facility “will provide the capabilities for the industrial-scale production of nano-structures and nano-applications required for industrial testing”, Pandor said.

To date, the CSIR’s efforts have focused on pure science and human capacity building, said Ray, who joined the centre as director in 2006. At that time, “there was almost no human capital because it was a very new technology”. Phase one involved conducting “blue skies” research and training up researchers, he said.

One of the projects the team has been working on is a nanoclay- infused paint that is flame-retardant, and would help curb fires in informal settlements.

Phase two, which is underway with the launch of the facility, involves assisting “our industry partners [to] compete using science and technology, and how to make our human capital ready for industry, not just academia”, Ray said.

“The third phase, the dream of where we want to be … is to spin out [nanotechnology] companies.”

The aim of programmes such as the Industry Innovation Partnership, said Pandor, is to “[encourage] industry research and development programmes that maintain and increase export market share, and mitigates against underinvestment in technology and innovation in identified niche or strategic sectors of the South African economy”.

“You won’t see us doing everything, but [we will be engaged in] a careful selection of strategically identified sectors,” she said.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Cooper, the grocery assistant with AI, gives concierge service

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that there is not a part of our lives that will not be affected by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.

Artificial intelligence is already responding to our needs

Engineering students are best prepared for the shift in gear, but they will need to learn to change lanes

Inclusivity through innovation

Special Annual Theme Award: Materials for inclusive economic development

Bionic mushrooms are a thing now

Scientists have the technology (and apparently the inclination) to make fungus better, stronger, faster

Inspired by nature

NSTF-GreenMatter Award: towards biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and a greener economy by an individual or an organisation

​Nanotechnology may one day unlock a mind trapped in the body

Advances are slowly being made. But is it the machine or the brain making the connections?

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Journey through anxious Joburg

A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South

Football legend Maradona dies

The Argentinian icon died at his home on Wednesday, two weeks after having surgery on a blood clot in his brain

Covid vaccines: Hope balanced with caution

As Covid vaccines near the manufacturing stage, a look at two polio vaccines provides valuable historical insights

Under cover of Covid, Uganda targets LGBTQ+ shelter

Pandemic rules were used to justify a violent raid on a homeless shelter in Uganda, but a group of victims is pursuing a criminal case against the perpetrators

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…