/ 10 December 2015

Nanotechnology: It pays to sweat the small stuff

Nanotechnology involves the fine-tuning of materials at atomic
Nanotechnology involves the fine-tuning of materials at atomic

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.