Thinking small to achieve big results

Professor Suprakas Sinha Ray of the CSIR is using nanotechnology to create, among others, packaging material that can be recycled

Professor Suprakas Sinha Ray of the CSIR is using nanotechnology to create, among others, packaging material that can be recycled

Growing up, Professor Suprakas Sinha Ray knew he wanted to be a research scientist — but he wasn’t sure where his dream would take him. When the opportunity came to do his postdoctoral project in nanotechnology at the Toyota Technological Institute in Japan, he grabbed it and embarked on a journey that has seen him live in Japan, Canada, his native India, and currently settled in (his favourite country) South Africa.

Research for a purpose

“My time in Japan taught me that you should always do research for a purpose. Even if it’s not successful, if we just take 10% of our work to the next level, we can still make an impact on the lives of ordinary people,” he says. “The Japanese culture and work ethic inspired me, and I have worked hard to inspire my colleagues to achieve the same level of productivity.”

Sinha Ray started working on expanding the fundamental understanding of real applications of polymer-based nanostructured materials when he joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 2006 as a group leader.

National Centre for Nanostructured Materials

These studies advanced and broadened when he was appointed as a chief researcher and Director of the DST-CSIR National Centre for Nanostructured Materials (NCNSM).

More than 80 researchers, engineers and technologists are now working under his leadership. The NCNSM plays a leading role in the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology research and development in the country and the development of skilled South African nanotechnology researchers and scientists. Its strong human capital component includes 14 postdoctoral fellows, 32 PhD graduates, 23 master’s students, and seven honours students.

In terms of research and development outputs, the NCNSM made an impact with more than 340 journal publications, 16 book chapters, five books, three registered patents (with another seven in progress), new demonstrated technologies (eight registered and two in process at commercial level), and one prototype device under trial.

One of the most influential scientists globally

He is one of the most active and highly cited authors in the field of polymer nanocomposite materials. Recently, he has been rated as among the top 1% of most impactful and influential scientists by Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators. In 2011, he was also rated among the top 50 high impact chemists in the world (Feb. 2011, Thomson Reuter, out of 1.2 million chemists worldwide).

Nanotechnology innovation

Sinha Ray has brought together an experienced team that assists him in realising the goal of driving nanotechnology innovation in South Africa. The work of one of his protégés, Dr Manfred Scriba, who heads the polymer nanocomposites group, led to the Nanomaterials Industrial Development Facility. This scale-up facility was launched by science and technology minister Naledi Pandor in 2015 and bridges the gap between laboratory- and industrial-scale manufacturing of nanomaterials.

‘Directed research’ approach

He believes in a “directed research” approach. This is where research efforts aim to cross the border between academic research and industrial application, to the benefit of both domains and ultimately the public.

Since the centre’s establishment, Sinha Ray has placed a strong focus on developing materials with advanced properties. These include sensors with greater sensitivity to gases, conducting and speciality polymer-based nanostructured materials for energy applications, polymers with greater crystalline properties, fire retardant materials, and materials with greater biodegradability and biocompatibility for orthopaedic applications.

A key step in the production of these advanced nanomaterials is to have the necessary scientific insight and analytical infrastructure to develop deeper understanding of the relationships between structure at the nanoscale and the performance of the same material at a bulk scale.

Research outcomes in practice

When it comes to seeing the outcomes of his research in practice, Sinha Ray offers the example that the more technology evolves, the greater the demand for smaller and lighter materials that enable electronics to become more efficient and lighter.

As a day-to-day proof point of his work, Sinha Ray cites the development of food packaging that he and his team have been working on.

“Currently, meat packaging comprises up to eight layers of plastic to protect the meat — and it’s plastic that disturbs the environment in its production because it cannot be recycled,” he explains. “We’re using nanotechnology to develop a single-layer packaging material that reduces fossil fuel consumption and causes less harm to the environment because it can be recycled.”

Nanotechnology is making breakthroughs in medical science too, with solutions already in clinical trials that can detect diabetes or cancer by analysing the composition of a patient’s breath.

In the biomedical field, his work is examining slow-release drugs, with a particular focus on chemotherapy, and finding ways for the chemo to target the cancer cells while avoiding healthy tissue.

“Everything I dreamed of for my career has become a reality. Being a researcher has given me the freedom to roam the world, gathering and sharing learning and information.”