Nanotechnology : Hope or Hype?
The magical ring of the word“Nano” has excited the scientist and the non-scientist alike worldover. Products of all types including Jalebis, underwares, cars , satellites , etc. sound exotic when prefixed with ‘Nano”.Never in the history of science and technology has so much euphoria and hype been created by the word “Nanotechnology” among scientists of varied disciplines, educationists, science policy designers and makers, funding agencies and even politicians. Infact, Nanotechnology is being projected by science policy makers as the solution to all the problems of humanity .Consequently ,it is almost mandatory now to include “Nano” somewhere in the research proposals on almost any subject to have a good chance of funding by S&T agencies globally
What is “Nanotechnology”?
Any matte, living or non-living, having one, two, or all three dimensions of nanometric (billionth ofa meter) size is called Nanomatter. The science associated with the properties of such a nanomatter is called Nanoscience,. Nanotechnology is the synthesis of nanomaterials of various dimensions, morphologies and shapes and utilization thereof for creating a functionally useful material , device or a system.. The word “Nanotechnology”was first coined by Tanaguchi in 1987 to denote the technology of creation of microelectronic devices having active components of submicron dimensions.Today , however,this word applies loosely to any nanoscale process , product .or components thereof.
Significant basic scientific work on Nanosceience and Nanotechnology of two dimensional Thin Film materials began in 1960’s with the availability of such tools as an Electron Microscope.Many scientists worldover have contributed extensively to the nurturing of the field.Historically , therefore, the development of this field owes to numerous scientists. The ab-initio growth of matter by the condensation of its building blocks ( atoms/ molecules/ions) takes place by a vapour to solid (VS) nucleation and growth processes which , at its earliest stage,yields nanosize islands(called zero dimensional nanomatter) whose size,shape and topology depend on numerous deposition parameters,and associated surface and strain energies.By controlling supersaturation and the ambient conditions, deposition process can also yield nano-powders of the feed material.A serendipitous observation showed that if the atoms of Si are condensed onto a suitable catalytic or eutectic forming impurity material ( such as gold) ,vapour atoms undergo vapour to liquid to solid (VLS) transformation and ,under suitable conditions, yield nanosize wires( one dimensional nanomater) at the surface of the growing islands. This interesting observation did not attract any attention of thin film scientists since the films appeared dark and dirty (gooy) and were thus not considered to be useful .Infact, many thin film scientists came across similar observation with several other materials and junked the films , much to the chagrin of the concerned research students. High resolution electron microscopy of carbon films synthesized in VLS mode, however, showed that the gooy looking material contained a treasure of carbon nanotubes.(CNT) This discovery has set in motion a whole new scientific field of CNTs.A flood of activity in this area with numerous other materials has shown that an ab-initio impurity-nucleated growth of building blocks of almost any material, ,bya variety of atomistic techniques ,can yield nanowires and ,in some cases,nanotubes In fact,the condensation process of the vapours of several elements, oxides and sulphides can be manipulated to yield. a whole variety of incredibly beautiful nano-art morphologies in the form of a film, powder, wire, lily,rose, gladiola ,etc. This type of synthesis of nanomatter continues to provide much fodder material for research publications.
Myths of Nanotechnology :
The Nanotechnology Hype is , to a large extent , based on several myths:
· Nanotechnology is a new technology
· It is a simple, low energy intensive and cheap technology.
· It is environmentally and health-wise safe technology.
· Proof –of –concept means a viable technology
· Nanomaterials are stable and can be easily transformed into packaged micro and macro devices which are stable, long lasting, and cheap
· No special foundational background is needed to understand,teach, or research in the field
Myths have been created by many popular articles and reports from the high and mighty of S&T.policy makers .For example , in its 2005 report entitled “Innovation: applying knowledge in development, the UN Millennium Project
task force on science technology and innovation”
states : "nanotechnology is likely to be particularly important in the developing world, because it involves little labour, land or maintenance; it is highly productive and inexpensive; and it requires only modest amounts of materials and energy”
Let us analyze some of the issues emanating from these myths.
1. Is Nanotechnology New ?
Certainly ,not. Though there was no way to see or measure nanometric sizes till only recently with the advent of high resolution electron and tunneling microscopes, chemists have been producing nanopowders of various materials for centuries. Historical records show that Indians were fully conversant with the
amalgamation technique and the superior reactivity of the fine silver powder thus produced by the 9th century AD. .About 200 nanometric thick silver and gold foils decorating Indian sweets have been created by our Indian artisans for centuries by simply beating down thick foils of the material.Indian Bhasams contain nanometric powders of various mercury sulphides for treating a variety of diseases are well-known ayurvedic medicines.Millions of metric tons of nano size silica, titania and zirconia nanopowder/ continue to be used in rubber ,cosmetics and toothpaste industries for several decades.
“Thin Films ” renamed as two-dimensional nanomaterials by the theoretical physicists,have been synthesized scientifically since 1960’s by numerous physical , chemical and electrochemical techniques which form the core ( mother ) of the present day nanotechnologies . Multi-billion dollar Thin Film Technologies have played a pivotal role in the development of modern opto-electronics ,spintronics, VLSI and ULSI,quantum metrology,ferrofluids,surface technologies, thin-film solar cells,sensors,among others . The recent evolution of many powerful atomic scale nano-analytical techniques for imaging, analyzing and manipulating nano-materials and nano-devices of today owe a lot to the varied devices based on nanometric films of a variety of materials.
2. Is Nanotechnology Cheap?
Of course, not. Those who wrote the UN Millenium Report are obviously either theoreticians or not at all familiar with the required experimental facilities and the cost of nanoanalytical tools running into several millions of dollars each, leave alone the cost of clean rooms and ultrapure feed materials for creating nanomaterials.
Numerous well- known physical , chemical, electrochemical, printing,and mechanical synthesis techniques have now undergone sophistication and automation with extraordinary sensitivity, accuracy and controls on a nanoscale.However, manufacturable and economically viable nanomatter on a large/ commercial scale is by no means simple and straightforward. Similarly , creation of commercially viable and useful devices from the given nanomatter beyond a proof -of -concept is by no means a trivial exercise.
As an example,nanopowder of an iron oxide is known to effectively remove arsenic from contaminated ground water present in some of our Indian states. But , this technology would be prohibitively expensive to provide drinkable water at a nominal cost for the public at large .Interestingly , a commercially viable solution for filters for clean and potable water has been found by a private industry by using some clays which are rich in nanosilica of different morphologies and which are abundantly available in nature ..
problem of cost arises in case of large area applications of
nanotechnology in ,say, solar cells and
surface engineering . Major R&D efforts are being made today to develop cheaper
processes such as stamping or printing of relevant nanomaterials
without major changes in their exotic properties .A lot of transformational and
translational research would be required
before such exciting materials as graphene can possibly be exploited for large area
applications.. The sad fact is that the economics of nanoscience and
nanotechnology is hardly appreciated or discussed by either
the scientists/engineers or the funding agencies, particularly in
There are , of course, some areas such as sensors,actuators,
biomarkers and biosensors,nano-electronics and –photonics
etc where nanotechnology makes a lot of
economic sense since smaller the device , the faster, more effective,smarter,cheaper,integrateable
and densely packagable it is.Unfortunately
, these are the areas where we have very little research, competence or even aptitude in academia or industry in India. A Nanofab is a distance dream in
3. Is Nanotechnology Durable and Safe?
The durability and safety are determined by the characteristically high activity and reactivity of nanomaterials arising from the high ratio of surface to volume atoms .Consequently , the shape, size , morphology and dimensionality of the material or its internal physical microstructure , and ,of course, the associated electronic and chemical structure. dominate the exotic properties of such materials.Generally speaking , nanopowder of any material is not completely stable and requires a protective,passivating,or functionalizing coating(nano-film) .Even the hard diamond surface is known to ablate under ultraviolet irradiation albeit at a very very slow rate.
Regarding safety and security of nanoparticles ,”nanoscare” bugle has already been sounded globally by several scientists. Nanoparticles of silver and gold ,and carbon nanotubes etc are now known to penetrate human skin rather easily. They could have unforeseen impacts on human health.The nanoparticles of metals and nonmetals have now been found to be toxic in varying degrees.Their toxicity can not be predicted from the toxicity of the corresponding bulk materials Nanoparticles have the potential to remain and accumulate in the environment. They could accumulate in the food chain. Because of their invisibility, they could be of concern for military applications and safety Their applications.in such areas as biomedical and bio-agri have raised serious ethical issues for our society.
4. Is there any Academic Hype ?
Yes , of course.Nanoscience and Nanotechnology require prerequisites of good working knowledge of master level physics , chemistry, materials science , biosciences,sophisticated nano-analytical instruments,among other technical skills.Any academic who is familiar with what level any science is taught in our high schools and in our BSc courses will be shocked to know that numerous Engineering colleges are offering 4-year BTech degrees in Nanotechnology after high school ,and some 20 universities are doling out MSc degrees in Nanotechnology.after BSc. And , to top it all,, the faculty in these institutions are still in the process of learning what and how to teach nanotechnology Along with the institutions concerned, both University Grants Commission , and All India Council of Technical Education(AICTE) are clearly guilty of academic dishonesty. Regrettably,our generous, Department of Science and Technology(DST) has incentivized this process by providing liberal grants to the concerned universities for hiring some faculty members and for providing some rudimentry facilities for synthesis of nanomaterials for the MSc courses.Nobody has yet bothered to get a feedback from the angry and confused students as to what they have learnt and where, in the academic scheme, they will fit in. .Students interacting with me in these institutions have told me that they are not welcome for further postgraduate and PhD studies in respectable institutions unless they take some additional foundation and bridge courses.
Knowledgeable academics would agree that ,for fruitful learning and knowledge creation, only PhD research students , and ,at best MTech students , should be engaged to learn and conduct R&D in this field. Even here, an institution requires accomplished faculty to teach and supervise such students. Regrettably , not many faculty members of reasonable caliber are available at present. No wonder,.I have yet to meet a student who is aware of the birth stage of nanomatter ,namely“nucleation process” .
5. Is Nanotechnolgy a Research Fodder?
In order to “nurture” Nanotechnology, the DST has already invested over Rs 1000 crores in setting up several NanoCentres and nationally coordinated R&D programmes. Admittedly , some academics in a few selected Centres are doing globally competitive quality fundamental research work . However ,a large majority of numerous research publications in Nanotechnology arising from such generously sponsored projects are pedestrian . Infact , these publications make nano-incremental contributions to the field of synthesis of well-known nanomaterials by various techniques with a little modification here and there. In most cases,what is reported is changes in shape , morphology ,or microstructure of nanopowders , wires and tubes so obtained.etc. Most publications start out by claiming all possible important applications of the reported results without much understanding of what is required for a viable application.
Despite a lot of research activity,Nanotechnology has yet to reach our Indian industries. Our rubber , cosmetic and toothpaste industries in India continue to import large quantities of nanopowders of silica, titania , zirconia, etc.There is no question that we have capabilities to produce these materials and even to set up industries to replace imports. Many researchers donot even attempt to synthesize nanomaterials,for their own research. They import nanopowders of various materials,transparent conducting glass slides, carbon nanotubes, nano-templates, at exorbitant prices.for their nanoscience research But , alas, we donot yet have liberal administrative and financial policies to nurture and to hold the hands of our entrepreneurial scientists .It seems nurturing Nanotechnology in India means providing fodder for more pedestrian research publications and PhDs of questionable quality.
6. Is there a Future of Nanotechnology ?
Undoutedly , yes .And indeed a very bright one too for both Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Today’s Nanotechnology is the creation of yesterday’s Nanotechnology. Today’s Nanotechnology has already spawned several totally unforeseen Frontiers of Nanotechnology.Thanks to extraordinary developments in integrated circuits, sensors, data and image processing techniques, and nanoanalytical instrumentation, it is now possible for scientists to literally play with and manipulate single electron,single atom/molecule, single photon, single phonon,single living cell etc. As a result, single electron transistor, single electron spin memory, single molecule switch, single atom laser, etc have now been demonstrated as a proof-of-concept. Single atoms can now be removed from a building block of matter and replaced with any other atom. Scientists are moving ahead to create a living cell. Bonding of a variety of biomolecules with metallic nanoparticles/ quantum dots has opened a new frontier in biomedical sciences.Self-assembly techniques through controlled nucleation and growth, writing pen and rubber –stamp lithography of nanomaterials, bioprinting of cells ,etc are some very exciting developments.for creating new and functionalized living and non-living materials on a large scale
Nanotechnology will continue to be pursued vigorously for discovering new phenomena , developing new /tailored /functionalized high performance materials, and economy driving applications in the more practical and useful form of thin-films. Nano-electronics and nano-photonics will continue to lead the pack by creating new boundaries driven by the economic forces of the IT industry.. Perhaps the most significant and singular contribution of Nanotechnology is the creation of Convergence between all types of sciences and engineering And ,now the life-scientists are happily shaking collaborative hands with physicists, chemists, material scientist and engineers in developing new inter-disciplinary areas of medical science and technology, bio-fuels and bio-agri technologies which are expected to impact the health and welfare, energy and food security of the entire mankind.
7. Concluding Remark :
Hype creates mirages. Hope generates reality.Nanotechnology does offer Hope , and a plenty of it . But ,any significant research contributions in these new frontiers can be made only by well-endowed critical size groups of dedicated scientists .Creating and nurturing new schemes,funding coordinated projects and creating new research centres and institutions without any serious accountability will repeat the history of the outcome of the nationally coordinated high temperature superconductivity project . In fact , our entire S&T system involving academia,industry and funding agencies must undergo a paradigmatic shift to ensure competitiveness, accountability, and outcome by all concerned . If we fail this time , our Nanotechnology will become “Na-No Technology”
K L Chopra
M-70, Kirti Nagar, New Delhi-110015
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org