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 ..

A similar  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 India.

 

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 India when we have yet to establish even a  decent microfab in  our premier academic institutions .

 

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 : choprakl@yahoo.com