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Using Nanotechnology for India's development

Despite being a slow starter on the nanotechnology front, India must put in maximum resources possible for its potential to transform the lives of millions of people.

By PPFI Team

Febuary 02, 2009

Definition - Nanotechnology refers to a field which deals with control of matter on an atomic or molecular scale, dealing with structures 100 nanometres or smaller. It is also referred to as molecular manufacturing which involves developing materials or devices with particles less than 100 nanometres in size. One nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre.

Nano, the small car launched by Tata Motors, has been in news for a variety of reasons. It has been hailed as product that will completely transform the automobile sector and make traveling comfortable, safe and affordable to thousands of middle class families. However nanotechnology, a development in the field of science & technology that "the people's car" finds its namesake in, remains ignored by the policy makers.  According to experts, nanotechnology or nanotech can solve many of India's present problems in areas like energy, environment, public health and information technology.

Water shortage has emerged as an acute problem in many parts of the country. Nanotechnology can greatly help in reducing the dependence on water in both agriculture and manufacturing sector. It can also be used to devise ways and means to recycle and reuse water rendered unfit for human use. Since water pollution has emerged as a major environmental issue in the country, nanotechnology can be used to develop cheaper industrial wastewater management technologies.

According to scientific studies, physical filters with nanometer scale pores can completely remove bacteria and other living organisms from water. This coupled with electrical separation technologies can remove heavy metals and other salts that are present in the water. Nanotechnology can thus greatly help India in putting a check on the water-borne diseases and also the diseases caused by industrial and agricultural pollutants.  

Another area, where nanotechnology can have a great impact is the energy sector. Efforts should be made to make tap solar energy more efficiently using nanotechnology. Also, more efficient storage devices can be manufactured. Unlike the earlier photovoltaic systems developed to trap solar energy, the systems developed using nanotechnology would be cheaper to manufacture and maintain. This could greatly reduce India's dependence on carbon fuels which are non-renewable and release pollutants and waste products into the atmosphere. 

Use of nanotechnology will also give a boost agriculture production. Greenhouses can be used to grow crops. This will require lesser area than open-field agriculture and would also insulate the farmers from the losses incurred due to uncertain weather conditions. Greenhouse production of agricultural crops will also reduce the requirement of water as most of the water used could be recovered by dehumidifying the exhaust air and treating and re-using runoff.

Information and communication tools have become important in every sphere of human activity. Nanotechnology can be used to manufacture devices that will be extremely cheap and affordable to even the poorest of the poor. Not only this, the devices will have very high processing capacity to support a voice interface that will integrate even the illiterate people into the domain of information technology. With large scale production of such devices, nanotechnology can bridge the digital divide sooner than imagined.

Nanotechnology can bring a revolutionary change in the field of medicine.  It will help the scientists develop cheaper and more powerful drugs. It will also help in developing cheaper and more efficient research and diagnostic tools. Tiny sensors, microchips and other implantable devices will help in better health monitoring and semi-automated treatment. In present times, medicine and biotechnology have emerged as the leading segments, both in India and the world, where research in nanotechnology is taking place.

Like in the past when it missed the microelectronic revolution of the 70's and the 80's, India has been a slow starter on the nanotechnology front also. Throughout the 90's, India remained at the fringes and launched the Nano Science and Technology Initiative only in 2001. The government, in 2007, launched the Mission on Nano Science and Technology or the Nano Mission with a budgetary allocation of Rs 1000 crore for 5 years, making Department of Science and Technology, the nodal agency for implementing the Nano Mission.

However there are several factors which must be overcome before India can hope to emerge as an important player in nanotechnology at the global level. The government has till now not paid enough attention to this new area though the Nano Mission may change the scenario for the better. Currently, there are only a limited number of scientists and trained professionals available in the country. Despite India's prowess in technology and presence of institutions like IITs, there is a distinct lack of institutions which can be deemed "centres of excellence" when it comes to imparting teaching and training in the domain of nanotechnology. The corporate sector too has not taken much interest in making investments in nanotechnology research due to their long gestation periods.
The government must give more priority to nanotechnology and encourage private sector investment in research & development. For this, tax benefits and subsidies should be offered to the corporate sector. Government should take initiative to establish more institutions imparting quality education in the field of nanotechnology. The investments may be high initially. But considering the potential of nanotechnology in transforming the lives of millions of people in the country, and particularly those of the weaker sections, the investments are necessary.