Token gesture

Print edition : July 14, 2006

The government and industry have not given enough attention to nanoscience, at the peril of losing out in the technological race.


President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with Prof C.N.R. Rao, President, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, at the India-U.S. Nanotechnology Conclave in New Delhi.-

THE government okayed a five-year national nano science and technology mission recently with a Rs.1,000-crore funding. Where are we in the field today and where do we go from here?

India missed the microelectronic revolution of the 1970s and the 1980s. It also failed to invest sufficiently in the rapidly advancing materials sciences and technology and, as a result, today it lags well behind in these fields of economic importance. As science progressed into the 1990s, the importance of the emerging area of nanotechnology was becoming quite apparent to the Indian scientific community. But policy initiatives for a publicly funded national programme were slow in coming. One had to wait until October 2001, when the Nano Science and Technology Initiative (NSTI) was launched by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), largely owing to the drive of C.N.R. Rao, the well-known materials sciences expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore and a pioneer in nano science in the country.

This is not to say that there was no Indian nanoscience work at all prior to the setting up of the NSTI. As in the other areas in which India had missed the bus earlier, isolated research work was happening even almost three decades ago. In the late 1970s the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was carrying out studies in the application of fine-grained nano-crystalline materials in microwave and piezoelectric devices. In the 1980s, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur was synthesising ceramic oxide nanoparticles. The researchers attempted industrial application of magnesium and aluminium oxide nanopowders in the cement industry.

During the same period, A.N. Maitra of Delhi University's Chemistry Department was engaged in the preparation of inorganic nanoparticles in the aqueous core of reverse micelle droplets. According to Maitra, these are nanoscale droplets and nanoparticles formed in their core also have narrow size distribution. Nanoparticles of copper oxalate, yttrium oxalate and barium oxalate were produced in this way so that they could be sintered at much lower temperatures to yield the compound yttrium-barium-copper oxide for high-temperature superconductivity studies.

Such activities were, however, few and far between. And definitely not within the new paradigm of nanotechnology that has emerged in recent years that cuts across disciplines. The NSTI, with an earmarked funds, sought to remedy the situation with the following broad objectives: support priority areas of research in the field, strengthen characterisation and infrastructure facilities at the national level, generate trained manpower and promote interface between universities/institutions and industry.

But even with the NSTI in place, the level of funding has been sub-critical as compared to China with which India inevitably tends to be compared. In 2002, for example, compared to China's $200 million, India spent a mere Rs.15 crores. Over the four and a half years of the NSTI, a total of about Rs.120 crores has been spent, much of which has gone towards basic research projects and related infrastructure, the implementation of which is overseen by a National Expert Committee headed by C.N.R. Rao.

"China is way ahead," C.N.R. Rao points out. "With the small investment, we have tried to use the money as wisely as possible and do our best. Unless we invest more in people and institutions, it is going to be difficult to catch up with China. I cannot, therefore, say we will come out of it. What will certainly happen is that a number of laboratories and educational institutions will develop some expertise in the field," he adds.

Besides funding about 100 basic science projects to date (worth about Rs.60 crores), part of the money (about Rs.20 crores) has gone towards establishing six centres for nanoscience at institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the different IITs, six centres for nanotechnology each aimed at producing a product or a device within a reasonable time-frame and two national instrumentation/characterisation facilities. In all, 14 national institutions, including seven IITs, and 10 universities have been supported under the NSTI.

Indian industry, traditionally, has been a reluctant investor in research and development (R&D) and this has been true particularly of emerging areas such as nanotechnology. Except for some interest in nano drug delivery systems (for example, five based on patented technologies of Maitra), there has not been much proactive industrial interest in nanotechnology. Indeed, a technology for large-scale production of metal nanoparticles developed at IIT, Kharagpur, could not find any taker in Indian industry but the Malaysian government reportedly found it attractive enough to invest in.

"I have seen two big nanotechnology meetings organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) recently and I do not understand why there is so much interest in having India-foreign collaborations," says Maitra. "Do you think these foreign companies are interested in exposing their intellectual property to us?" he asks.

Significantly, at the Millennium Summit on Nanotechnology and Biotechnology organised by ASSOCHAM in March, the declaration adopted included the following: "ASSOCHAM believes that these technologies possess in-built power to serve the society with better and cheaper products, improved health care and create significant employment. India has the potential of becoming a health care centre of the world. Towards achieving this successfully... the import of these technologies for health care centres should be given financial support at attractive rates."

"The chain of activities - innovative nano-based formulation, animal experiments, toxicity studies, clinical trials - take five to 10 years. Perhaps no industry wants to take the risk of time, effort and monetary consequences. They should realise nothing is available on a platter; you have to build your own castle," adds Maitra, who has already obtained 11 patents for nano-based drug delivery technologies, of which five are United States patents. "The reformulation of drugs in targetable nano-based devices is not only inexpensive but can be optimised in the least possible time," Maitra points out. "In the background of the new patent regime, more importance should be given for developing newer nano-based formulations of off-patented drugs and have control over the nano-drug delivery technology," he says.

"Indian industry has no long-term patience. But some change is visible and some people are talking now," says A.K. Sood of the IISc, who led the exciting discovery of voltage generation induced by liquid and gas flow through single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs) in 2002, a concept that could lead to an entirely new class of nanosensors (Frontline, February 14, 2003, and September 10, 2004). Two sensors based on liquid flow through nanotubes have been patented: one, an accelerometer for measuring vibrations in solids including the earth and the other for sensing underwater vibrations. According to Sood, although some Indian entrepreneurs showed interest in liquid-flow-based sensors, no licence agreement has been formalised yet.

The analogous gas-flow-based sensor has, however, generated greater interest. This technology has been transferred to Trident Metrologies Inc., a non-resident Indian-owned U.S.-based company, for application in gas flow in semiconductor and chemical industries. The conventional method for measuring industrial gas flow measurements through pipes and so on is by an indirect measurement of resistance change in heated coils. Sensors based on gas flow in nanotubes seem to provide better measurement accuracy and the flow velocity range over which the device works is also greater. Trident has already developed a prototype based on Sood Effect, as it has now been christened.

For the few Indian entrepreneurs who are prepared to partner publicly funded institutions by putting in money, the DST has a scheme that enables such institution-industry linkages as public-private partnership projects and those that fall under the nano category are being funded through the NSTI. So far three such institution-industry collaborative ventures in specific areas of nanotechnology, together worth about Rs.40 crores of funding, have been identified. Besides, a couple of industry-institution partnerships for developing nano drug delivery systems have been funded under the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) programme of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

What are the achievements made by Indian scientists with the limited funding under the NSTI? "There has been some very good work from some of the Indian laboratories, particularly from Bangalore, in synthesising and characterising a large variety of new materials and also discovering two or three important new phenomena," says C.N.R. Rao. Indeed, the discovery of the unique Y-junction nanotubes comes from C.N.R. Rao's group at the JNCASR.

There has been a significant increase in the number of publications from India in the field but the number is not very large as in the case of China. According to C.N.R. Rao, compared to about 100 papers from India in major journals since the NSTI began, the Chinese contribute more than twice that number every year. As fractions of worldwide output, compared to Chinese contribution of 20-30 per cent, Indian contribution is less than 5 per cent. "In areas such as nanowires, the Chinese contribution would be as much as 50 per cent," says C.N.R. Rao.

"The numbers are certainly large in China but in terms of quality we are at about the same level," feels Sood. "Our quality is yet to attain an international level. For that the numbers have to grow when a few will cross that threshold. Earlier there were not many people and now the base has certainly grown and, with the widespread availability of equipment such the atomic force microscope (AFM), quite professional too. Our strength is in the possibility of mobilising large numbers and that is why I feel positive," he says.

A lot of groups, according to him, have started something interesting, if not very exciting, much of which may be preparation-chemistry-oriented. "What is important is to do highly controlled experiments and measurements, sophisticated lithography and physics-based technology using molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) like methods," says Sood. "The problem we will be facing is that if you are starting now, the field has just exploded and there are very smart people all over. It will be a challenge to break that barrier."

Brij Mohan Arora, a materials and electronics scientist at the TIFR, echoes similar views. "The national initiative has resulted in supporting a large variety of problems though there are not as many basic studies. Nevertheless it has created an awareness about techniques. The immediate applicability of nanotechnology in chemistry, drugs and biology has generated a great deal of interest and an atmosphere of enthusiasm. There may not be too many achievements to showcase yet, but the hope of the initiative has been to lift that level," he says.

The initiative has also certainly helped in spawning equipment and instrumentation for material characterisation in institutions across the country. "While big tools such as MBE or near field microscope or optical tweezers have been given only to a few places, lots of places now have AFM, Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and small angle and large angle X-ray facilities," points out Sood, who is a member of the Rao Committee as well. "But to encourage controlled measurements and sophisticated methods of production, we need more of MBEs, ultra high vacuum STMs and so on. There is not a single foundry in the country. As a result, nanoelectronics has hardly taken off," says Sood.

Outside of the NSTI, nanotechnology projects also form a significant part of bilateral programmes with the U.S., Germany, Italy, the European Union and Taiwan. Two years ago, a National Centre for Nanomaterials has also been set up at the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials (ARCI) in Hyderabad in collaboration with institutions in Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Germany and the U.S. When fully operational, this centre will include pilot-scale facilities for producing nanopowders, facilities for producing carbon nanotubes (CNTs), facilities for agglomeration of nanopowders, compaction and sintering of nanopowders for use in nanostructured components and shapes, engineered coatings, development of CNT-reinforced ceramic and polymer composites and use of nanopowders for water and air purification technologies.

According to G. Sundararajan, ARCI director, four products from the centre have already been transferred to the industry, including silver nanoparticle-based water filter system for use in rural areas, which has shown good results. The centre has also developed technology for nanopowder coating using sol-gel technique - a method of material fabrication, particularly ceramic and oxide powders in ultrafine form, in which a colloidal solution (`sol') is gelled into a solid (`gel') phase. "Interest from industry, including foreign, in our nanopowder technology is slowly happening," Sundararajan said.

One area where the NSTI has not really impacted is in the creation of human resource of sufficient calibre, feels Rao Ayagari, adviser in the DST in charge of administering the NSTI. "The real problem," says C.N.R. Rao, "is that we have to create the technical manpower to work in this emerging field. Unless we do this, there will not be enough work happening in this area in the near future. What is nice to see is that there is a lot of interest amongst the young students but there are very few training centres in universities and colleges."

The NSTI notwithstanding, it was becoming increasingly obvious that if India wanted to catch up with developments in the field and use them particularly in applications relevant to the developing world, such as energy, water and health care, far greater investment was needed. Now this seems to be happening. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam himself provided the much-needed impetus in convincing the government on the need for substantially increased funding.

Realising that ongoing work in nanotechnology and the level of funding in the country were sub-optimal, Kalam had organised a meeting of the country's experts in the field at the Presidential Complex at Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 29, 2004, to chalk out a national mission in nanotechnology. That initiative of Kalam has today resulted in the government approving an order of magnitude increase in funding.

"One of the very distinguishing features," the meeting had observed, "is that the gap in time and effort needed as well as the investment to take the scientific research to the product level is minimal. Hence this technology would make return of investments faster if investments are made judiciously. Unlike the other technological revolutions that we have witnessed so far, nanotechnology is an enabling technology, finding applications in such diverse areas as health, energy, defence and many societal applications. Thus it promises to be a ubiquitous technology that would touch everyone and would be a true vehicle for economic and societal transformation."

The recommendations from the meeting, which had the backing of the President, envisaged an investment of about Rs.1,000 crores over a five-year period. The usual bureaucratic procedures having gone through, the Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) of the Finance Ministry has now approved this funding for the period 2006-11 and only a clearance from the Cabinet is awaited. That would be merely a formality as the 2006-07 Budget already includes an ad hoc provision of Rs.180 crores towards the mission. From this year on, the activities under the NSTI will be subsumed in this larger framework with enhanced investment of the Nanoscience and Technology Mission (NSTM).

Although there is no `mission document' yet to give an idea of what the mission objectives would be and what the deliverables would be, the deliberations at the meeting within the presidential precincts give some idea of how the money is likely to be invested. This includes the creation of national facilities at five different places specialising in complementary areas, including one or more nanofab facilities, with an investment of about Rs.100 crores in each of them over the next five years, 10 mini centres across the country (which may or may not be co-located with the national facility).

These centres, with an investment of Rs.25 crores for a centre, would have a reasonable amount of equipment and would focus on one or two areas of nanoscience and technology. The recommendations also envisage the creation of a synchrotron facility with an investment of about Rs.250 crores in addition to the one already being established under the DAE. "Even Taiwan has two synchrotrons dedicated to nanoscience," points out Sood. But there is some criticism against this proposal as only the DAE in the country has the requisite expertise to operate and maintain such a facility.

While Sood believes that it should be possible to make use of this enhanced funding properly, the real challenge will be in finding the right people. A bigger challenge will be to come out with a few commercial nano products at the end of the five-year period. The President has called for a "dynamic task force" that will identify national projects as part of the mission with time-bound results like high-efficiency nanotube-based solar photovoltaic cells, diagnostic kits for cancer and HIV/AIDS and drug delivery systems, nano sensors for multiple application, surface coating and engineering with nanopowders and nanophosphors (nanoparticles that have the property of phosphorescence or luminescence that are expected to find use in display technologies, picture tubes, cathode-ray and X-ray tubes and so on).

"The country should come up with a number of infrastructural facilities for long- and short-term toxicological studies on nano-based drug delivery systems," says Maitra. "Otherwise at the end of the day, the entire effort of a scientist, particularly from a university or a small institution, will be futile. Likewise, material characterisation from a toxicological perspective is important. The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) in Chandigarh has excellent facilities and has taken this responsibility. But I think we need at least half a dozen NIPERs for the research community if we have to make a mark in nano-drug delivery technology," he adds.

"Unlike what the history of science has taught us," the President said in his recent address at an international nanotechnology conference in New Delhi early this year, "nanoscience, nanotechnology and nanofabrication have large connectivity. Also nanoscience and technologies are multidisciplinary. Hence research teams have to work in an integrated way in a mission mode operation. A new way of thinking in our nation is essential." With the government nod for such a mission, research in nanoscience and technology in India looks poised for a renewed take-off.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor