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National mission to make India global nano hub

By Fakir Balaji

Bangalore, Nov 5 (IANS) The Indian government is starting a five-year national mission to make the country a global hub for nanoscience and nanotechnology, leveraging the low-cost advantage and its vast talent pool.

Spearheaded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the ambitious mission aims to create nano clusters in the country to conduct research in the sunrise sector and develop applications using nano materials that will have a bearing on diverse industrial sectors as well as commoners.

“With an upfront investment of Rs.10 billion ($254 million), the nano science and technology mission (NSTM) will create an ecosystem to make India a global hub for research and development (R&D) in nanoscience and nanotechnology,” DST secretary Thirumalachari Ramasami told IANS here in an interview.

“It will be similar to the ecosystems built for the growth of IT, biotechnology and electronics in the knowledge sector,” he added.

To start the mission, the DST will set up three nano institutes in Bangalore, Kolkata and Mohali near Chandigarh, with a seed capital of Rs.1 billion for each of them.

Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCSAR) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore will be partnering for the first institute, to be located on the outskirts of this IT hub.

Similarly, the other two institutes will be set up in collaboration with the proposed five Indian Institute of Science and Technology (NIIS&T) by the human resources development (HRD) ministry and the National Institutes of Technology (NITs).

The upcoming institutes will offer courses for science and engineering graduates to pursue post-graduate education in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

“In all, about 50-60 science and technology institutions, including IITs and NITs will be involved in building nano clusters across the country to create the ecosystem for undertaking extensive research in nanoscience and applied nanotechnology to develop applications for industrial products, agriculture, healthcare and safe drinking water, to name a few,” Ramasami said.

Demystifying the emerging field and the huge potential it has, Ramasami said nanoscience is the study of phenomena on the scale of 1-100 nanometre (one billionth of a metre), whereas nanotechnology is the ability to create and control objects on the same scale to prepare novel materials with specific properties and functions.

“The fundamental building blocks of nature – atoms and molecules – have dimensions in nanometre or on nanoscale. For instance, water molecules can occupy a sphere one nm in diameter. The DNA double helix is around two nm wide. The way molecules assemble into larger, supra-molecular entities on nanoscale determines important material properties such as electrical, optical, and mechanical properties,” Ramasami pointed out.

Eminent scientist C.N.R. Rao – chairman of the scientific advisory committee to prime minister and director of JNCSAR – and other noted experts in the field will guide the nano mission.

Rao has already done some pioneering work in the field and is mentoring his research teams in developing nano tubes, nano carbon materials and nano applications, including one for drinking water purification.

“Our long-term plan is to make optimal use of our growing young talent pool and take advantage of the labour arbitrage to beckon global firms, angel investors and venture capital to fund nano labs and nano facilities to design, develop nano applications and manufacture products for domestic and international markets, using heavy and noble metals such as gold, silver and copper.

As research expertise in India is available at one-third of the cost in developed countries, global R&D institutes and firms in nanoscience and nanotechnology would outsource their requirements in the domain to young scientists and technologists here, Ramasami expected.

“By 2020, India will have the youngest scientific talent pool in the world. Our sound education system, large human capital with younger age advantage will make the country a preferred destination for nanoscience and nanotechnology benefits,” he asserted.

Besides regulatory, legal and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues, the mission will focus on expanding the capacity to churn out the human resources required for the development and growth of the nano sector on the lines of other sectors in the knowledge era.

“The game-plan is to develop a research and industry collaboration hub (RICH) in the long run. Leveraging ICT tools and domain expertise in biotechnology and associated fields such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology, we propose to have technology and innovation partnerships with all stakeholders,” Ramasami affirmed.

According to Rao, nanotechnology applications that will directly benefit masses include water purifying and using nano-silver as a coat on ceramic filters to eliminate bacteria and viruses.

“A nanometre filter will have a sieving system that is finer than the conventional water filters to provide safe drinking water. Similarly, nano materials can be used to create self-cleaning agents for textiles and prevent water seeping into the cloth,” Rao explained.

Nano materials can also used to develop sensors, medical applications, aerospace components and machine tools.

“Though India may have missed many a ‘technology bus’ over the decades, we cannot afford to miss the ‘nano bus’, as it is the future of the world, dominating science and technology in the 21st century,” Rao added.