South African scientists are using nanotechnology to develop new healthcare tools, advanced materials and energy technologies.
Research is underway at South Africa's first two Nanotechnology Innovation Centres based at Mintek — the country's national mineral research organisation
in Johannesburg — and the National Centre for Nano-structured M aterials at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria.
Both centres were opened in November last year, and are being coordinated by the Department of Science and Technology through its National Nanotechnology Strategy.
Mintek is already producing large quantities of metal nanoparticles for industrial purposes, nanotechnology senior scientist Robert Tshikhudo told SciDev.Net.
Nanotechnology is being used to develop simple and cheap point-of-care tests for diagnosing diseases like malaria, or confirming pregnancy — the kind of science that would "improve the lives of ordinary people", says Tshikhudo.
"This is being done by using gold nanoparticles to develop a product that looks like an off-the-shelf pregnancy test. These tests will be used to detect viruses, bacteria, hormones etc. depending on the intended applications," he says.
A priority for the Mintek team this year is the patenting of new science developed for point-of-care tests, Tshikhudo told SciDev.Net.
The CSIR is focusing on the design and modelling of novel nano-structured materials, for the aerospace industry for example.
CSIR scientists are already working on projects in advanced materials manufacturing and energy — looking at the development of plastics, solar cells and batteries as well as biodegradable materials, Suprakas Sinha Ray, head of the CSIR centre told SciDev.Net.
More nanotechnology research centres are planned in the next three years, according to Ray, although the exact number has not been decided or budgeted for.
Mosibudi Mangena, South Africa's science and technology minister, said at the launch of the centres that they are part of a ten-year plan to address social and economic challenges in the country.
He said in a press release that the centres' research "will not be blue sky research but one with identified, tangible measurables. They will have to be at the forefront — the tone-setters and catalysts of the country's research and development programme in nanotechnology".