Nanotech for water can help business innovate and grow

Nanotechnology offers methods for desalinisation Copyright: Scott Dougherty/LLNL

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Developing world businesses must invest in nanotech research and development for clean water to stay ahead, says Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb.

Nanotechnology — technology that works on the scale of less than 100 nanometers — already has applications in water purification, ranging from nanomembranes for large-scale desalination plants to magnetic nanoparticles that remove pollutants from household supplies (see Nanotechnology for clean water: Facts and figures).

In the face of a threatening global water crisis, nanotechnology for clean water is changing the business landscape in both the developed and developing world. Companies must change how they work, harnessing these technologies to maintain their competitiveness.

‘Business as usual’ often assumes that we in the developing world simply assemble and import technology, rather than building and designing it. But nanotechnology offers both large and small developing world enterprises the chance to innovate, grow, and capture markets.

Successfully capturing this ‘nanotech opportunity’ to provide safe water means getting in the game early on: engaging scientists and promoting young researchers to devise new solutions, and working with government to ensure risk is understood and appropriately regulated.

Many developing countries already have very active research on nanotechnology, even if it is not widely publicised. Countries such as Brazil, India and Iran, for example, all have strategic nanotech initiatives.

Some businesses are making the most of this local expertise. In Egypt, SabryCorp, is working with the Desert Research Institute and the Ministries of Agriculture and Research to commercialise novel nanofiltration systems. In India, Eureka Forbes Limited has teamed up with the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai to develop nanofilters. In South Africa, scientists at the Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Center are working with industrial partners to explore how nanomaterials could be used to detect and destroy water pollutants.

The developing world needs more such collaborations that bridge the traditional gap between industry and academia. Advanced technology relies on knowledge pools and creativity — local research and development must flourish for businesses to grasp the benefits of new technologies like nanotechnology and use them to solve local problems like access to safe water. Governments and businesses should foster collaborations between industry and academics and establish technology transfer laboratories to encourage nanotechnology out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Catch up or fall behind

Nanotechnology offers companies in the developing world the chance to ‘catch up’ with industrialised nations. It is a rapidly unfolding field of research with many areas for potential discovery, and new and radical innovations are constantly emerging, often requiring only inexpensive research techniques and cost-cutting technologies. Researchers and industry in some developing countries are rushing to exploit this rare window of opportunity. China for example, has the second largest number of nanotechnology patents following the United States.

The Middle East has been slower than other parts of the developing world to embrace nanotechnology, but things are changing. The Saudi government is funding advanced laboratories to research nanotechnology in water treatment (the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, for example, has a nanotechnology centre, established in collaboration with IBM, to develop nanomembranes for desalination) and the Iranian National Nanotechnology Initiative identifies water treatment as a key priority.

But these initiatives remain few and uncoordinated, often duplicating efforts of other centres in the region, and both the public and government bodies in the region remain ill-informed about their efforts.

Yet nanotechnology is providing such revolutionary advancements in water filtration that in a matter of years it will likely outstrip the competition. Companies that do not invest early on in these new and advanced technologies will find themselves either out of business, or playing catch up after others have dominated the market. Similarly, countries that do not invest in these technologies will fall far down the growing ‘nano divide’ and, in the face of extreme water shortages, will have to resort to importing either technology or water.

Strategies and ground rules

Beyond funding and research, local and regional policymakers also need to establish a clear strategy for progress, based on transparency, increased awareness and appropriate regulations.

Businesses can help. They must first increase public awareness of nanotech’s potential for improving water supplies and the risks involved. Dialogues through campaigns such as SabryCorp’s in2nano can help get local communities and the general public on board.

The developing world’s business communities also need to build their own awareness of the opportunities for innovation-based growth. In particular, nanoparticles that form chemical bonds with water-borne contaminants can remove mercury, arsenic, lead; nano-engineered membranes that allow water to flow more freely are more effectively filters; photocatalytic materials can destroy water contaminants with UV light; and, most importantly, nanotechnology offers methods for desalinisation.

I believe businesses must also push for comprehensive legislation to cover nanotechnology in water purification. While this may seem controversial — businesses usually want to decrease the regulations that might restrict their activities — we need a balanced approach. A clear regulatory framework would actually benefit business by preventing the technology’s misuse, which could itself create media, government, or public backlashes against nanotechnology and so damage markets.

Above all, industry, academia, and governments need to establish coordinated regional and long-term strategies for progress based on nanotechnology. Unless they do, the large investment dollars may miss their mark.

Corporations that realise what is at stake need to work together to foster a cooperative environment of discovery and development.

Mohamed M. Abdel-Mottaleb is chief executive officer of nanotechnology consultancy firm SabryCorp and assistant professor at the Nile University.