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Nanotechnology research could take off in India but as R. Ramachandran reports, there are obstacles on the runway.

India, a late starter in nanotechnology, sputtered along in fits and starts before readying for take-off. While there is support for the sector at the highest scientific levels, funding remains low. And with negligible interest from industry and only a small pool of skilled scientists, India is a long way from using nanoscience to solve its problems.

"China is way ahead," says C. N. R. Rao, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore. In 2002, India spent US$4 million on nanoscience and technology, compared to China's $200 million.

It seems that India has not learnt any lessons from the past. It missed the microelectronics revolution of the 1970s and 1980s through a lack of timely investment, and was no wiser in the 1990s when nanoscience emerged.

India was also slow to draw up plans for a national nanoscience programme, and its Nano Science and Technology Initiative was launched just five years ago, in 2001. To date, about US$24 million have been spent under the initiative, largely on basic science projects and related infrastructure within institutions.

"We have tried to use the money as wisely as possible and to do our best," says Rao. "But unless we invest more in people and institutions it is going to be difficult to catch up with China."

People power

R. Aiyagari, the Department of Science and Technology advisor in charge of administering the NSTI accepts that it has not made an impact in nurturing researchers of sufficient calibre for nanotechnology research.

"The real problem," says Rao, "is that we have to create the technical manpower to work in this emerging field. We have to train students, teachers and research scholars. Unless we do this, there will not be enough work happening in this area in the near future."

He says it is good to see a lot of interest among students but points out that, "there are very few training centres in universities and colleges."

Ajay Sood from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore is, however, optimistic that India can eventually mobilise larger numbers of nanotechnology researchers.

"Initially there were not many people, now the base has certainly grown," he says, attributing this to the widespread availability of equipment such as atomic force microscopes — which can be used to view objects as small as one nanometre across (about 7,000 times smaller than the width of a strand of spider's silk).

But while India's NSTI has enabled institutions to buy equipment — sophisticated microscopes, X-ray facilities and optical tweezers — for characterising materials at the nanoscale, the research centres lack other equipment needed to conduct controlled measurements and develop sophisticated methods of production.

"As a result, nanoelectronics has hardly taken off," says Sood whose research group made international news in 2002 when they generated electricity by making a fluid flow through single-walled nanotubes. The discovery could lead to an entirely new class of nanosensors — two sensors based on the concept have been patented to date.

Winds of Change

In parallel with the government failings, India's industry sector has also been reluctant to invest in nanotechnology. "Indian industry has no long-term patience," says Sood, but adds that: "Some change is visible, and some people are talking now."

The Indian government is actively promoting links between research institutes and industry, and the Department of Science and Technology has cleared three collaborations between public research institutions and the private sector worth about US$9 million.

The New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative programme of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is also promoting two public-private collaborative ventures for developing nanotechnologies that target drugs to exactly where they are needed in the human body.

And there has been a significant increase in the number of nanoscience publications, though the number is small compared to China. According to Rao, Indian researchers have so far only published about 100 nanoscience papers in major journals, while Chinese researchers produce more than twice that number each year.

Rao says that although India's nanotechnology research has not yet matured to compete on the international stage. "There has been some very good work from some of the laboratories, particularly from [research centres in] Bangalore, in synthesising and characterising a large variety of new materials and also discovering two or three important new phenomena".

Besides launching the Nano Science and Technology Initiative, India has also entered into bilateral nanotechnology programmes with the European Union, Germany, Italy, Taiwan and the United States. Two years ago, a national centre for nanomaterials was set up at the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials (ARCI) in Hyderabad, in collaboration with Germany, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

When fully operational — possibly within about a year — the centre will include pilot-scale facilities for producing and manipulating carbon nanotubes, ceramic and polymer composites reinforced with such nanotubes and nanopowders for water and air purification technologies.

Four products from ARCI have already been transferred to the industry, including a water filter system for rural areas that uses silver nanoparticles and has shown good results, according to ARCI director G. Sundararajan.

The centre has also developed technology for coating materials with nanopowders. "Interest from industry, including foreign companies, in our nanopowder technology is slowly happening," Sundararajan says.

Preparing for take-off

Brij Mohan Arora, a materials scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai points out that, overall, India does not have many achievements to showcase yet. "Much of it has been small table top research, but nevertheless it has created an awareness about techniques," he says.

If India wants to catch up with the best of the world's nanoscience researchers, and apply the technology to developing world issues — such as energy, water and health care — it seems that far greater investment is needed.

Fortunately for India, it is one of the few countries whose leader is pushing to improve funding for the sector. President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a former scientist in the space and defence sectors, was one of the first to point out that the country's nanotechnology research was sub-optimal.

In April 2004, Kalam organised a meeting of nanoscience experts to devise a national mission plan. Its recommendations include spending US$22 million each year for the next five years on five new national facilities specialising in complimentary areas of nanotechnology and ten 'mini centres' across the country. These centres would each receive US$5 million, and would focus on one or two areas of nanoscience and technology.

Overall, the experts recommended that US$200 million be spent on nanotechnology over a five-year period. India's finance ministry has now cleared these funds for use in 2006-2011. From later this year, the new national mission will oversee activities currently under the Nano Science and Technology Initiative.

Kalam has also called for a "dynamic task force" to identify important national projects and set deadlines for achieving results in areas such as nanotube-based solar power cells, diagnostic kits and drug delivery systems for cancer and HIV/AIDS, and fluorescent nanopowders for use in display technologies.

It will be a huge challenge to come out with a few commercial products at the end of the five-year period, and to this end says Kalam, research teams will have to work together in a more coordinated and focused way

"Nanoscience and technologies are multidisciplinary," he told an international conference in New Delhi earlier this year. "Hence research teams have to work in an integrated way… A new way of thinking in our nation is essential."

With the government nod of approval for such a mission, research in nanoscience and technology in India looks poised for a renewed take-off.

R. Ramachandran is science editor at Frontline, a fortnightly magazine of the Hindu group of publications, and writes on science and nuclear energy for The Hindu.

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