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Nanotechnology in India: current status and future prospects

Articles based on this release appeared in The Economic Times, DNA, The New Indian Express and OneIndia.

One possible means of bridging the gap between India’s abundant, varied natural resources and her ever-increasing requirements like clean water, food and rapid, low cost diagnostic machinery is the use of nanotechnology, write Arindam Ghosh and Yamuna Krishnan in the international journal Nature Nanotechnology.

But what is nanotechnology? When we modify materials at their atomic and molecular level, some very unusual and useful properties are generated. Since the dimensions of atoms and molecule are in nanometers, this technology is called nanotechnology. The resulting materials are called nanomaterials. Nanomaterials can be used for wide variety of things, ranging from purification of water to wrinkle free fabrics to curing cancer.

Self reliance in nanotechnology can make good use of the natural and human resources India has and also help make India self reliant in sectors like defence and anti-terrorism, write Ghosh and Krishnan. They present data regarding India’s effort thus far to promote nanotechnology (see accompanying infographic), and further discuss the successes, limitations and the way forward. The article below is a short summary of their key viewpoints.

Efforts to promote research in nanotechnology in India began early in the millenium. The “NanoScience and Technology Initiative” started with a funding of Rs. 60 crores . In 2007, the government launched a 5 year program called Nano Mission with wider objectives and larger funding of USD 250 million. The funding spanned multiple areas like basic research in nanotechnology, human resources development, infrastructure development and international collaboration. Multiple institutions like Department on Information Technology, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Department of Biotechnology provided the funding to researchers, scholars and projects. National Centers for Nanofabrication and Nanoelectronics were started in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.

The efforts have paid off well. India published over 23000 papers in nanoscience in the past 5 years. In 2013, India ranked third in the number of papers published, behind only China and USA. There have been 300 patent applications in the Indian Patent Office in 2013, ten times that of 2006. Clearly, this points to the success of Nano Mission initiative.

But there is lot of room for improvement. The amount India spends on nanotechnology research is still just a fraction of the research spending of countries like Japan, USA, France and China. The quality of research has shown only a little improvement from the NSTI phase (till 2006) to the nano mission phase (post 2007). Only 16 papers from India appeared in the top 1% of the publications in 2011. Also, the number of patents applied from India to the US patent office contributes to only 0.2% of the total applications.

Though people look at nanoscience and technology very positively, the number of students following undergraduate and graduate degrees in the area is low and career prospects still extremely limited. The number of PhDs awarded in nanoscience and technology is about 150 per year; a very small number compared to the target of producing 10,000 PhD students annually over the next decade articulated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

The contribution of the private sector to nanotechnology research has been minimal. Research from academic institutions has indicated how much impact nanotechnology can have on needs of Indian market. For example, a team from IIT Madras has used nanotechnology for arsenic decontamination of water. Another team from IIT Delhi has come up with a water based self cleaning technology for use in textile industry. It is a matter of concern that, in spite of such enormous potential, the private sector is not investing enough in nanoscience research.

Nano technology holds great potential for India and a multi pronged approach will ensure that this is fully leveraged. Funding should be increased and long term funding which can accommodate coherent research programs with high-impact outcome is needed. Various research centers throughout India must work together so that the collective efforts can lead to better results. A highly equipped central facility should plan and initiate research activities.

The administrative aspects of new projects shoule be streamlined. Most importantly, remuneration for people trained in the field should increase, to attract high calibre work force to join these research facilities.

The good news is that the Nano Mission has been extended till 2017 as Phase II. Since nanotechnology is an emerging technology and India has abundant skilled workforce, India can aim to become a global leader in nanotechnology.

About the authors:

Arindam Ghosh is in the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Yamuna Krishnan is at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

Link to the paper: http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v9/n7/full/nnano.2014.138.html