Sunday May 22, 2022

An exciting new frontier

What is nanotechnology? It is the study and use of materials of very tiny dimensions – dimensions at the scale of a billionth of a meter – referred to as a ‘nanometer’ (nm). Your hair has a thickness of about 80,000 nanometers. So we are referring here to materials that

November 11, 2015
What is nanotechnology? It is the study and use of materials of very tiny dimensions – dimensions at the scale of a billionth of a meter – referred to as a ‘nanometer’ (nm). Your hair has a thickness of about 80,000 nanometers. So we are referring here to materials that have are about 10,000 times thinner than your hair.
When materials are reduced to this size, their properties undergo dramatic changes and fascinating new industrial products have been developed in a whole range of fields based on nanotechnologies. The applications range in fields as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, micro fabrication, and others. The corresponding applications are also found across a wide variety of fields including medicine, engineering, electronics, energy, new materials for water purifications, catalysts in industry etc. Hundreds of billions of dollars are now being invested in various fields to make new types of nanomaterials with exciting new applications and improved properties and performance.
The field of nanotechnology did not become widely known or popular till two developments took place. The first was the discovery of the scanning tunnelling microscope in 1981 that allowed the visualisation of individual atoms and bonds. Another exciting discovery in 1985 was that of some football shaped molecules that become known as ‘fullerenes’ (or ‘buckyballs’) having 60 carbon atoms for which a Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley, and Robert Curl in 1996. Soon to follow was the development of carbon nanotubes that have found wide applications in new material development including electronic items.
It is estimated that there are now more than two thousand different items in the market that are based on nanotechnology including sunscreens, cosmetics, surface coatings, food products, gecko tape, silver in food packaging, clothing finishing materials, disinfectants and

household appliances, surface coatings, paints and outdoor furniture varnishes, pharmaceuticals, electronic sensors, and fuel catalysts.
Bulletproof paper has been developed based on nano-cellulose. Clothes are being infused with nanotechnology allowing them to survive longer against wear and tear and keep cool in the summer. Tennis balls are being coated with nanomaterials so that they can last longer and surgical goods as well as other metal items are now being covered with nanomaterials making them tougher. Video game consoles and car surfaces are also being coated with nanomaterials to make them scratch-resistant.
Nanotechnology is also being employed in the fast developing field of tissue engineering. Indeed thousands of exciting applications have been discovered in this field of great industrial importance and each day brings new developments.
In Pakistan the first major programme in the field of nanotechnology was initiated by me when I was the federal minister of science and technology. The National Commission of Nano Science and Technology (NCNST) was then set up under the chairmanship of Prof N M Butt by the ministry. As I left the Ministry of Science and Technology in October 2002 and became the founding chairman of the HEC, I decided to continue to fund the nanotechnology programmes.
In subsequent years the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology was unable to provide funds for NCNST as it became a weak organisation with the constant reductions in its budgets and programmes. Its development budget today is only about one billion rupees, a small fraction of what it was in 2002 when I was heading it. In the period 2003-2008, HEC under my charge however funded many research projects at three universities and two research centres to the tune of about Rs800 million, thereby laying the foundations of nanotechnology in Pakistan.
The programme came to a halt when I resigned as the chairman of HEC in 2008, and when Prof N M Butt also resigned as the head of the nanotechnology commission in 2008. However the seeds had been sown and research on nanotechnology at international level is being carried out today at NUST, Comsats, the HEJ research institute of chemistry (Karachi University), Preston University and in many other laboratories of Pakistan and a number of high quality research papers have been published in leading journals abroad. Many students were sent for PhD abroad by the HEC during 2003-2008 who have been trained in this important field and have returned to Pakistan. Many universities in Pakistan are now offering courses in material sciences including nanotechnology and the students graduating with a degree in this field have many career options in academia and industry.
The first major national centre for nanotechnology is currently under construction at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), Karachi University and it should begin to function by early next year. ICCBS also houses the now world famous HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry.
Other top science centres under the same umbrella are the Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Development, the Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science and Technology Information Centre, and the recently established Jamilur Rahman Centre for Genomics Research which is named after my father as it was the result of a personal donation. An 800 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer costing about Rs20 crores is currently under installation there for deep studies in the field of structural biology.
The ICCBS has recently been recognised as the regional Unesco centre, the only one in its field in the region, which is a huge honour for Pakistan. ICCBS presently houses an array of highly sophisticated instruments including twelve superconducting nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers and fifteen different types of mass spectrometers making it one of the most powerful research institutes in the world in the field of study of natural products and nanotechnology.
In a country where science has been largely neglected it is wondrous that such a powerful international centre has emerged in spite of all odds, purely due to the sheer determination and hard work of the scientists in it that have led this effort. The surgical goods industry as well as the sports goods industry in Sialkot will undoubtedly benefit from the establishment of the National Centre for Nanotechnology in ICCBS by Aziz Jamal, the son of the now legendary late Latif Ebrahim Jamal.
In this knowledge driven world it is vital for Pakistan to invest in Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (ESTI) so that we can develop a strong knowledge economy. The roadmap as to how this may be achieved was prepared under my supervision in a 320 page document, ‘Technology based Industrial Vision and Strategy for Socio-economic Development’. It was approved by the cabinet in August 2007.
All that is needed is for the present government to lend its full weight behind Ahsan Iqbal so that it can be implemented as it is in harmony with his own Vision 2025. It is only then that Pakistan can reap the full rewards from such fields as nanotechnology and biotechnology in order to become a world leader in hi-tech manufacturing, as has happened in Korea and Singapore.
The writer is a former federal minister and former chairman of the HEC. He is also chairman of the FPCCI Committee on Higher Education, Science & Technology.