12.07.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Nanotechnology is a growing research priority

© Kateryna Kon / Shutterstock.com Caption : Destruction of a bacterium by nanoparticles.

When the French National Laboratory of Metrology and Testing analysed four daily foods in June on behalf of the NGO Act for the Environment – a brand of chocolate biscuits, chewing gum, a tin of veal casserole and a mixture of spices for guacamole, – each was found to contain nanoparticles (1).

This study reminds us that, in many countries, nanoparticles have become part of our daily life. They are also found in clothing, tyres, fertilizers and cosmetics, for instance. Given the breadth of potential applications, nanotechnology has become a research priority for many countries, as the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 explains.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are a priority field for today’s innovation leaders. Switzerland, for instance, topped both the EU’s Innovation Scoreboard and the Global Innovation Index in 2014 and is one of the top three countries for innovation among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It also has some of the highest output in nanotechnology: 198 scientific articles per million population in 2013.

Switzerland leads other strong players in this field, including the Republic of Korea (150), Germany (93), France (79), the USA (69) and Japan (56), according to Thomson Reuters’ data cited by the UNESCO Science Report and analysed by Statnano. However, when it comes to the number of patents per 100 articles on nanotechnology, the order of these countries is reshuffled. The USA now takes the lead, with 44, followed by Japan (30), the Republic of Korea (27), Germany (22), Switzerland (17) and France (15).

The European Union (EU) is encouraging its members to embrace smart specialization in their national strategies. To help narrow the research gap with its newest members, the EU launched the Teaming Action in 2013 within Horizon 2020, its biggest research programme ever. One of the first team projects to be approved for funding is developing the Wroclaw Centre of Excellence in new materials, nanophotonics, additive laser-based technologies and new management organization systems, with competitive funding from the Research Executive Agency. This project involves collaboration between the German Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology and the University of Würzburg, on the one hand, and Wroclaw University of Technology and the Polish National Centre for Research and Development, on the other.

Nanotechnology is a key element of advanced manufacturing, which is being pursued by a widening circle of industrial countries that include Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea and USA. Advanced manufacturing is the focus of one of China’s 16 mega-engineering programmes to 2020, by which time the country plans to be ‘innovation-driven’. In 2014, advanced manufacturing was incorporated in Canada’s revised research strategy, Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation, with a focus on automation, including robotics, lightweight materials and technologies, additive manufacturing, quantum materials and nanotechnology.

Through advanced manufacturing, governments hope to enhance national competitiveness and create jobs. The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership launched by the US president in 2013 is no exception. Steered by a committee drawn from the industrial, labour and academic sectors, this partnership benefits from an investment of US$ 2.9 billion under the Revitalize American Manufacturing Act (2014). These funds, which are to be matched by private and non-federal partners, are being used to create an initial network of up to 15 institutes, including several with a focus on additive manufacturing, such as three-dimensional (3D) printing, digital manufacturing and design, lightweight manufacturing, wide band semiconductors, flexible hybrid electronics, integrated photonics, clean energy and revolutionary fibres and textiles.

Japan ranks sixth worldwide for the sheer volume of articles on nanotechnology, behind China, the USA, India, the Republic of Korea and Germany. However, industrial investment in nanotechnology dropped from ¥ 155 billion to ¥ 111 billion between 2008 and 2013 as private enterprises cut back on research spending in reaction to the global financial and economic crisis. Many firms moved their R&D and manufacturing centres abroad, in reaction to an overappreciated yen and a shrinking Japanese market. Although university funding for nanotechnology has risen to ¥ 55 billion since 2008, it remains well below industrial levels. Moreover, Japan is one of the rare cases where the volume of scientific articles has declined over the past decade. Consequently, Japan’s world share of articles has also shrunk, including in chemistry.

BRICS striving to become nanotechnology hubs

The BRICS (Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa) are all striving to become nanotechnology hubs. Their contribution to this field nevertheless remains relatively modest, with China counting 25 articles per million population, the Russian Federation 23, Brazil and South Africa 9 and India 6. Although their academic output in nanotechnology is growing, related patents and products are not always progressing at the same pace: in 2015, the ratio of nanotechnology patents to articles on nanotechnology was 2.47 per 100 articles for South Africa, 2.28 for China, 1.67 for Brazil, 1.61 for India and 0.72 for the Russian Federation, according to Statnano. In comparison, Italy recorded 4.46, the UK 8.39 and Canada 10.08.

In Brazil, the number of articles on nanotechnology climbed from 5.5 to 9.2 per million inhabitants between 2009 and 2013 but the average number of citations per article dropped over the same period, from 11.7 to 2.6. By 2013, Brazilian output in nanoscience represented 1.6% of the world total, compared to 2.9% for Brazilian scientific articles, in general.

In 2008, Brazil made a strategic investment. It established the National Nanotechnology Laboratory for Agriculture (LNNA) and, three years later, the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LNNano). This investment, combined with federal and state funding of specific research projects in related fields, ‘has led to considerable growth in the number of researchers working in materials science’, observes the UNESCO Science Report.

It recalls that technology tends to be transferred from public research institutions to the private sector in Brazil. A 2014 report by the Brazilian Materials Research Society cites researcher Rubén Sinisterra from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, who has been developing drugs to alleviate hypertension. Sinisterra expresses confidence that Brazilian universities now have the capacity to develop nanoscale materials for drug delivery but also observes that ‘our domestic pharmaceutical companies don’t have internal R&D capabilities, so we have to work with them to push new products and processes out to market’.

In the Russian Federation, on the other hand, over 500 companies were engaged in manufacturing nanotech products in 2013, according to the state corporation Rusnano. In 2010, the UNESCO Science Report had stressed the significance of the Russian Strategy for Nano-industry Development (2007). By 2013, sales of nanotechnology-related products exceeded RUB 416 billion (more than US$ 15 billion). This is 11% over the target fixed in 2007 and means that the industry has grown 2.6 times since 2011.

Almost one-quarter of Russian nanotech products are exported. Moreover, export earnings doubled between 2011 and 2014 to RUB 130 billion. By the end of 2013, Rusnano was supporting 98 projects and had established 11 centres for technological development and transfer (nanocentres) and four engineering companies in different regions. These specialize in composite materials, power engineering, radiation technologies, nano-electronics, biotechnology, optics and plasma technologies, information and communication technologies, etc.. Substantial achievements have been made in such areas as nanoceramics, nanotubes, composites and both hybrid and medical materials. Since its inception in 2011, the Centre for Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials in Saransk has begun manufacturing unique nanopincers for microscopes that allow particles on a scale of 30 nanometers to be captured; this is a real breakthrough, with a multitude of potential applications in electronics and medicine.

A foresight exercise undertaken between 2007 and 2010 identified nanotechnology as the country’s sixth research priority for civil-purpose applications, after transport systems and space (40% of total funding), safe and efficient energy systems (16%), ICTs (12%), environmental management (7%) and life sciences (6%). Although the production of nanomaterials has since grown considerably, academic articles on nanotechnology do not seem to be progressing as quickly as in some other economies. Nor does Russian scientific activity appear to have translated, as yet, into a significant amount of patented inventions. There were just 0.72 patents per 100 articles on nanotechnology in 2015, down from 1.18 five years earlier.

In India, meanwhile, the development of nanotechnology is ‘currently oriented more towards building human capacity and physical infrastructure than the commercialization of products, which remain minimal,’ analyses the UNESCO Science Report. ‘According to the Consumer Products Inventory, only two personal care products based on nanotechnology have, so far, originated from India, compared to 59 for China. Moreover, the firm which developed these two products in India is a foreign multinational’.

China’s traditional strengths lie in materials science, chemistry and physics. It contributed about one-quarter of all articles published in materials science and chemistry between 2004 and 2014, compared to 17% of those in physics and less than 9% of those in molecular biology and genetics, according to the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China. China is also the BRICS country with the greatest research intensity: 2.08% of GDP in 2013, compared to 1.15% in Brazil (2012), 1.12% in the Russian Federation, 0.82% in India (2011) and 0.73% in South Africa (2012).

The first step in India’s plan to become a ‘global knowledge hub’ in nanotechnology was its Nano Mission Project, launched within the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007–2012) as part of the government’s strategy to maintain India’s capacity for high-tech inventions by investing in new areas. This project has since funded about 240 research projects. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012–2017) has taken this initiative forward, with plans for the establishment of an institute dedicated to nanoscience and technology and the introduction of postgraduate programmes in 16 universities and institutions across the country. In 2014, the government set up a nanomanufacturing technology centre within the existing Central Manufacturing Technology Institute, in order to strengthen the centre’s activities through a public–private partnership.

Iran and Malaysia could be two countries to watch

Malaysia and Iran may be two countries to watch in coming years. Both recorded strong growth in the number of articles on nanotechnology between 2009 and 2013. Iran now ranks seventh and Malaysia 22nd for this indicator. The number of articles per million population has quadrupled to 41 in Malaysia and, in Iran, has tripled to 59, overtaking Japan in the process. Few patents are being granted to inventors, as yet, however. The ratio of nanotechnology patents to articles was 0.41 per 100 articles for  Iran and 0.73 for Malaysia in 2015.

Research in nanotechnology has taken off in Iran since the Nanotechnology Initiative Council (NIC) was founded in 2002. The council determines the general policies for the development of nanotechnology and co-ordinates their implementation. It provides facilities, creates markets and helps the private sector to develop relevant R&D activities. In the past decade, 143 nanotech companies have been established in eight industries. More than one-quarter of these are found in the health care industry, compared to just  3% in the automotive industry.

Today, five research centres specialize in nanotechnology, including the Nanotechnology Research Centre at Sharif University, which established Iran’s first doctoral programme in nanoscience and nanotechnology a decade ago. Iran also hosts the International Centre on Nanotechnology for Water Purification, established in collaboration with UNIDO in 2012. In 2008, NIC established an Econano network to promote the scientific and industrial development of nanotechnology among fellow members of the Economic Cooperation Organization, namely Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Many countries are investing in nanotechnology

A growing number of countries now consider nanotechnology a research priority. This is the case of Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Croatia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia, for instance. However, the development of nanotechnology demands a sustained investment. Of the 14 countries listed above, only Slovenia currently devotes more than 1% of GDP to R&D.

Here, too, governments are establishing national centres with a focus on nanotechnology. Nepal, for instance, plans to set up a National Nanotechnology Centre as part of its Thirteenth Three-Year Plan to 2016. In the Philippines, the Centre for Nanotechnology Application in Agriculture, Forestry and Industry at the University of the Philippines Los Baños dates from 2014. It comes on the heels of the Technology Transfer Act (2010), which intends to enhance innovation by providing a framework and support system for the ownership, management, use and commercialization of intellectual property arising from government-funded R&D.

Governments are also fostering university–industry collaboration to nurture the development of nanotechnology. Morocco’s third InnovAct programme (2011), for instance, provides up to 30 enterprises each year that are oriented towards nanotechnology and other strategic fields with logistical support and the financial means to recruit university graduates to work on their research project. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) acts as a technology incubator by fostering ties between research universities and between the public and private sectors in a wide range of areas, including nanotechnology and advanced materials. KACST also acts as the national patent office.

The Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) goes a step farther. This joint venture was established in 2008 between the National Science Foundation and Sri Lankan corporate giants that include Brandix, Dialog, Hayleys and Loadstar, with the aim of commercializing nanotechnology. SLINTEC specializes in five main areas: smart agriculture, such as nanotechnology-based slow-release fertilizers; rubber nano-composites like high-performance tyres; apparel and textiles like smart yarns; consumer products such as detergents or cosmetics; and nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology got its first institutional boost in Sri Lanka in 2006 with the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative but development of the industrial sector has accelerated since the Cabinet approved the National Biotechnology Policy in 2010 and National Nanotechnology Policy two years later. In 2013, the Nanotechnology and Science Park opened, along with the Nanotechnology Centre of Excellence, which provides high-quality infrastructure for nanotechnology research. By 2013, Sri Lanka ranked 83rd for the number of articles on nanotechnology per million population, behind Pakistan (74th), India (65th) and, above all, Iran (27th) but ahead of Bangladesh (90th) and Nepal (85th).

Convergent technologies helping to modernize Arab curricula

Nanotechnology is one of the priority areas for cooperation of the new Arab Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation. Governments plan to develop applications in areas ranging from health and pharmaceuticals to foodstuffs, environmental management, desalination and energy production. The strategy stresses human resource development and encourages international co-operation in a total of 14 scientific disciplines and strategic economic sectors, including convergent technologies such as bio-informatics or nanobiotechnology.

Biotechnology, nanotechnology, ICTs and cognitive sciences are all convergent technologies, meaning that they overlap considerably. Since 2011, a UNESCO network has been developing linkages between academia and industry, in order to reorient academia towards problem-solving and remove the barriers between disciplines that currently hinder innovation in the Arab world.

A top priority for the Network for the Expansion of Convergent Technologies in the Arab Region (NECTAR) has been to modernize university curricula, in collaboration with renowned Arab scientists based at universities in the USA and in Egypt, where the majority of specialists in convergent technologies can be found in the Arab region. NECTAR also targets technical colleges, as technicians are the group which gives convergent technologies their manufacturing edge.

NECTAR has developed a virtual Higher Industrial Diploma Certificate and a master’s degree in Applications of Nano-sciences. Initially, both programmes will be used to train university teaching staff (mainly PhD-holders). These staff members will then serve as the core team for the development of an undergraduate minor programme in nanosciences at each participating university. There should be strong demand for NECTAR graduates from industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petrochemicals, oil production, optoelectronics, electronics, information technology, fertilizers, surface coating, building technology, foodstuffs and the automotive industry.

(1) Pierre le Hir (2016) Des nanoparticules dans nos assiettes. Le Monde, 15 June.

Note: The Statnano data for 2015 cited in the present article have been updated, as the UNESCO Science Report was published in November 2015.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030

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