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Going Nano

Going Nano
It looks like an ordinary golf club. And for sure it will not help you beat Tiger Woods. But the shaft made from nanotube carbon fibres may help improve your handicap. That’s what golfers want – a little leg up from science.
Not only golfers, users of nanotech products in diverse fields—from electronics, health, engineering, telcom to such mundane items such as scratch-proof glass—are finding that they are getting better value for money. Small has never been so beautiful.
Nanotechnology is the control of matter at the atomic or molecular level, less than the size of 100 nanometers –that’s one billionth of a metre, or 40,000 times smaller than the human hair. It has the potential to create many new materials and devices with wide-ranging applications. Yet it has also raises many of the issues which any new technology triggers, including concerns about toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a US-based non-profit body says that around 1,000 new nanotech products are currently available globally, hitting the market at a pace of three to four a week. According to American Elements, a leading manufacturer of advanced products, thousands of nanoparticles, nanopowders and nanotubes products are already playing a significant role in industry, environment, medicine, science and even at home.
Rare Earth nanoparticles are being used for removal of excess phosphate in the blood of patients. Magnetic nanoparticles are showing promising application in treatment of cancer, magnetic storage and magnetic resonance imaging. Carbon nanotubes, which are the stiffest and strongest known fibers and have unique electrical properties, are being used in flat screen displays, scanning probe microscopes and golf clubs. Platinum based nanomaterials are being used to develop small membrane fuel cells, an answer perhaps to the energy crisis. For the skin-conscious, nanoscale ZnO is being used to create transparent sunscreen lotions.
In India, nanotech products have just started hitting the market. Among the first companies to introduce them is Kolkata-based United Nanotech Products, a joint venture between a subsidiary of United Credit Industries and US-based NEI Corporation. The company has launched cathode and anode nanomaterials designed to deliver high performance in lithium-based batteries. “As personal electronic devices get more compact, the batteries that power them must get smaller and lighter, store more energy and retain capacity. This is where nanomaterial battery electrodes have a great potential,” Debashis Dabriwal, managing director of United Nanotech said. The electrodes can also be used in hybrid vehicles, power tools and military applications.
The company’s Rs 14-crore Howrah plant went on stream two months ago and Dabriwal believes he has a strong market in Southeast Asia. He plans to step up production three-fold in the next five years. According to him, not many nanoproducts are being manufactured yet in the country. “Although lots of research work is taking place, unfortunately we do not get to see much of commercial activities. I think what is needed is more industry-research institute cooperation to foster the growth of nanotech products,” said Dabriwal.
One institute at the cutting edge is Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research where the nanoscience unit is synthesising films and powders and inorganic nonotubes and nanowires. It’s also looking at nanocrystals of various metal oxides, which show strong magnetism. Another centre of research is Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Arindam Ghosh, assistant professor at its Department of Physics says that there’s a ‘paradigm shift’ in material and device designs. “Nanotech offer endless possibilities to search for exotic material properties and new electronic applications as also unique combinations. For example, carbon nanotubes are not only excellent electronic transistors, but also found to be the strongest material known.”
A few companies are getting on to the production bandwagon. Auto Fibre Craft is producing nanosilver and nanogold used in electronic products, including conducting inks for printers. Dabur is offering its nanoparticle Paclitaxel formulation against lung cancer, which is said to avoid reactions the earlier conventional drug produced.
But if nanotechnology is all that great, why are there doubts about its usage? Much of course, has to do with the fear of the unknown. Because of their sheer small size, nanomaterials can permeate through any barrier and manufacturing processes and product safety tests do not account for such small and reactive particles. Nanoparticles pass through air and water filters, and may even slip undetected into our bodies and into our cells – with unknown effects.
Nanopollution is the name given to the waste generated by nanodevices or during the nanomaterials manufacturing process. This kind of waste may be dangerous, again because of its size. Writing in Chain Reaction, Gyorgy Scrinis, a research associate at the Globalism Institute argues that it is not currently possible to “precisely predict or control the ecological impacts of the release of these nano-products into the environment.”
Says IIS’ Ghosh: “noncarcenogenic materials at nanoscales have not posed a serious threat to health and safety, while those which are carcenogenic are to be handled with care anyway. Although no accurate report of health hazard by penetrating nanomaterial through human skin exists handling of nanomaterials in laboratories are generally done with great care and safety.”
For the developing world, nanotech has its own set of benefits and risks. In a country like India, it may provide new solutions for the millions who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education. The 2004 UN task force on science, technology and innovation noted that some of the advantages of nanotech include high productivity, low cost, and modest requirements for materials and energy. Also, it uses less labour, requires less land and lower maintenance. But the benefits should be seen against the potential risk to the environment, human health and worker safety.
At the moment, though, most of the fears are just that—fears. But there’s a great challenge before the manufacturers on how to deal with nanopollution. Perhaps there’s a need for regulation in this area which could then restore the balance between the benefits and costs — and release the technology to usher in the brave new world it has promised.

With inputs from Ritwik Mukherjee in Kolkata and Dhiren Dhuku in Delhi

Varun Dutt is a doctoral scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, PA

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May 26, 2009 - 3:44 PM Comment (1)