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Impact of Nanotechnology on the Asia-Pacific Region

Monday, March 1st, 2010

The term nanotechnology conjures up something very small in size to be measured in the range of nanometers. It is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale, according to popular definitions given by experts in the field.

When the technology became popular two decades ago the aim was to build machines as small as possible or just a few nanometers wide. Scientists and engineers wanted to make motors, robot arms and even computers on a molecular scale. This was considered to be weird and only later did the technology gain some acceptance.

According to a research study, nanotechnology is defined as the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlled manipulation of size and shape at the nanometer scale, i.e.; atomic, molecular and macromolecular, that produces structures, devices and systems with at least one novel or superior characteristic or property.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner for Physics, defines nanotechnology as the building up of components from the basic level with atomic precision. He said that very small working components can be made, but it is too difficult because we are too big to make them. The success in building such systems will result in a manufacturing revolution as was predicted by many scientists and is seen in some sectors already.

Presently, nanotechnology is mostly confined to research and development efforts taking place in laboratories around the world. The nanotechnology products created are made using nanotechnology-enabled materials like carbon nanotubes, nanoparticles of a substance or made by using nanotechnology processes like nanopatterning. This is an endeavour to make better products known as nanoproducts at lower cost as well as a higher volume of production.

In summary, nanotechnology or nanotech can be defined as the study of the controlling of matter on a molecular scale concerning structures of sizes measured in nanometers and includes the development of materials or devices within that size. Like any other new technology, the harmful implications are also unfathomable although it has great potential in creating new materials and may be useful in applications encompassing medicine, electronics and energy production.

However, the negative implications of nanotechnology have been sidelined at the moment with governments and other agencies keen on boosting, aiding and promoting nanotechnology on a larger scale.

The Asia Pacific Nanotechnology Forum

The Asia Pacific Nanotechnology Forum (APNF ) is one such example of an international effort to service the Asia Pacific region by “Facilitating Growth through Nanotechnology.” The APNF is a collaborative network that will benefit member countries educationally, socially, environmentally and economically by focusing on regional and global nanotechnology issues. Supported by 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the forum includes Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the UAE and Vietnam.

The APNF serves as a platform for networking across the Asia Pacific region between governments, industry and venture capital markets. The Forum is a not-for-profit non-government organization that coordinates nanotechnology development and programs for encouraging regional collaborations among governments, industry, R&D institutions and scientists.

The APNF organizes annual conferences, symposia, workshops, seminars and exhibitions concerning nanotechnology. It was a major supporting organization of several initiatives and nanotechnology events in Asia, Europe and the United States.

It has successfully organized events through APNF workshops on societal impact in China as well as organizing the Malaysia Nanotech Forum and other international and bilateral nanotech events in Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan. To further its initiatives, the forum started a human resource exchange program between Malaysia and Japan.

The objectives of the APNF are to increase collaboration in nanotechnology in the Asia- Pacific region through information sharing, human and physical resources and expertise. Member economies will have mutual access to major nanotechnology infrastructure. Also, members are required to initiate, promote and manage scientific and technology research projects. This will enable regional, economic and environmental development via joint projects to deal with major regional issues and the development of emerging economies.

Emphasis is given on boosting public awareness and education of nanotechnology and associated social, environmental, health and economic issues. The APNF acts as an advocacy group for nanotechnology covering the Asia-Pacific region and takes care of regional representation of nanotechnology at global forums.

Nanotechnology – Asian Scenario

The rapid development of nanotechnology and nanoscience has resulted in nanomaterials that are used in various consumer goods and industrial products.

A good example of this is the introduction of fireproof and waterproof clothes produced by a Chinese firm a few years back. This is a multifunction material made from nano-bamboo carbon fiber. The material is made by a special synthesis process involving the grinding of bamboo carbon into nano powder followed by processing into bamboo carbon fiber. Similar in looks to ordinary clothes, these are used mostly for making labor insurance clothes and outdoor sportswear.

In 2007 Bharathiar University in Coimbatore, India, signed an MOU with the Institute for Nano, Micro and Neuro Electronics, Sensors and Systems, at the University of Arkansas, for establishing a nano-facility on the university campus. The research facility enables the exchange of knowledge, technology, expertise and faculty between the two institutions. At present, the university is offering several undergraduate and postgraduate programs besides M.Phil and Ph.D programs in microbial nanotechnology and other related fields.

The nano-facility is involved in the research of new techniques in the field of developing preventive medicine for Parkinson’s disease and heart attacks and making wireless sensors for the monitoring and control of cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

Experts opine that the economic development of a country depends on innovations and it is imperative for countries poised for growth to leverage nano-technology for future economic growth. But the technology has to be handled carefully, as it may turn into an undesirable tool in the hands of anti-social elements.

Japan also started investing in nanotechnology some years back. Japan’s Toshiba Corp. reportedly bought nano-imprint lithography tools from a U.S.-based firm. The Imprio 250 tool is useful in NAND flash development and is based on the nano-imprint lithography technology. This technology is suitable for semiconductor applications, making hard disk drives (HDD ) and lightemitting diodes (LED ) and is much cheaper than optical scanners.

Disadvantages

New technologies christened as ‘disruptive technologies’ have made drastic changes in society from time immemorial. After the advent of microscale technologies which spawned microelectronics and telecommunication industry solutions, nanoscale technologies are here to make an impact. By manipulating matter on the scale of atoms and molecules, scientists look for means to tackle all crises like climate change, diseases and even poverty.

In their endeavor to produce nanoparticles and nanomaterials, scientists are transforming existing materials to make new ones. Carbon nanotubes can replace silicon, which can be used to make ultra high-speed computers. Nanodevices in molecular drug delivery can penetrate a tumor cell by targeting it chemically when injected into the bloodstream. Nanoparticle films with embedded sensors can detect food pathogens and food spoilage. A nanosensor can measure blood glucose in diabetics. Even cancer can be monitored and cured using the ‘quantum dot’ technology.

Arteminism is a natural product used in Chinese medicine to make anti-malarial drugs. The short supply of the product has been resolved, as it can now be synthesized using nanotechnology. Also Vivagel is a microbicide developed using nanotechnology. This reduces the transmission of HI V and other sexually transmitted diseases. Such research may be actually shifting the focus on easily available, less expensive alternatives and may compromise public safety, according to experts.

However nanotechnology’s major use is in replacing industrial raw materials. If there is full success in the development of alternative nanomaterials to rubber, copper, etc., the trade of such industrial raw materials will be widely affected.

Also, there seems to be no proper regulation or monitoring for such new technologies.

“Hundreds of products containing unregulated and unlabeled nanoscale particles are commercially available. And yet, no national government has developed a regulatory regime that addresses the nanoscale or the societal impacts of the invisibly small. We should not allow the private sector to decide on who will own the technologies and regulate their use,” said Edward Deveza, Technology Licensing Officer at the University of the Philippines System to development.asia.

This century is going to witness continued development in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Nanomaterials are manufactured on a large scale and are incorporated in consumer goods and industrial products. Although offering advantages in the form of increased productivity, drug efficacy, agricultural benefits and so on, the actual effects of nanoparticles on our body and environment are not fully known.

With several economies in the rapidly growing stage in the Asia-Pacific region, due diligence should be given to the adoption of nanotechnology. Safety should not be compromised for high-speed growth. The onus lies in the hands of government bodies and the scientific community to ensure public safety and prevent harmful environmental impact.

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