Why Nanotechnology, and How?
Nanotechnology is the study, design, creation, synthesis, and manipulation of structures at the scale of 1—100 nanometers and the use of such structures for applications. The ultimate goal of nanotechnology is to fabricate machines at the molecular level, that can replicate themselves, and manufacture larger structures atom-by-atom , , . The ability to observe and manipulate individual atoms, facilitated by the development of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM), is making it a reality much sooner than any body had ever expected. The enabling power of such a manufacturing capability is anticipated to usher in a technological revolution of unprecedented magnitude.
In order to compete successfully in global technology, investing in existing technology alone is not sufficient and a significant portion of the investment must focus on cutting-edge science and technology . Key studies based on research publications and patents show that nanotechnology is the next frontier of science. Judging by the massive funding it is clear that, the developed countries such as, the US, Japan and the EU do not have any doubts about the transformative power of nanotechnology , . What may be surprising though, is the leading interest taken by developing nations such as India, China, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Philippines, and Thailand , , , , , . They too have already invested a significant portion of their science and technology budgets to promote nanotechnology. The reasons seem two fold. First, they may see it as an opportunity to leap frog their technologies and economies to be par with that of developed countries. Second they may have realized the great potential of nanotechnology for solving their myriad pressing social needs.
Sociologists and economists around the world are pointing out that, if appropriately developed, nanotechnology may hold the key for sustainable socio-economic development , , , , . They also point out the dangers of being left out. From a global perspective this danger amounts to a South-South divide. From Sri Lanka’s point of view the danger lies in ending up in the bottom half of the divide. Merely being nanotechnology proficient will only help us be users of the technology developed elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that such a technology will be tailored to cater to our socio-economic needs. Even if developed in such a way history tells us that it will not be cheap. In fact it may very well be completely unaffordable. Thus our objective in this race should be to become cutting edge nanotechnology developers focusing on building the technology that will carry us out of poverty.
To become nanotechnology experts we have to go a long way. The first thing that we should ask is: how far behind are we? Most of the developed countries such as the US, Japan and the EU, and developing countries such as India, China, and Brazil, began their respective nanotechnology initiatives only during this century. Thus, it is tempting to conclude that, time wise we do not seem to be that far behind. Before arriving at such a conclusion we have to take into account the existing scientific infrastructure and human resources of those countries. Comparatively what are our capabilities? To a large extent the answer lies in the observation that the field is at an embryonic stage where bulk of the research is still based on theoretical and simulation studies .
All three areas of natural science: Physics, Chemistry and Biology have now simultaneously arrived at the nanofrontier. Any person working at the molecular level in their respective scientific areas is a true nanotechnologist. At nanometer length scales all known classical macroscopic models breakdown, inertial effects become negligible, surface effects become prominent compared to bulk effects and quantum effects start becoming increasingly significant. These pervasive features provide an unescapable unifying theme to nanoscience. The bulk of today’s nanoscience research is focused on understanding and using these novel features for applications. Such aspects make nanoscience interesting and much more than mere miniaturization.
Much of the research is still at a theoretical and simulation level. In this context I believe that Sri Lanka does not lack the scientific human resources. However what we lack is an interaction between disciplines. Building such interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scientific activity is essential and may require a well planned out strategy. A tremendous hitherto untapped human resource potential is the expatriate scientific community. There is very little doubt about their enthusiasm to help. What is lacking is a mechanism. There are many renowned expatriate nanotechnologists spread out all over the world. Asking them to give up their highly successful careers, or in the least to dedicate a significant portion of their busy schedules, to come down here to Sri Lanka and run a nanotechnology program may be unrealistic. What may be realistic is collaborative research work and technical advisory. We should build a nanotechnology program centered around and run by local scientists working in close collaboration with the expatriate experts. Forging links and providing a common meeting ground will be the initial step towards such successful partnerships. The industry could play a crucial role in these efforts.
Having emphasized on the theoretical capabilities we should not down paly at any cost the monumental task played by real experiments. If we are to be serious contenders in the nanotechnology race we would eventually need to build up a solid experimental background to support the theoretical work. This in fact will be the most significant challenge that would face us due to the inadequate experimental capabilities available and the anticipated initial high cost involved in establishing such infrastructure. Nevertheless the only way to achieve this may be to exploit our strengths, theory and simulations, and then gradually build on experimental capability. Given the small size of the country and the short supply of existing nanotechnology studies a single AFM, and associated equipment like those needed for a clean room, may look like more than sufficient for us to get started. Even such modest requirements may run into several millions of US dollars.
In conclusion it is highly plausible that we are in fact more than capable. How soon we plan out, phase out and implement an appropriate strategy to identify the immediate applications of nanotechnology for the many social problems of Sri Lanka, the existing capabilities of the country’s scientists, a mechanism for interdisciplinary collaborative work, and a mechanism for collaborative work with expatriates will determine how far behind we are in the race to harness the great powers of nanotechnology.
 R. N. Kostoff, J. A. Stump, D. Johnson, J. S. Murday, C. G. Y. Lau, W. M. Tolles, "The Structure and Infrastructure of the Global Nanotechnology Literature", Journal of Nanoparticle Research, Springer Science, Vol 8, Issue 1, 2006.