'Nanotechnology is the ultimate frontier for mankind'

The Inquirer

Nanotechnology is the study of the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. It deals with structures of the size 100 nanometers or smaller, and involves developing materials or devices within that size.

Pulickel M AjayanDr Pulickel M Ajayan, professor in engineering at the mechanical engineering and materials science department of Rice University, Houston, is one of the pioneers in the field of carbon nanotubes. Considered to be the strongest and stiffest material discovered yet in terms of tensile strength, carbon nanotubes are important in nanotechnical engineering as well as in the production of everyday items like clothes and sportsgear to combat jackets. Recipient of numerous awards, Ajayan and his team created the darkest material known to man in 2008 — a carpet of carbon nanotubes that reflects only 0.045 per cent of the light.

A native of Kodungalloor in Kerala, Ajayan has given more than 230 invited talks, including several keynote and plenary lectures, in more than 20 countries. He was in Kochi recently to attend an international conference on nanotechnology.

Excerpts from an interview with R Gopakumar of Deccan Herald.

The ‘mystery’ behind nanotechnology is still not resolved...

There is no mystery. In fact, a lot of basic research on nano is about understanding the phenomenon. In nanotech, we are making and manipulating things and when we are doing it on a small scale, the properties change. We may be simply scaling things down, but we have to really know what we are doing because it may not be the same as when we started. One nano is just 3-4 atoms, in terms of fabricating, we cannot go any further. It is the ultimate frontier and when we reach there we’ll have to worry about it because there is nothing more. It is not just quantitative change but qualitative as well.

It has taken so long and yet nanotechnology still seems to be in its infancy...

Any technology takes time to develop. I think we are too impatient and the media (in the US), which has been reporting the developments has been raising expectations. A lot of entrepreneurial research has been going on in the US. There are some areas like electronics where there is no alternative but to go nano.

How is nanotechnology going to impact our lives?

Technologies are needed to improve our lifestyle and there are lots of innovative ideas in nanotechnology. We want computers to run fast. I am not sure how important that is but that will happen for sure. Forms will change and we might want things to be smaller and flexible which may enable us to even embed things in our wall. Surely, lives will get better and healthcare will get better. Nano is not a specific function-based technology, it will be an enabling factor, be it in the area of electronics, energy storage or medicine. Batteries will run longer, planes will become lighter, in the delivery of drug in the body, non-invasive targetised radiation will be possible. Electronics is probably the best example of its specific benefit. We can put everything in completely flexible format.

What about the side-effects?

A: Toxicity is one, but it is an obstacle faced by any new material. You have to be careful about what you use. As responsible scientists, new materials have to be tested. In the US, there are many labs specifically looking at toxicology. The environmental impact should also be assessed. But that doesn’t mean that we should be paranoid about it.

India’s share of the nanotech pie seems to be too little for a big country...

A: India’s research enterprise is just about expanding. There was a long gestation period when higher education was neglected and I think that is changing dramatically. There was no research or infrastructure and industrial collaboration is yet to happen here. In my group we get money from defence, National Science Foundation and a lot of money from industry. If we compare US and India now, India has much more opportunity because it is expanding exponentially.

What should be the priority of universities?

They should have nano-related courses linked to other curriculum. Nano is a very inter-disciplinary science, as in my group which has students from different disciplines like chemistry and  physics. But the important thing is that productivity or innovation in university should be incentive-linked. Here, if somebody invents something, most probably he or she gets nothing. That is where it is different in countries like the US where you make a name or invent something, you take the benefit. We must have some means of incentivising innovation, new ideas.

Is your group close to some new innovations?

We always come up with new material. Now, the interesting material is graphene which is also carbon-based, though it is two dimensional. In the US, people are hungry for innovation, even I write so many proposals every month.

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