The emergence of nanoscience in India

UPCOMING Thanks to some scientific advancements and much-needed government largesse, nanoscience is picking up fast in India, writes Madhukara Putty

The emergence of nanoscience in India

Can you imagine ultra-small objects, propelled by magnetic fields that can move inside your body and deliver drugs at predefined locations? How about tiny sensors that measure the moisture content in the soil, and help farmers decide how much water to be used? These are just two of the numerous technologies Indian scientists are trying to develop in their nanoscience research laboratories spread across the country.

One nanometre is a one-billionth of a metre. It is used for notifying extremely small lengths, normally the lengths that are encountered at the atomic and molecular level. Our hair which is so thin, is a hundred thousand times thicker than a nanometre. A water molecule, with a couple of hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, is not even one nanometre wide. Many electronic circuits that are behind our increasingly connected world, have many switches that are about one hundred nanometres wide. That means, about a thousand of them can be comfortably packed side by side on the tip of a human hair!

Thanks to a lot of financial support from the Government over the last decade, India is at the forefront of nanoscience and nanotechnology research today. In 2014, with 9,191 research papers, India was the third highest producer of articles related to nanoscience and technology. The country was next only to China and United States, which produced 40,512 and 21,931 articles respectively.

Numbers speak
According to the data from the US Patent Office, Indian scientists procured 82 patents in 2014 alone. This was comparatively higher, with respect to the 96 patents they procured from 2011 and 2013. The year 2015 is all set to see much more activity with 22 patents secured in the first three months. While obtaining patents do not automatically translate to usable products, they are definitely a measure of the innovation happening in the country.

Such staggering numbers couldn’t have come at a better time. According to a study conducted by the Government of India, in 2008-09, India consumed electronic products worth USD 45 billion. By 2020, the Indian market for the electronics industry is expected to explode to USD 400 billion. However, in 2008-09, less than half of the electronic products sold were made in India. At the current rate of growth, by 2020, India can only cater to about a quarter of the market demand, and electronic imports may well exceed oil imports.

Recognising this alarming situation, the Government has given a big boost to research and development in the area of nanotechnology. Over the last few years, it has opened up a good number of nanotechnology research centres across IITs and IISc. Provided with world class research facilities, these laboratories are training students in the frontier areas of nanoscience and technology. Students who are trained today become the drivers of the nanotechnology industry in India tomorrow.

Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, is the earliest nanotechnology research and development facility in the country. Barely a decade ago, such facilities did not exist in India’s educational institutions. Most of the students had to be satisfied with the equations they learnt in the textbooks.

“In the US, people begin to tinker with stuff from an early age. The education system there lays a lot of emphasis on getting hands-on experience, which is not the case in India. We wanted to change that. We just wanted to develop a place where our kids get an opportunity to tinker with stuff and get their hands dirty”, says Professor Rudra Pratap, Chairman of CeNSE.

He along with his colleagues were instrumental in the development of CeNSE, which is one of the early places in India to start research and development in nanoscience and technology. The Centre also has strong connections to industry, and supports a handful of start-ups that are trying to convert laboratory innovations into usable products.

Of late, many research groups in the IITs have joined and are doing quality research. The labs with energetic students and motivated faculty are bubbling with activity to find innovative solutions to unique problems India is facing today. The incubation facilities in the IITs has resulted in start-ups which have already developed products from their own academic research. Nanoscience and technology, though in early stages, is set to grow, and is poised to take India to the next electronic revolution. Having missed the semiconductor revolution, India can’t afford to lag behind in nanoscience.

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