From our televisions, laptops and mobile phones to the printers and wearable’s, a significant aspect of our daily lives, is already being touched by disruptive technologies. Many have made their way from the labs to our living rooms and workplaces. The disruptive technologies that dominate our lives today were set off by advances in computing and ICT in the late 20th century. Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Cloud Computing, Material Sciences are only some of the technologies that have taken giant leaps over the last couple of years; and, they are are driving innovations across sectors.
Every week if not every day we’re confronted with the marvel of these integrated technologies solving one or the other so called unsolvable challenges. Many of these innovative solutions seem right out of some sci-fi book. Disruptive technologies are truly changing the way we live and one key technology that is enabling this is nanotechnology. With these technologies at work, the digital, physical and biological spheres are converging faster than the speed of light.
The question is, do these disruptive technologies only impact the way businesses are done? Can these technologies, especially nanotechnology, be harnessed for the larger social good? Can India leverage nanotechnology solutions to address the challenges of economic growth and societal development?
Manufacturing which has continued to operate in the conventional format for long is fast moving towards Industry 4.0; it is no longer a phenomenon expected to unfold in the future. Driven by Big Data Analytics, Autonomous Robots and Internet of Things (IoT) Industry 4.0 is here & spreading fast. A significant focus is also being placed on disruptive innovations for the larger societal good, enabling nations to pursue the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which are an imperative for poverty, illiteracy eradication.
Nanotechnology, one key area of scientific research and application has been growing exponentially, with the potential to integrate numerous other technologies across sectors to change products & services processes and make them more efficient & adaptable. With nano-technological processes and new material developments chip memory capacities have been enhanced to enable systems to store, manage and transfer massive data as well as communicate in a cost effective manner. Nanotechnology is thus counted amongst the key enabling technologies for Industry 4.0.
Nanotechnology is helping to develop new properties in materials, making them stronger, lighter and smarter. Intelligent materials that combine features of nanosensors, Nano computers and Nano-machines are also being developed. As a result, automobiles are likely to become lighter, more efficient energy consumers and the body of the vehicle can become intelligent enough to self-correct after an impact.
On nanotechnology’s potential to solve societal challenges, about 3 decades back, Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley had said “Most of the BIG problems we now face and will face in future [Energy, Water, Food Supply and Health] will be solved by the application of “nanotechnology … Expecting Big Things from Small Things.” The UN has also long recognized new solutions that nanotechnologies can provide for millions of people who lack access to basic services, such as safe drinking water, reliable energy, healthcare, food production, nutrition, ICT and education. For example, Researchers are developing tiny materials that would reduce the impact of pollution on climate change by reducing carbon dioxide from the air, capture toxic pollutants from water and degrade solid waste into useful products.
On the societal front, the major impact envisaged is in basic healthcare. Nano engineered products can be used not only for diagnostic but also drug delivery systems. Use of nano robots to target malignant diseases with minimum side effects is already being discussed. These are only few of the mega possibilities in several sectors of high societal impact. With almost three decades of research, nanotechnology is emerging as a versatile platform that could provide economical and environmentally acceptable solutions to the global sustainability challenges facing society.
While India is one of the fastest growing economies and is an emerging Global Power, we still continue to struggle with a range of social challenges facing developing nations. Building our human capital, improving our competitiveness as a country, with basic amenities such as electric power, clean drinking water, pollution free environment and primary & basic healthcare available to our citizens, continue to remain our growth challenges. Given these imperatives our Prime Minister has launched several initiatives such as Make in India, Clean India, Digital India, Skill India, Start Up India. These form the pillars of the PM’s goal of driving inclusive and sustainable development. Culminating in the vision of smart cities, these initiatives have the potential to propel us ahead as a developed nation.
These initiatives offer India the opportunity to leapfrog technologies by integrating various nanotechnology innovations to meet the growth challenges being targeted. Very early on, Government of India realized the far reaching impact of nanomaterials and their potential to enable India to address these critical social challenges. Special Government schemes have supported R&D and end-to-end projects leading to tangible processes, products and technologies. The Government’s nano-mission, for example, is an umbrella program for capacity building and applied research focused on the country’s development. Government of India has also encouraged collaborative relationships between industry and research institutions. India is thus ranked third in the world in nanotechnology research and sixth in terms of papers published.
It is heartening to note that industry has made significant progress in the area of nanotechnology. CII took the lead in 2002 under the National Committee on Technology, to create a growth environment for the industry. Over the years, some of India’s big corporate houses have also invested in nanotechnology development, both to improve the quality of their existing products as also to solve social challenges. Some key areas include nano-electronics, clean technologies, renewable power, and biotechnology.
In the environment of fast evolving technologies, the question is how can India harness its leadership position in nanotechnology research to become a technological frontrunner? Can India develop low cost solutions to encourage widespread applicability to meet the societal challenges? Should our roadmap for nanotechnology also take into account the ethical concerns surrounding these solutions? I believe it is time to redraw India’s roadmap for nanotechnology development to keep a step ahead of the technology evolving at the speed of light.