Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka Can ‘Leap-Frog’ Into The Future Through Nanotechnology

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Open campaign for learning nanotechnology

When the new students arrived in the Bangkok-based international university, Asian Institute of Technology a month ago, a poster displayed practically on every wall on campus had invited students to offer courses on nanotechnology. It had boldly announced: “Nanotechnology will be the future of the scientific world and students would immensely benefit by offering those courses. Such an open campaign for enlisting students in nanotechnology courses has been very common in universities in advanced countries supported by leading private firms. But it is still a rarity in higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka where the subject matter is not yet known even within the faculties of sciences.”

Initiative by SID Sri Lanka Chapter

To fill the vacuum, an international think-tank – the Sri Lanka Chapter of the Washington DC-based Society for International Development or SID – had organised a conference in Colombo two weeks ago on the apt theme ‘Technology and Development: Can nanotechnology leap-frog the development process?’ The current President of SID – Sri Lanka Chapter Dr. Upananda Vidanapathirana, explained why the conference was initiated: “Looking at emerging global trends and developments in the technology sphere, it is essential to position Sri Lanka to take full advantage of these opportunities for the economy to reach a higher growth momentum. Nanotechnology is considered one of the fastest growing sectors and one that is projected to grow exponentially into the next decade.”

An assembly of a gamut of experts and policy makers

To attain this goal SID – Sri Lanka Chapter had assembled a gamut of policymakers and experts on the subject to address the conference. From the Government’s side, it was addressed by two bigwigs in the science and technology field in Sri Lanka – Senior Minister of Scientific Affairs Tissa Vitharana and Minister of Technology, Research and Atomic Power Patalie Champika Ranawaka.

It was also addressed by Cambridge University Don and Sri Lankan-born top scientist Professor Gehan Amaratunga. Three other experts on the subject – Professor Ajith de Alwis of Moratuwa University, Dr. Bandula Perera of Public Utilities Commission and Anushka Wijesinghe of the Institute of Policy Studies, participated in the subsequent panel discussion.

Sri Lanka’s snail pace march, while the world is moving fast

The initiative by SID – Sri Lanka Chapter to bring both policy-makers and experts on the subject together to a single forum is commendable. When other countries had in fact leapfrogged in nanotechnology a long time ago, Sri Lanka’s track record in that respect had not been that encouraging. Singapore, before the advent of the new millennium, instructed all its higher education institutions to concentrate on research and education in nanotechnology, among others, and supported both the Nanyang Institute of Technology and the National University of Singapore with generous government grants to undertake research in the subject.

South Korea, through government funding, initiated a 15-year nanotechnology development initiative in 2001 with the objective of joining the league of world’s nanotechnology leaders by 2015. Several countries in the region jumped the bandwagon of South Korea to develop partnerships in nanotechnology research and development work. Two such countries are Thailand and India.

A Lux Research Report – an independent research and advisory firm based in Boston, USA – issued in 2010 has categorised South Korea as a dominant nanotechnology nation in the world among three other nations, namely, USA, Germany and Japan. It has also identified the UK – the country which came up with nanotechnology initial research through its University of Sussex with Harry Kroto as the main researcher – as an ivory tower nation with high nano knowledge. Similarly, China and India are emerging nations in the field (available here ).

Public-private partnership in nanotechnology research
Sri Lanka’s nanotechnology initiative bore fruits with the establishment of the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, or SLINTEC, a product of indefatigable efforts of Senior Minister Tissa Vitharana. This writer recalls a meeting with him in 2008 at which he explained the enormous difficulties he faced in setting up a research institute in Sri Lanka due to the lukewarm attitude of top policymakers.

Thus, the leftist-policy oriented Vitharana went for a novel model of establishing SLINTEC as a public-private partnership at which research was linked to commercial development through the private sector. Now of course Sri Lanka has gone full way in that direction by establishing a nanotechnology park in a satellite town close to Colombo. Yet, graduates passing out with nanotechnology as the major field do not find suitable employment fitting to their skills.

This writer recently met a first class honours graduate from a local university with nanotechnology as the field of specialisation working as an administrative officer in a government department signing certificates. Her choice of the job in the administrative service was due to her inability to secure a job in her specialised field for nearly three years. That was because there were no private or government nanotechnology-based institutions that could absorb her as a potential employee. In this scenario, the initiative by SID – Sri Lanka Chapter will create the necessary dialogue between the private sector at large and the budding nanotechnology research arm in the country to tap this resource base to design its destiny.

Nano, stronger but lighter than steel

Nano means very small – precisely, one billionth of a thing. A nanometre means one billionth of a metre. Its small size can be gauged by considering the fact that a virus is 100 nanometres large – the current accepted benchmark of the maximum size of a nano-machine. The discovery of nanocarbons of such a small size was the beginning of the subsequent nano revolution that has changed the world today. Nanocarbons are more efficient, stronger and lighter than many materials that have been so far discovered. Hence, as Gehan Amaratunga mentioned in his speech at the conference, nanocarbons will help the world to produce more with less signifying its economic efficiency, definitely a plus point which it presents in this resource-constrained world. A test done in 2010 has revealed that nanocarbon cylinders are 117 times stronger than steel and 30 times stronger than Kevlar used in bulletproof vests (available here ).

The application of nanotechnology in modern production processes are so diverse that there is practically no area where it is not used.

Nano to help you grow your body organs

In medicine, a nanomachine operated through a computer outside can travel along a human vein to a point blocked by solidified lipids and repair the same obviating the necessity for a bypass surgery or an angioplasty therapy. Drugs can be directly administered through the skin – a more portent method than taking them orally as is being done today.

In biomedical and bioengineering applications, nanotubes can be used as biodegradable scaffolds for growing body organs, generating tissues and engineering bones by genetic engineering means. Thus, a patient with a malfunctioning kidney, for instance, does not have to wait for a donor for a kidney transplant but could have his own kidney cultivated in a laboratory.

Structures through nanotubes

In structural applications, nanotubes have come in handy because of their lightness, flexibility and superior strength. The list of application is long from day to day structures like clothing, sports-gear, combat jackets and larger applications like building tall space elevators for astronomers and scientists to travel to satellites positioned in outer space with ease. The current method of travelling to space by getting them shot into space through rockets is not only costly but also risky. One important application of nanotubes is the replacement of steel in building large structures including high-rise buildings.

Nano to help solve global energy problem

In electricity, nanotubes are used for producing nanotube based transistors, lighter but more portent batteries, and electric wires and cables. But the most revolutionary application is the nano-solar – a nanoturbine that can harvest solar energy at a low cost. Current research done in many universities in USA, mainly the University of Notre Dame, has produced a low cost nanoparticle based low cost solar cells (available here ).

A California based company Innovalight is now planning to develop a nano-solar cell like a dot and mix it up with common paints so that it could be applied to outer walls of a building to harvest solar energy. This method will replace the current silicone based solar panels (available here ). Carbon nanotubes are also used as superior conductors of electricity and heat.

Four leading nations in nanotechnology

Thus, nanotechnology is the newest scientific revolution and its applications and uses are numerous. Its commercial harvesting has been the latest breakthrough for business firms. According to Texas Nanotechnology Report 2008, by 2020, the total size of the nanotechnology market will be around $ 2.6 trillion. However, this target has been reached by nanotechnology producers by 2014 and its size today is as big as that of information and communication technology market and much bigger than the biotechnology market.

But this has been attained by world nations by investing heavily in nanotechnology research and development – an enterprise undertaken by both the government sector and the private sector. In 2005, the total investment in R&D in nanotechnology by the four big nations, namely, USA, EU, Japan and South Korea amounted to $ 4.4 billion. By 2009, this has gone up to $ 18 billion.

The world’s largest nanotechnology researcher has been USA where the annual research publications on the subject exceed 18,000. There has been a phenomenal increase in such publications since 1997 and the total of the publications by other leaders combined is well below this figure.

The number of patents in nanotechnology by US entities from 1990 to 2012 has amounted to 23,070 while the combined number of patents by Japan, South Korea and Germany stood at 6,312. The number of nanotechnology based patents by the top 20 countries during this period amounted to 34,402 and of that about two third had been obtained by US institutions.

Sri Lanka should go for a complex economy system

Thus, nanotechnology is the next big thing for the world and it is the next big thing for Sri Lanka. This is because Sri Lanka has to convert its simple economy into a complex economy if it is to sustain its current economic growth and beat the oncoming middle income country trap. This writer has emphasised on this need in a number of articles in this series.
The importance of Sri Lanka to have a concrete road map in order to make it a technologically advanced nation was discussed in an article under the title ‘Becoming a technologically advanced nation’.

The oncoming global technological revolution and its impact on Sri Lanka was presented in an article titled ‘Miracle of Technology: The second industrial revolution is in the offing’.

How Sri Lanka could get into a complex production system was analysed in two articles. One was under the title ‘Complexity Economics: How Sri Lanka could move into a complex production system’ (available here).
The other was titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Future: Convert the simple economy into a high tech based complex economy’ .

Sri Lanka is missing the bus

A general observation made in these articles is that Sri Lanka has already missed the ‘global technology-bus’ by being a passive spectator of the world’s developments in that area. The other countries in the region had teamed up with world’s giants in technology and extracted a high external benefit by being a partner of technological developments. Singapore did so by linking its universities to the best universities in USA and attracting foreign direct investments or FDIs from large corporations which had already developed high technology. South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand had attracted FDIs with high technology. Sri Lanka could have been a breakout nation in early 1980s but the costly ethnic war and the insane reaction of majority Sri Lankans had prevented worthwhile FDIs from coming in. An example often cited, as reported by Saman Kelegama on page 57 of in his ‘Development Under Stress’, is the shifting of the proposed manufacturing plants of two major electronics multinationals, Motorola and Harris Corporation from Sri Lanka to Malaysia and elsewhere, respectively, due to the ethnic riots of 1983. Therefore, it has been suggested that Sri Lanka should now restart its efforts at converting its economy into a complex economy which also includes development of nanotechnology.

The need is for general scientific developments

Holding a similar view, Minister Ranawaka had indicated in his address at the conference that relying on one particular sector will not be suitable for Sri Lanka to map out its future development strategy. The Minister being an engineer himself knew of the limitation which a country will have if it has concentrated only on one industry. Thus, he had suggested that while developing nanotechnology, Sri Lanka should start developing other high tech areas as well. This is indeed a must but it is not without formidable challenges.

With a proper strategy for attracting better FDIs involving high technology and establishing the ground conditions for such FDIs to flow into the country, Sri Lanka could definitely make itself a breakout nation. These ground conditions include, as this writer has been arguing throughout, the protection of property rights, observance of the Rule of Law, maintenance of law and order and establishment of an independent judiciary.

Inventions should be supported by innovation and diffusion

SLINTEC has during 2009-12 filed applications for seven patents in USA and sold two of the patents to commercial manufacturers. As Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter presented in his 1943 book ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’, three conditions should be satisfied for sustainable economic growth: Invention, Innovation and Diffusion. Inventions – the seven patents which SLINTEC has applied for are examples – they are new creations but they alone are not sufficient for economic growth.

They should be commercially used by entrepreneurs through a process called ‘innovation’ and for innovation to happen, they should be made available to prospective entrepreneurs through diffusion of new knowledge.

The sale of two patents so far by SLINTEC is innovation and what SID – Sri Lanka Chapter has done is helping it to attain diffusion through dissemination of knowledge. Thus, Sri Lanka’s nanotechnology initiative, though belated, is a modest start but it has a long way to go for it to make a real contribution to Sri Lanka’s economy by serving as a ‘leap-frogger’.

Want to leap-frog? Then think of the required ground conditions

The current research initiative in nanotechnology can certainly deliver prosperity to Sri Lanka by establishing suitable ground conditions for innovation and diffusion. Then only it can make a ‘leap-frog’ of the country’s development processes. Nanotechnology is therefore necessary but not sufficient. The necessary and sufficient conditions come from both research on nanotechnology and establishing suitable ground conditions for innovation and diffusion.

Those ground conditions, as outlined above, involve development of human capital on one hand and laying a firm foundation for protecting property rights on the other. An essential prerequisite for the latter is the observance of the Rule of Law, maintenance of law and order and establishment of an independent judiciary in the country. But these are beyond the scope of either SLINTEC or SID – Sri Lanka Chapter.

*W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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