I’m on my way back from India, where I’ve been at the conference Bangalore Nano 07. The enthusiasm for nanotechnology in India has been well publicised; it’s traditional to bracket the country with China as two rising science powers that see nano as an area in which they can compete on equal terms with the USA, Europe and Japan. So it was great to get an opportunity to see for myself something of what’s going on.
I’ll just mention a couple of highlights from the conference itself. Prof Ramgopal Rao from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay described a very nice looking project to make an inexpensive point of care system for cardiac diagnostics. He began with the gloomy thought that soon more than half the cases of cardiac disease in the world will be India. If acute myocardial infarction can be detected early enough a heart attack can be prevented, but this currently needs expensive and time consuming tests. The need, then, is for a simple test that’s cheap and reliable enough to be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
To do this one needs to integrate a microfluidic system to handle the blood sample, a sensor array to detect the appropriate biochemical markers, and a box of electronics to analyse the results. The sensor array and fluid handling system needs to be disposable, and to cost no more than a few hundred rupees (i.e. a couple of dollars), while the box should only cost a few thousand rupees, even though the protocols for diagnosis need to be quite sophisticated and robust. Rao is aiming for a working prototype very soon; the biosensor is based on a cantilever which bends when the marker binds to a bound antibody. He uses a polymer photoresist to make the cantilever, with an embedded poly-silicon piezo-resistor to measure the deflection (this isn’t trivial at all, as the change in resistance amounts to about 10 parts per million).
Another nice talk was from Prof T. Pradeep, a surface chemist from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He described a water filter incorporating gold and silver nanoparticles mounted on a substrate of alumina, which is particularly effective at removing halogenated organic compounds such as pesticide residues. This is already marketed, with the filter cartridge costing about a few hundred rupees. He also mentioned a kit that can test for such pesticide residues with a detection limit of around 25 parts per billion.
The closing talk was given by Prof CNR Rao, and consisted of reflections on the future of nanotechnology. His opinions are worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than that he is undoubtedly the most powerful and influential scientist in India, and his views will shape the way nanotechnology is pursued there. What follows are my notes on his talk, tidied up but not verbatim.
Rao is a materials chemist, and he started by observing that now we can make pretty much any material in any form. But the question is, how can we use them, how can we assemble them and integrate them into devices? This is the biggest gap – we need products, devices and machines from nano-objects, and this is still probably at least 10 years, maybe 15 years, away. But we shouldn’t worry just about products and devices – nanotechnology is a new type of science, which will dissolve barriers between physics and chemistry and biology and bring in engineering. As an example – many people have made molecular motors. But… can they be connected together to do something? This sort of thing needs combinations of molecular science and nanoscience. Soft matter is another area with many good people and interesting work, including some in Bangalore. But there’s still a gap in applying them, what about active gels? Similarly, we see big successes in sensors, imaging but there’s much left to do. As an example of one very big challenge, many people suffer in Bangalore and everywhere else from dementia; we know this is related to the nanoscale phenomenon of peptide aggregation, but we need to understand why it happens and how to stop it. Drug delivery and tissue engineering are other examples where nanotechnology can make a real impact on human suffering. If one wants a role model, Robert Langer is a great example of someone who has produced many new results in tissue engineering and drug delivery, many graduate students and many companies; science in India should be done like this. We must remove the barriers and bureaucracy to give more freedom to scientists and engineers. At the moment, public servants like academics, cannot get involved in private enterprise, and this must change. Nanotechnology doesn’t take much money – it’s the archetypal knowledge based industry, and as such it should lead to much more linkage between industry and academia.