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Nano South Africa

by Gregor Wolbring

February 15, 2008

In this column I will outline the state of Nano South Africa. South Africa plays a crucial role in the introduction of new and emerging sciences and technologies in the sub-Sahara, and developments there influence how new and emerging sciences and technologies are perceived in sub-Sahara Africa and in Africa in general.

I have just returned from a visit there. A lot has changed since I talked about nanotechnology for the first time in 2002. There are also new developments in synethic biology, which I will deal with in a Synbio 4.0 column to be published later this year.

The World Nano-Economic Congress (WNEC) South Africa 2007 took place recently, presented by the Department of Science and Technology of the Republic of South Africa, and Cientifica, a leading nanotechnology consultant group. WNEC South Africa is the eighth international event in the series since it first began in Washington, D.C., in 2003.

The latest conference explored:

  • the path to commercialization of nanotechnology;
  • how nanotechnology is impacting various industry groups;
  • the role government can play in advancing the  development of  nanotechnology; and
  • economic considerations for wider adoption of nanotechnology solutions in industry.

The South African Department of Science and Technology recently launched a national nanotechnology strategy for South Africa, which includes a R450-million investment over the next three years. The National Nanotechnology Strategy paper of South Africa gives a good idea of the vision for South Africa.

Launching the strategy in his keynote address, Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom stated:

“The South African National Nanotechnology Strategy has now been launched and is ready for roll-out. This roll-out will focus on four key focal areas:

  1. The establishment of Characterisation Centres which are geographically distributed and contain multi-user facilities to provide researchers with advanced instruments for design, synthesis, characterisation, modeling and fabrication;
  2. The creation of Research and Innovation Networks that will serve to enhance collaboration among traditional disciplines, research teams and institutions;
  3. Capacity building initiatives that are aimed at developing human capital resources through channeling public and private sector investment towards under- and post graduate research as well as encouraging collaborative R&D in the nanosciences; and
  4. A number of Flagship Projects that are aimed at demonstrating the benefits of nanotechnology towards an enhanced quality of life and increased economic growth. These will initially focus on water, energy, health, chemical and bio-processing, mining and minerals as well as advanced manufacturing.”

Describing the benefits of the technology, Hanekom said: “The effective application of Nanotechnology can contribute towards eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; improved environmental sustainability, as well as greater success in the fight against HIV/Aids and other diseases. Nanotechnology has the potential to develop a range of applications to, for example, increase soil fertility and crop production. It could provide rural villages with portable systems that purify, detoxify and desalinate water through ‘intelligent membranes’. It can certainly provide solutions for improved drug delivery through the development of biodegradable polymers that ensure sustained and gradual release treatments. Furthermore, nanotech microbiocides could substantially reduce the risk of HIV infection in women.”

He said the social impacts will be significant: “It is therefore the poor that stand to benefit most from existing and emerging nanotechnologies, provided of course that public funding and policies are aimed at effectively spreading these benefits in order to balance social and economic development priorities.”
It is still unclear whether this will actually happen. One might also ask whether non-technological means are available to achieve the same goals.

However, Hanekom says there has been real progress:

“In South Africa, research in nanotechnology has focused on applications for social development as well as for industrial growth. To date, the country’s nanotechnology advances have already proven its potential to provide cleaner, more efficient and renewable energy sources through the development of inexpensive solar cells; the development of nanomembrane technology for water purification to help reduce exposure to water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid; as well as fuel cell development for powering the ‘hydrogen economy’ and providing alternatives to non-renewable, fossil fuel consumption.”

An article in a recent Nanotechnology Law and Business article (1) describes the current nanotechnology landscape of South Africa. A description of the South African Nanotechnology Initiative is also available on the web.

South Africa has already launched its first nanotechnology innovation centers (see press release of Dept of Science and Technology and the address by Minister Mosibudi Mangena, at the launch of Nanotechnology Innovation Centres). According to the press release, the country’s nanoscience and nanotechnology effort is being coordinated at the national level by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The focus of the CSIR center, the National Center for Nano-Structured Materials, is on the design and modeling of novel nano-structured materials while the center at Mintek focuses on water, health, mining and minerals. The Mintek consortium consists of the DST, the Medical Research Council, the Water Research Commission, the Universities of Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Rhodes.

In its first three years, the CSIR-hosted NCNSM will have the following research focus:

  • fabrication of selected novel nano-structured materials for application in solar cells, printed electronic devices, bio-sensors and nano-polymers;
  • synthesis and characterization of quantum dots with application in medical sensors, solid state lighting and optical devices;
  • synthesis of polymer nano-composites for a variety of applications;
  • synthesis of nano-structured materials for specific energy related applications; and
  • materials modeling and simulation with the aim of understanding and predicting the fundamental properties of nano-materials.

The Star a newspaper of South Africa published a piece in 2006 called ‘Nanotechnology to target major diseases.’ According to the article, “the government views investment in nanotechnology as an opportunity to improve information technology, environmental sciences, health and industrial technology. Specifically, the government is looking at investing in technology that can purify mine waste water, develop lower-cost solar cells for energy, and develop drugs that work against biological diseases.”

Project AuTEK (see here and reference (1)) is a joint venture between Mintek, local universities and AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony Gold. AuTEK Biomed focuses on creating gold-based chemo-therapeutics for diseases such as cancer, malaria and HIV and AaIDS. South Africa may build a US$57 million nanotechnology plant at Rand Refinery, the world’s largest gold refinery, if ongoing experiments prove that gold nanoparticles can be used as catalysts to detoxify air in mines.  

South African paper manufacturer Sappi is already researching whether nanotechnology can be used to monitor temperature, termites, and fungus in its forests. Sappi, one of the world's 20 largest paper producers, is devoting a sizeable proportion of its US$50 million/year research effort to examining the future role of nanotechnology in its industry.  A recent article “The Nanonomics Equation for Value-Added Paper” on the webpage of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry of South Africa highlights the nanofocus and vision of the South African paper industry.

There are also international collaborations between South Africa and other countries.

ESASTAP  (see here and here)  is a dedicated platform for the advancement of European and South African scientific and technological cooperation.

Some of the projects covered under ESASTAP are:

The Choice is Yours

While we often look to Europe, North America and increasingly to Asia for advances in new and emerging sciences and technologies, it has become clear that we must also look to new developments in South Africa.

 

References


Christina H.Claassens, M. M. Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research and Development in South Africa (2006) Nanotechnology Law & Business 3, 2 217-230.

The following materials (PDF) can be found online here:

  • Macroporous biphasic calcium phosphate bioceramic scaffolds for enhanced osteoconduction and osteoinduction
  • Diamonds in synchrotrons
  • Novel radiation hard CVD-diamond detectors
  • Photon emission in crystalline undulators
  • Nano-electronic devices fabricated with scanning probe microscopes
  • Nano-explosive porous silicon devices

And here:

  • Carbon nanotubes in metallic surfaces
  • Bio-photonic nanodevices
  • Commercialisation of biodegradable packaging materials for use on export fruit
  • South African Nanotechnology Initiative
  • Inert nanoprecipitate strengthened metals
  • Nanoparticulate silicon for printed electronic applications
  • Microbial expression system for metal binding peptide production/display
  • Nanotechnology based drug delivery systems for proof of concept of new drug candidates
  • Adding value to LAOs through inter alia nanocatalysis
  • Exploring the effects of nanoparticles on human health
  • Synthesis and characterisation of polymer-supported transition metal catalysts as novel materials for organic transformations

The anticipated Work Programme for Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials and New Production Technologies under ESASTAP also gives some ideas.

 

 

Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology governance researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Disability, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.

 

Please contact the author for additional information on this article
or for other references at gwolbrin@ucalgary.ca


© Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved, 2008. Please contact the author for permission to reprint.

 

   
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