The global nanotechnology industry is expected to grow to reach almost $76 billion by 2020. But what is it exactly?
Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about one to 100 nanometers. This tiny scale tech can be applied to other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.
Though it sounds futuristic, this science dates back to the late fifties, when physicist Richard Feynman at the American Physical Society spoke in a meeting at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), about a process where scientists could manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. It wasn't until 1981, with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope that could "see" individual atoms, that modern nanotechnology has seen the light.
Today's scientists are finding a wide variety of ways to make materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of their enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than their larger-scale counterparts. The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of nanotechnology is advancements in various types of materials and protective coatings. For instance, adding nanoscale additives to or surface treatments of fabrics can provide lightweight ballistic energy deflection in personal body armor, or can help them resist wrinkling, staining, and bacterial growth. Clearing nanoscale films on eyeglasses, computer and camera displays, windows, and other surfaces can make them water- and residue-repellent, antireflective, self-cleaning, resistant to ultraviolet or infrared light, antifog, antimicrobial, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive. It also unleashes ‘smart fabrics’ that are equipped with flexible nanoscale sensors and electronics with capabilities for health monitoring, solar energy capture, and energy harvesting through movement.
It promises new solutions for many applications in the biomedical, industrial and military fields as well as in consumer and industrial goods. The interconnection of nanoscale devices with existing communication networks and ultimately the internet defines a new networking paradigm that is further referred to as the Internet of Nano-Things (IoNT).
Nanotech and medicine
Though its applications may entail different industries, including food, electricity, environment, and others, nanotechnology has high promises for the life sciences sector and medical applications, including therapy techniques, diagnostics, complex drug delivery systems and more. In 2015, Medlab Clinical, a company active in that industry got the approval for its NanoCelle delivery platform to test Atorvastatin (commercially known as Lipitor) for patients suffering high levels of cholesterol. Other examples of medicine in nanotechnology include antiviral medicines, such as NanoViricides’ medicines targeting influenza, HIV/AIDS, herpes and dengue fever.
In the Arab region
A growing number of countries is now considering nanotechnology as a research priority. This is the case of Argentina, Azerbaijan, Chile, Croatia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia, for instance. However, as the development of nanotechnology requires sustained investment, only Slovenia of the aforementioned countries currently devotes more than 1 percent of its GDP to R&D.
Morocco’s third InnovAct programme (2011), for instance, provides up to 30 enterprises each year that are oriented towards nanotechnology and other strategic fields with logistical support and the financial means to recruit university graduates to work on their research project. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) is fostering ties between research universities and the public and private sectors in a wide range of areas, including nanotechnology and advanced materials. KACST also acts as the national patent office.
Nanotechnology is one of the priority areas for cooperation of the new Arab Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, where governments are aiming at developing applications in areas ranging from health and pharmaceuticals to foodstuffs, environmental management, desalination and energy production.
Since 2011, UNESCO is attempting to link between academia and industry to reach innovation in the Arab world in various fields, including nanotechnology. Its program, the Network for the Expansion of Convergent Technologies in the Arab Region (NECTAR), in collaboration with renowned Arab scientists based at universities in the USA and in Egypt, where the majority of specialists in convergent technologies can be found in the Arab region, has been working in that direction.
A new invention
Though following a slower pace, nanotechnology-based inventions in the Arab world keep on popping up every here and then. Few years ago, Dr. Adel Salem was leading a research on ‘enhanced oil recovery,’ or EOR as it’s known in oil sector parlance, using nanoparticles to boost oil production. Though we did not hear about the success or the failure of his attempt, his project was one step ahead in a thousands miles journey.
Lebanese mechanical and chemical engineer Fouad Maksoud, has been developing another nano-based shielding machine, called Nanoskin. Using high-voltage (40,000 volts) electrospinning technology, Maksoud’s machine produces nanofiber coating to regular clothes. The result? Waterproof, breathable, and antibacterial garments.
In addition to that, his $500,000 machine, funded through a regional competition, can deliver drugs, and works on three categories: Wounds burns, diabetic ulcers, and muscle strains. When it comes to healing wounds and burns, Nanoskin guarantees zero risk of infection, and prevents killing the regenerated cells while changing a wound bandage for example. For the other two applications, the new technology can become a new element of a patient’s healing system. Following the diagnosis, the machine can be personalized to add any skin-absorbable medicine depending on the type of the patient’s treatment. It also increases the medicine’s coating depending on the length of the treatment, in a single click. “I have already secured the patent cooperation treaty from the US,” he told Wamda. He said that globally, competitors offer each of these features separately, but none provide them all combined at the nanoscale, which gives his invention a competitive advantage in terms of performance and readability.
According to him, his main clients would be hospitals and biomedical and pharmaceutical companies. “I will be looking to sell the product [T-shirts, jackets, pants, and socks] rather than selling the machine itself,” he said. He explained that waterproof socks for example are sold at least for $32 per pair, whereas it cost him $0.8 to produce ones of 40% higher performance. Commercially, this translates into big opportunities. However, before turning the final product into a reality, the process is long term as medical applications require FDA approvals prior to human usage. This usually takes no less than four to seven years.
According to Dr. Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, principal investigator at the Integrated Nanotechnology Lab at KAUST, nanotechnology allows to functionalize nanoscale materials and devices to enable drug delivery, drug formulation, and in future sensing and imaging. “Since, this is related to health care, approval for commercialization takes time and needs careful study before it can go to the market. We anticipate some limited proliferation from 2026,” he told Wamda. He continued: “At the moment, USA, a limited number of European countries, East Asia, and Singapore are leading the effort of R&D and commercialization. The MENA region is catching up gradually.” Dr. Hussain believes local investment is key. “No successful enterprise is possible without great ideas. And equality is important to achieve success and prosperity. Finally, work ethics and utmost professionalism (sincerity, punctuality, hard work, dedication, integrity).”