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The race for the nano-frontier 

Nanotechnology has captured the attention of governments, researchers and industries worldwide. A new generation of technology it holds the potential to revolutionalise the world we live in.

Nanotechnology is the act, science and engineering for manipulating objects at the nano scale. We are talking minute sales here – one nanometre is about one million times smaller than a millimetre.

At this size materials often take on unique and sometimes unexpected properties. Nano-sized gold, for example, can appear red rather than metallic yellow. Nano-sized carbon tubes are many times stronger than the same weight of steel, while bulk carbon (such as graphic or coal) can be very brittle.

This means that at the nano scale, materials can be ‘tuned’ to build faster, lighter, stronger and more efficient devices and systems, as well as new classes of materials. In the water sector, nanotechnology can be applied to develop more cost-effective and high-performance water treatment systems as well as instant and continuous ways to monitor water quality, among others.

Until recently, nano-scale research and development has been rather on a small scale in South Africa, driven mostly by individual researchers’ interests. However, this is expected to gradually change following the development of government’s National Nanotechnology Strategy, which aims to coordinate nano-scale research and development at a national level.

South Africa is one of the first countries to have an official nanotechnology strategy. It is an ambitious long-term plan which seeks to position the country as a player in this emerging area of science and technology. The focus areas are water, energy, chemical and bioprocessing, mining and minerals, and advanced materials and manufacturing.

South Africa’s first two Nanotechnology Innovation Centres (NICs) were launched at CSIR and Mintek last year. The activities at these centres are strongly aligned with government’s national strategy.

At the CSIR, the focus is on the design and modelling of novel nano-structured materials. The centre at Mintek, which is collaborating with the WRC, the Medical Research Council, as well as the universities of Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Rhodes, is focusing on research in the fields of sensors, biolabelling and water nanotechnology.

How big is nano?

One nanometre (nm) = one billionth of a metre

One DNA molecule = 2 nm

Virus = 50 nm

Visible colour = 400-700 nm

E.coli = 2 000 nm

Red blood cells = 5 000 nm

Hair diameter = 75 000 nm


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