By: Prof. Munir Nayfeh
Nanotechnology, a field that attracts billions of dollars of research funding and thousands of scientists and engineers, has been hailed as the technology of the 21st century. With its revolutionary approach to problem solving by challenging the limits of engineering at smaller than micro-level, it gives us access to a hitherto untapped resource, the building blocks of matter themselves. It captures the imagination and affords us the luxury to dream of solutions to contemporary problems facing the human race such as acute diseases, the energy crisis, the food security, and the scarcity of clean water.
How does Nanotechnology work?
The ‘Nano’ technology works through the manipulation of matter at the size and on a scale no bigger than 100 nanometers, quite literally atom-by-atom. When imagining the molecular construction of any object it is clear that atoms at the surface are but a small fraction of the entire collection . Through miniaturization, however, the ratio of surface to bulk atoms goes up. This allows the material that is being manipulated to exhibit new, sometimes novel and unique properties, as the surface atoms begin to exhibit a more dominant character within the overall scheme of things. Through rigorous scientific discovery and exploration, nanomaterials have improved the mechanical, electrical, optical, and chemical performance of many industry staples.
Wonder World of Nanotechnology
Fascinating examples of nanomaterials discovered thus far include: fiber stronger than spider web; metal that is hundredfold stronger than steel; plastics that conduct electricity; silicon that glows, catalysts that respond more quickly; coatings that are nearly frictionless, materials that change color and become transparent on demand. The impetus of funding nanotechnology is the exploitation of nano-materials as building blocks for manufacturing better products that are lighter, stronger and cheaper (at minimum cost) and with new functions that have applications in health, agriculture, energy, information, defense and security, providing jobs, economic growth and improvement in that standard of living.
These applications range from the mundane – nano engineered particles can make vinyl floors tough enough to last a lifetime – to the extraordinary – the biomedical applications speed drugs through the human circulatory system and improve diagnostics and treatment. Other applications are futuristic, such as nano-sized robots programmed to take care of our material needs.
The importance of nanotechnology is highlighted by the billions of dollars that are invested worldwide and by a projected market size of $1 trillion in the next 10 years. Western countries have established national initiatives outlining R & D and commercialization policy. Asian countries have since followed suit and some countries in the Muslim World have entered the race.
Nanotech hits Commercialization problems
While the promise of nanotechnology has been immense, it has hit a snag when it comes to commercialization. Fifteen years after the US Government launched its National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology in the hands of all and sundry has remained an illusive dream. While some household products with small applications of nanotechnology have been developed, it is yet to deliver a game changing application that is both cutting edge and available to all those who need it, such as smart anticancer therapeutics that can destroy tumors, or lighter and thinner body armor to save the lives of soldiers. This has dampened the enthusiasm for nanotechnology. Indeed commercial targets have lagged behind.
The problem is not financial or managerial, rather one of fundamental mass production and safety. Nanotechnology as of today suffers from several basic problems that delay large-scale commercialization. The challenges include the ability to:
• Create nano-materials with precision, control and repeatability, and do so in a timely manner
• Maintain a competitive price and a scale of production that meets consumer demand,
• Remain conscious of safety and environmental sustainability.
Increasingly, governments – particularly in the United States which is both the largest spender and the biggest commercial market for technology products – are seeking to catalyse commercialization.
Early efforts on nanotechnology in the Muslim World
Generally, there is lack of significant presence of Muslim representation in nanotechnology. The majority of the countries are into the phase of mere fact-finding, and holding conferences. However, there are a few Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia that recently instated concerted initiatives to build knowledge-based economies as well as champion nanotechnology.
King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) launched a national nanotechnology initiative and established a national center in 2005 just six years after the US’s initiative, which was followed by more initiatives by the King and the government to establish nanotech centers across the country. Iran entered the field as early as 2003, when it established a special committee under the direct supervision of the President to develop nanotechnology, which resulted in 40 nano companies. Iran ranks number 1 in the entire Muslim World and number 32 worldwide in nanotechnology development.
By 2008 Egypt, in collaboration with IBM, opened its first nanotech center. Turkey developed its national research facility and center of excellence in nanotechnology as early as 2006-2007 at Bilkent University. Malaysia introduced the NanoMalaysia Centers of Excellence in 2011, as well as NanoFund and Nano Malaysia Berhad (NMB), as the lead driver for the industry. The allocated resources are sizable, yet they fall short of the scale developed nations allocate. We believe time is of the essence since increasing market-based barriers, such as patents, and moderate or limited participation of Muslim countries may promote greater global technological divides.
Having fallen behind Muslim countries need to play catch-up. However, they are still within striking distance. Difficulties can be alleviated by the adoption of integrated, aggressive processes of transfer, absorption, and re-innovation. The process can be accelerated if the Muslim World can pool resources or adopt an ‘Open Innovation’ approach to advance commercialization challenges. Focusing on commercialization shall also pave way for greater government interest and bring resources to the table. Once it is clear that the development of nanotechnology can advance the broader national development agendas, the governments may rally behind this technology of great national importance.
Last word on Commercialisation
It is not sufficient to adopt aggressive national policies as the catch-up process proves to be inherently complex, incremental, and costly. What we need to quickly narrow the gap are strategies and mechanisms with potential to lead to significant breakthroughs.
Countries in the Muslim World must either focus on being an innovator (i.e. the first to develop or patent an idea) or a product pioneer (i.e. the first to have a working model). They must also constantly balance between the strategy of being either ‘First Movers’ or Fast Followers – each with its own strengths and weaknesses..
We believe, the Fast Follower model strategy is more suited for developing countries, especially when dealing with a technology that is new and targeting a world market where it is difficult to understand (i) the business model, (ii) the customer’s problems and (iii) the features needed to solve those problems. First Movers tend to launch without fully understanding customer preferences or the product features that meet the consumer’s more specific demands. They end-up being very susceptible to burning through their invested cash. Fast followers win more often because they learn from the first-mover problems.
Having said all, one fact remains true: Muslim countries cannot afford to stay as spectators any more, watching another technological revolution leave them behind.
Prof. Munir Nayfeh is a Palestinian American scientist working at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne. He is also one of our 14 most exciting nano-technologists in Muslim World.