Written by Sudhir Chowdhary | Updated: Mar 15 2010, 06:34am hrs
Notwithstanding hopes or fears, nanotechnology is finally moving beyond the confines of the research laboratories to the marketplace. There is feverish activity as the nanotech-based products begin to enter the market in a big way. Industry majors such as the Tatas, Samsung, Reliance, Thermax and others have introduced a host of products such as nano-based water filters, washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, deodorants and cosmetics. Nanoscale materials are also being used in electronic, magnetic and optoelectronic, biomedical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, energy, catalytic and materials applications.

While there is considerable hype with regard to this new technology, so are the concerns with its perceived risks to environment and human health. No wonder, the government has stepped in by deciding to put in place a regulatory body. The yet-to-be-set up watchdog will undertake a detailed examination of all new nanotech devicesacross product categories such as toys and baby products, consumer durables, sports equipment, clothing, electronics and computersbefore they are commercially marketed. As nanotechnology is also being used for medicine and health, policy makers in the government insist that the tech must be used safely and there should be greater awareness about nanotech productssomething which the nanotech watchdog will do.

But will the government move to set up a watchdog bring about a change in the way this revolutionary technology is perceived Will the fears surrounding it be dispelled and will it spur the industry to move quickly towards commercialisation According to the US National Science Foundation, the nanotech market would be approximately $1 trillion worldwide by 2015. There is a potential for Indian companies to engage in $20 billion worth of products, services and technology during this period, feels Puneet Mehrotra, director of New Delhi-based industry body called Nano Science and Technology Consortium (NSTC).

Industry however, is somewhat not too enthused by the government move to bring in a regulatory agency. Vivek Sharma, regional vice-president ST India operations and director, India Design Centres says, Any new disruptive technology invokes concerns along with its huge potential benefits. As the applicability of nanotechnology is quite wide, in certain areas particularly related with health and medicine, which directly impact the health of people, certifying bodies are essential to ensure correct usage, whereas for other areas, it is better to promote free market approach. According to him, a strict control can be counter-productive to the emergence of this technology; hence it should not be enforced where it is not necessary.

Industry also feels that knowledge is the only way to remove the fears. A strict watchdog may not dispel these unless it is used to spread knowledge as well, says Sharma. According to Mehrotra, the nanotech sector in India is in its infancy. The need of the hour is to create awareness by means of introducing nanotech and its applications into all allied fields and also making the entry of new players more lucrative so that nanotech has significant players in India, he says.

Pharmaceutical and biotech products and medical devices are introduced in the market after undergoing years of clinical trials and clearing other regulatory norms. Therefore, yet another regulatory body to supervise the introduction of nanotech-based healthcare products is not necessary, feels Venkat Jasti, vice-chairman and CEO, Suven Life Sciences.

Still, products based on this new technology are already finding their way to the marketplace. For instance, Tata Chemicals has introduced a nanotech water purifier called Tata Swach. A result of years of collaboration between several Tata companies, including TCS, Tata Chemicals and Titan Industries, the technology behind the water purifier combines low-cost ingredients such as rice husk ash impregnated with nano-silver particles. It produces clean and safe water without using electric power or running water, which is often not available in rural areas. The cartridge bulb is packed with a purification medium which has the capability to kill bacteria and disease-causing organisms. Most important, its path-breaking nanotechnology protects people from diseases like typhoid, cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea without using any harmful chemicals. R Gopalakrishnan, vice-chairman, Tata Chemicals, says, Tata Swach combines technology, performance, convenience and above all affordability to serve this basic human right of millions of consumers. It can play its part in the national efforts to reduce water-borne diseases.

Philips Electronics India has launched drinking water filters based on nanofiltration. Kenstar Appliance India is producing the water purifier using nano silver antibacterial technology. Among others, Samsung India has in the marketplace its range of fully automatic washing machines, equipped with the companys silver nanotechnology. With over $10 million invested in research and development, silver nanotechnology is claimed to be the first technology that combines the disinfectant and antibiotic properties of electrolytic silver nano-particles in washing machines to remove 99.9% of harmful bacteria. Set on the concept of Silver Wash, the washers sterilisation system generates silver particles that kill off bacteria and mold in the laundry load without bringing the water to a boil. This process also treats the inside of the washing machine tub to kill bacteria and mold, suppressing the odour and contamination that accompanies their formation.

Ranbaxy Laboratories is producing aquagel non-greasy water resistant sunscreen using nano-sized zinc oxide technology; Nivea India is producing anti-perspirant deodorant using nano silver technology; Asian Paints is also applying the nano scale emulsions in paints, which results in the improvement in the properties of paints; Bharat Biotech is developing a estrogen hormone replacement therapy; Dabur Pharma has launched a nanotech based chemotherapy called paclitaxel nano drug; Panacea Biotech is engaged in drug delivery research using mucoadhesive nanoparticles.

In the realm of academic research, nanotech work is equally exciting. For instance, researchers at Banaras Hindu University have developed a method to produce carbon nanotube filters that efficiently remove micro-to nano-scale contaminants from water and heavy hydrocarbons from petroleum. Made entirely of carbon nanotubes, the filters are easily manufactured using a simple method for controlling the cylindrical geometry of the structure.

Researchers at Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE), Gwalior have devised a typhoid detection kit, using the nanosensor developed by researchers from IISc, Bangalore. More effective than the conventional Widal test, this latex agglutination-based test utilises recombinant DNA technology and immunological technique for rapid diagnosis of typhoid infection. The test detects Salmonella typhi antigen directly in patients serum within 1-3 minutes, which is very important for initiating early treatment and saving human life. Among others, researchers at the University of Delhis chemistry department have developed technologies for improved drug delivery systems using nanoparticles.

Globally, there are three types of nanotech products which have been introduced in the marketplace. First are the nanotech enhanced products, suncreams for example, which already exist in the market but properties of such products such as strength, colour, weight and other properties have been enhanced by using nano additives. The second are nanotech evolutionary products which are based on existing knowhow, but are developed using nanotech as base technology. For example, nanotech storage drives which can store very large data. The third category comprises nanotech revolutionary products, which are made using the enormous strengths of nanotech and are path breaking. For example, there are nanobots that eat the bad cholesterol from our blood vessels and excrete out in a given time.

At present, India has more than 30 industries and 50 institutes engaged in nanotech research and development (R&D), with most efforts focusing on chip design, nanomedicine and nanomaterials. Being a research intensive area, nanotechnology also requires specialised trained manpower to understand and use this technology. Till both are available in India, commercialisation is a distant dream, feels Mehrotra.

Without any doubt, any new disruptive technology invokes concerns along with its huge potential benefits. Nanotechnology, being no exception, it is normal to expect divergent views as we find today, especially when a regulatory agency is on the anvil.

Therefore, it depends on how this nanotech watchdog will be used. If used constructively, it can enable the industry to bring the products to market fast hence further enabling and growing the industry. However, if it takes a long time to clear the nanotech products and related projects, it can as well impede the growth. Therefore, industry feels a balanced approach should be adopted. Health related products should be regulated while giving other areas a free hand for development.