The Nanotechnology Innovation Centres (NICs) funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) have celebrated 10 years of conducting world-class research and development in the field of nanotechnology. The NICs, hosted by MINTEK and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have a mandate to build capacity that will ensure the development of commercial nano-enabled products for South Africa to compete globally in the field of nanotechnology. Both centres were established in 2007 as part of the National Nanotechnology Strategy to advance the key national science and technology priorities, aimed at enriching the lives of South African citizens through cutting-edge scientific research.
In the last decade, the DST-CSIR National Centre for Nanostructured Materials (NCNSM) has undertaken innovative research on nanostructured materials and established an extensive research network with key local and international research organisations. The centre is well equipped with cutting-edge scaling up, polymer processing, characterisation and testing facilities, to undertake research and develop skills in nanotechnology related areas. Amongst its achievements, the centre has developed a prototype breath analyser to detect diabetes without the need of a blood test; set up the water and catalysis research groups as new research areas in nano; established the polymer processing laboratory for the testing and evaluation of industrial samples; and developed and established the Nanomaterials Industrial Development Facility (NIDF) in 2015. The NIDF enables industry, research entities and small, medium and micro enterprises to develop and scale up high-tech materials.
Prof Suprakas Sinha Ray, head of the NCNSM, says the centre plays a crucial role in availing its high-tech instrumentation to various stakeholders within the nanotechnology research space. “Research and development at the nano centre supports the manufacturing of bulk materials with improved properties, such as plastics, that are able to tolerate very high and low temperatures and plastics that possess fire retardant properties or high resistance to tearing. This includes the development of detection devices that use nanomaterials capable of detecting, gases at parts-per-million levels with greater sensitivity and accuracy,” says Prof Ray.
MINTEK celebrated its 10-year existence by welcoming its stakeholders and partners to an event at its Randburg-based research facilities. The NIC held a workshop, gala dinner and 10th anniversary celebration, highlighting its achievements to date. Among these achievements is its contribution to human capital development, through the training of scientists, engineers and industrialists, as well as the training of numerous students in the areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology, who graduate and join the workforce at universities, industries and government, where they contribute to economic growth. In addition, the NIC launched a state-of-the-art cleanroom research facility in 2015, for the development and commercialisation of nanoparticle-containing, point-of-care, rapid diagnostic devices for the detection of Malaria, TB and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. The cleanroom comprise of the pharmaceutical grade (ISO 5), Biosafety level 3 (BSL 3) and the electronic device fabrication (ISO 3) cleanrooms. The ISO 3 is the first of its kind in South Africa. The NIC remains globally competitive, adhering to stringent International Standards Organisation (ISO) requirements and addresses environmental issues through the responsible and sustainable development of nanotechnology.
Dr Lucky Sikhwivhilu, head of the DST/Mintek NIC said, “As we celebrate a decade of the DST/Mintek NIC, the next 10 years challenge us to continue to use nanotechnology in innovative ways to address the challenges faced by every South African”.
Despite the commendable contributions of the NICs to the South African nanotechnology sector, the next decade will require more efforts to ensure an increase in the country’s intellectual outputs in this field. With reports indicating that South Africa has been granted fewer than 10 nanotechnology patents by the United States Patent and Trademark Office between 2005 to 2015, there is an urgent need for collaborations between the NICs, domestic and international academia and industry to ensure that South Africa reaps economic benefits of its investments in nanotechnology.