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Seizing the nano edge

Surajeet Das Gupta | March 27, 2004

It's a project to turn science fiction into futuristic reality. At Velbionanotech, a little-known Bangalore-based company, researchers are working on pathbreaking projects that -- if successful -- might dramatically reduce the need for heart surgery or for kidney stone operations. What's the frontier technology Velbionanotech is developing? It's working on designing nanochips, which will deliver a drug exactly to the affected area in the body. So, one project aims to develop a chip which when injected into the body will head towards the kidney and remove stones. Another -- even more ambitious project -- aims to develop a nanochip that will move into the heart and reduce the fatty tissues that cause arteriosclerosis. Says Joseph Asantraj, chairman and CEO, Velbionanotech, who has been focusing on these areas for the last two years: "We have completed the designing stage of the nanochips and have started developing a prototype of the product. Commercialisation will take another two to three years. And these products will be cheaper than undergoing surgery." Asantraj's dream is still a long way from reality. But nanotechnology is already transforming the world in which we live. The textile industry is selling stain- and wrinkle-resistant fabrics based on nanotechnology.

Venture capital funds are also joining the bandwagon. Velbionanotech, for instance, is talking to ICICI Venture. Says Alluri Srinivasa, senior vice-president, ICICI Venture: "We are looking at nanotechnology-based companies very closely. Initially our strategy would be to invest in lower-end applications like drug-delivery systems and then go up the learning curve."

ICICI is also approaching US-based nanotech companies, which might look at outsourcing part of their research to India, through joint ventures. it hopes to make its First investment in a nanotech company within two to three months.

Nanotechnology explained

What is nanotechnology? Well, let's start by saying that in nanotechnology size matters. A nanometer is a microscopic measure that is a billionth of a metre. Put it another way -- it's 1/750,000th of a strand of hair. Nanotechnology is the science of working with atoms or molecules of this size.

It is science fiction come true.
Nanotechnology scientists work on matter, which consists of four to 400 atoms or are below 100 nanometres in scale. There are good reasons why they've focused on these tiny particles. At these sizes the classical laws of physics are suspended. The result is that scientists can manipulate and control atoms -- and, as a result, create new properties.

That, amongst other things, allows scientists to create new materials that are stronger, smaller and tougher than anything known till now.

Scientists reckon that nanotechnology will eventually affect every industry and consumer in the world. They may be used to create metals and build bridges or to develop the next generation of computing.

There are already innovative fabrics and researchers are working on new drug delivery systems which could dramatically reduce the need for surgery.

The history of nantechnology began in 1959 when Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman suggested that there were no scientific laws, which prevented man from manipulating matter atom by atom. Simply put, Feynman suggested that matter could be build bottom-up -- atom by atom.

IBM made research possible by inventing a specialised microscope, which could image samples of atoms at the nanoscale level.

Fast forward to the late '80s, when researchers in Rice University made the first big bang invention: they exhibited a molecule of carbon which could conduct electricity and heat and while it was stronger than steel it was lighter than plastic. After that there was no looking back.

Additional reporting: Subir Roy and Arti Sharma

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