Nanotechnology and Africa


After more than 20 years of basic nanoscience research and 10 years of focused research and development, applications of nanotechnology are delivering in both expected and unexpected ways on nanotechnology’s promise to benefit society.

Nanotechnology is helping to considerably improve, even revolutionise many technology and industry sectors: information technology, energy, environmental science, medicine, homeland security, food safety, and transportation.

To unravel it, nanotechnology is a branch of engineering that deals with the design and manufacture of extremely small electronic circuits and mechanical devices built at the molecular level of matter and it is very broad as it ranges from surface science, organic chemistry to molecular biology.

Dr Chiedza Maponga, the technical director of nanotechnology in Zimbabwe says: “Nanotechnology is an interesting part of science because it touches on both biology (which encapsulates all living things) and physics (non-living things) and as long as you are on this earth there is no escaping it.”

In its original sense, nanotechnology refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.

Accordingly, nanotechnology can be of paramount importance to the African continent. It can add enormous value to African minerals ‑ gold, titanium, palladium, platinum and so on ‑ once simply exported abroad in their raw state to be transformed by others into valuable commodities. 

Professor Paras Prasad of the State University of New York says: “Without nanotechnology, platinum or diamonds will continue to be exported in their raw form instead of semi-processed or finished products.” 

Prof Prasad adds that platinum ore often has other valuable minerals such as silver, chrome, cobalt and to some extent gold.

“If the mining industry introduced nanotechnology, these minerals will be separated and each will be sold at its full value,” he remarks.

The other focus should be using nanotechnology to fight poverty. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is one bloc that is promoting the use of nanotechnology as the key to solving problems. In the arena of social development, nanotechnology could lead towards low cost energy, low cost electronics, and more efficient drug delivery.

Accordingly, the areas that benefit from the continued development of nanotechnology when it comes to electronic products include nano transistors, nano diodes, plasma displays and quantum computers.

Importantly, nanotechnology can also benefit the energy sector in African countries. The development of more effective energy-producing, energy-absorbing, and energy storage products in smaller and more efficient devices is possible with this technology.  Such items like batteries, fuel cells, and solar cells can be built smaller but can be made to be more effective with this technology.

Another industry that can benefit from nanotechnology is the manufacturing sector that will need materials like nanotubes, aerogels, nano particles, and other similar items to produce their products with.  These materials are often stronger, more durable, and lighter than those that are not produced with the help of nanotechnology.

In the medical world, nanotechnology is also seen as a boon since these can help with creating what is called smart drugs . These help cure people faster and without the side effects that other traditional drugs have. 

To ensure that Africa remains competitive with the international research community in this fast-developing field, the nanoscience and nanotechnology effort in different African countries should be co-ordinated at national level by ministries of science and technology.

These ministries should also come up with their respective national nanotechnology strategies. This means that Africa needs to take control over its own science and technology, instead of being an importer and consumer of foreign science and innovation. 

By owning, and owning up to, its science and technology, African countries will be better able to steer and enhance their development according to their own agendas and choices. To effectively benefit from nanotechnology, Professor Aduda of the University of Nairobi believes African countries need to give attention to capacity building through their university curricula.

Prof Aduda says, “Allowing science students to do multi-disciplinary projects on nano would teach them to fruitfully cross the borders between physics, chemistry, and life sciences.” 

For this to happen, nanotechnology education is crucial if the African continent is to effectively benefit from nanotechnology.  This means tertiary institution in the continent should offer nanotechnology education and this education should involve a multidisciplinary natural science education with courses in nanotechnology, physics, chemistry, math and molecular biology.

Africa as a developing continent has a lot to benefit from nanotechnology. The continent should only create a conducive environment to harness the potential benefits of this promising field of science.  Nanotechnology holds untold promise for the development of the African continent. Fully implemented, this science has the ability to assist in issues ranging from water sanitation to the treatment of diseases.

Therefore, it should be the mission of African countries to determine if they are fully prepared, financially and structurally, to heavily invest in nanotechnology projects and programmes.

October 2013
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