R80m boost for nanotech

Audra Mahlong
By Audra Mahlong, senior journalist
Johannesburg, 25 Feb 2009

SA will soon house one of the most technologically advanced imaging machines available, which will allow the country to make progress in nanotechnology research, says the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The Department of Science and Technology (DST), through its national agency, the National Research Fund (NRF), will invest over R80 million in a High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscope (HRTEM) centre, which will be located at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

The HRTEM is an imaging microscope which - through its high-resolution - allows for the imaging and study of nanoscale properties of materials such as semiconductors and metals.

The money will be used for the creation of the centre's control and supporting systems, servicing contracts, training and the acquisition of the High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscope instrument. The NRF says the HRTEM will have aberration-corrected lenses, allowing it to both image and analyse samples and distinguish individual atoms - making it one of the most advanced instruments of its type currently available globally.

The NRF states the centre and instrument will only be operational in two years. The national agency says it is looking to have completed its order for the instrument by March - once the bidding process is complete. It also estimates the manufacturing of the machine will take an entire year - which means the HRTEM centre and instrument will only become a reality in 2011.

The NRF will implement and manage the establishment of the centre and will be partnered by Sasol, Element Six, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation and Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.

Making strides

The move forms part of the DST's national nanotechnology strategy. The department says this strategy aims “to ensure that South Africa remains competitive with the international research community in this fast-developing field”.

Along with recent initiatives, such as the Technology Innovation Agency, the HRTEM centre and instrument marks efforts by government to improve technological research and development (R&D) and ensure “tangible, measurable” benefits from R&D.

As part of the national strategy, science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena opened the first two national nanotechnology innovation centres in 2007. The National Centre for Nano-structured Materials, based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, is focused on the design and modelling of novel nano-structured materials. The second centre - the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre - is hosted at Mintek and is focused on the fields of sensor, biolabel and water nanotechnology.

The country is only in the initial wave of nanotechnology development and the DST hopes that the HRTEM and the centre will elevate it to a stage where sophisticated electronic devices can be developed locally. Currently, most nanotechnology-based products are in the areas of defence, sporting goods and consumer-convenience items.

The department hopes that, within five to 10 years, devices using nanoscale circuitry and memory can become a reality locally. It also hopes that, within 10 to 15 years, pharmaceutical products, drug delivery, disease therapy and health-monitoring devices will be greatly impacted by developments in nanotechnology. The overall objective, according to the DST, is the emergence of “completely new forms of devices and processes” locally.