Harnessing Nanotechnology to Improve Global Equity

The less industrialized countries are eager to play an early role in developing this technology; the global community should help them.

Developing countries usually find themselves on the sidelines watching the excitement of technological innovation. The wealthy industrialized nations typically dominate the development, production, and use of new technologies. But many developing countries are poised to rewrite the script in nanotechnology. They see the potential for nanotechnology to meet several needs of particular value to the developing world and seek a leading role for themselves in the development, use, and marketing of these technologies. As the next major technology wave, nanotechnology will be revolutionary in a social and economic as well as a scientific and technological sense.

Developing countries are already aware that nanotechnology can be applied to many of their pressing problems, and they realize that the industrialized countries will not place these applications at the top of their to-do list. The only way to be certain that their needs are addressed is for less industrialized nations themselves to take the lead in developing those applications. In fact, many of these countries have already begun to do so. The wealthy nations should see this activity as a potential catalyst for the type of innovative research and economic development sorely needed in these countries. Strategic help from the developed world could have a powerful impact on the success of this effort. Planning this assistance should begin with an understanding of developing-country technology needs and knowledge of the impressive R&D efforts that are already under way.

To provide strategic focus to nanotechnology efforts, we recently carried out a study using a modified version of the Delphi method and worked with a panel of 63 international experts, 60 percent of whom were from developing countries, to identify and rank the 10 applications of nanotechnology most likely to benefit the less industrialized nations in the next 10 years. The panelists were asked to consider impact, burden, appropriateness, feasibility, knowledge gaps, and indirect benefits of each application proposed. Our results, shown in Table 1, show a high degree of consensus with regard to the top four applications: All of the panelists cited at least one of the top four applications in their personal top-four rankings, with the majority citing at least three.

Table 1.
Top 10 Applications of Nanotechnology for Developing Countries

1. Energy storage, production, and conversion
2. Agricultural productivity enhancement
3. Water treatment and remediation
4. Disease diagnosisand screening
5. Drug delivery systems
6. Food processing and storage
7. Air pollution and remediation
8. Construction
9. Health monitoring
10. Vector and pest detection and control

Source: F. Salamanca-Buentello etal., “Nanotechnology and the Developing World,” PLoSMedicine2 (2003): e97.

To further assess the impact of nanotechnology on sustainable development, we asked ourselves how well these nanotechnology opportunities matched up with the eight United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, which aim to promote human development and encourage social and economic sustainability. We found that nanotechnology can make a significant contribution to five of the eight goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; ensuring environmental sustainability; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. A detailed look at how nanotechnology could be beneficial in the three most commonly mentioned areas is illustrative.

Energy storage, production, and conversion. The growing world population needs cheap noncontaminating sources of energy. Nanotechnology has the potential to provide cleaner, more affordable, more efficient, and more reliable ways to harness renewable resources. The rational use of nanotechnology can help developing countries to move toward energy self-sufficiency, while simultaneously reducing dependence on nonrenewable, contaminating energy sources such as fossil fuels. Because there is plenty of sunlight in most developing countries, solar energy is an obvious source to consider. Solar cells convert light into electric energy, but current materials and technology for these cells are expensive and inefficient in making this conversion. Nanostructured materials such as quantum dots and carbon nanotubes are being used for a new generation of more efficient and inexpensive solar cells. Efficient solar-derived energy could be used to power the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, a potential source of clean energy. Nanomaterials also have the potential to increase by several orders of magnitude the efficiency of the electrolytic reactions.

One of the limiting factors to the harnessing of hydrogen is the need for adequate storage and transportation systems. Because hydrogen is the smallest element, it can escape from tanks and pipes more easily than can conventional fuels. Very strong materials are needed to keep hydrogen at very low temperature and high pressure. Novel nanomaterials can do the job. Carbon nanotubes have the capacity to store up to 70 percent of hydrogen by weight, an amount 20 times larger than that in currently used compounds. Additionally, carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight, so theoretically, a 100-pound container made of nanotubes could store at least as much hydrogen as could a 600-pound steel container, and its walls would be 100 times as strong.

Agricultural productivity enhancement. Nanotechnology can help develop a range of inexpensive applications to increase soil fertility and crop production and thus to help eliminate malnutrition, a contributor to more than half the deaths of children under five in developing countries. We currently use natural and synthetic zeolites, which have a porous structure, in domestic and commercial water purification, softening, and other applications. Using nanotechnology, it is possible to design zeolite nanoparticles with pores of different sizes. These can be used for more efficient, slow, and thorough release of fertilizers; or they can be used for more efficient livestock feeding and delivery of drugs. Similarly, nanocapsules can release their contents, such as herbicides, slowly and in a controlled manner, increasing the efficacy of the substances delivered.

Water treatment and remediation. One-sixth of the world’s population lacks access to safe water supplies; one-third of the population of rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has no clean water; and 2 million children die each year from water-related diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and schistosomiasis. Nanotechnology can provide inexpensive, portable, and easily cleaned systems that purify, detoxify, and desalinate water more efficiently than do conventional bacterial and viral filters. Nanofilter systems consist of “intelligent” membranes that can be designed to filter out bacteria, viruses, and the great majority of water contaminants. Nanoporous zeolites, attapulgite clays (which can bind large numbers of bacteria and toxins), and nanoporous polymers (which can bind 100,000 times more organic contaminants than can activated carbon) can all be used for water purification.

Nanomagnets, also known as “magnetic nanoparticles” and “magnetic nanospheres,” when coated with different compounds that have a selective affinity for diverse contaminating substances, can be used to remove pollutants from water. For example, nanomagnets coated with chitosan, a readily available substance derived from the exoskeleton of crabs and shrimps that is currently used in cosmetics and medications, can be used to remove oil and other organic pollutants from aqueous environments. Brazilian researchers have developed superparamagnetic nanoparticles that, coated with polymers, can be spread over a wide area in dustlike form; these modified nanomagnets would readily bind to the pollutant and could then be recovered with a magnetic pump. Because of the size of the nanoparticles and their high affinity for the contaminating agents, almost 100 percent of the pollutant would be removed. Finally, the magnetic nanoparticles and the polluting agents would be separated, allowing for the reuse of the magnetic nanoparticles and for the recycling of the pollutants. Also, magnetite nanoparticles combined with citric acid, which binds metallic ions with high affinity, can be used to remove heavy metals from soil and water.

Developing-country activities

Understanding how selected developing countries are harnessing nanotechnology can provide lessons for other countries and for each other. These lessons can be used to provide heads of state and science and technology ministers in less industrialized countries with specific guidance and good practices for implementing innovation policies that direct the strengths of the public and private sectors toward the development and use of nanotechnology to address local sustainable development needs. The actions of developing countries themselves will ultimately determine whether nanotechnology will be successfully harnessed in the developing world.

Developed-country governments should provide incentives for their companies to direct a portion of their R&D toward the development of nanotechnology in less industrialized nations.

We found little extant useful information on nanotechnology research in developing countries, so we conducted our own survey. This preliminary study used information we could collect on the Internet, from e-mail exchanges with experts, and from other publicly available documents. We were able to categorize countries based on the degree of government support for nanotechnology, on the presence or absence of a formal government funding program, on the level of industry involvement, and on the amount of research being done in academic institutions and research groups. Our results revealed a surprising amount of nanotechnology R&D activity (Table 2). Our plan now is to conduct individual case studies of developing countries to obtain a greater depth of understanding. Below is some detailed information we have acquired in the preliminary study.

China. China has a very strong and solid Nanoscience and Nanotechnology National Plan, a National Steering Committee for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and a National Nanoscience Coordination Committee. Eleven institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are involved in a major nanotechnology research projects funded partly by the Knowledge Innovation Program. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology actively supports several nanoscience and nanotechnology initiatives. The Nanometer Technology Center in Beijing is part of China’s plan to establish a national nanotechnology infrastructure and research center; it involves recruiting scientists, protecting intellectual property rights, and building international cooperation in nanotechnology. China’s first nanometer technology industrial base is located in the Tianjin economic and development area. Haier, one of the country’s largest home appliance producers, has incorporated a series of nanotechnology-derived materials and features into refrigerators, televisions, and computers. Industry and academic researchers have worked together to produce nanocoatings for textiles that render silk, woollen, and cotton clothing water- and oilproof, prevent clothing from shrinking, and protect silk from discoloration. Nanotech Port of Shenzhen is the largest manufacturer of single-walled and multi-walled carbon nanotubes in Asia. Shenzheng Chengying High-Tech produces nanostructured composite anti-ultraviolet powder, nanostructured composite photocatalyst powder, and high-purity nanostructured titanium dioxide. The last two nanomaterials are being used to catalyze the destruction of contaminants using sunlight.

Table 2.
Selected Developing Countries and Their Nanotechnology Activity

Front Runner China National government funding program
South Korea Nanotechnology patents
India Commercial products on the market or in development
Middle Ground Thailand Development of national government funding program
Philippines Some form of existing government support (e.g., research grants)
South Africa Limited industry involvement
Brazil Numerous research institutions
Up and Comer Argentina Organized government funding not yet established
Mexico Industry not yet involved
Research groups funded through various science and technology institutions

India. Indian nanotechnology efforts cover a wide spectrum of areas, including microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), nanostructure synthesis and characterization, DNA chips, quantum computing electronics, carbon nanotubes, nanoparticles, nanocomposites, and biomedical applications of nanotechnology. The Indian government catalyzed, through the Department of Science and Technology, the National Nanotechnology Program, which is funded with $10 million over 3 years. India has also created a Nanomaterials Science and Technology Initiative and a National Program on Smart Materials; the latter will receive $15 million over 5 years. This program, which is focused on materials that respond quickly to environmental stimuli, is jointly sponsored by five government agencies and involves 10 research centers. The Ministry of Defence is developing projects on nanostructured magnetic materials, thin films, magnetic sensors, nanomaterials, and semiconductor materials. India has also formed a joint nanotechnology initiative with the European Union (EU). Several academic institutions are pursuing nanotechnology R&D, among them the Institute of Smart Materials Structures and Systems of the Indian Institute of Science; the Indian Institute of Technology; the Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology, and Research Academy; the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics; and the Universities of Delhi, Pune, and Hyderabad. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, India’s premier R&D body, holds numerous nanotechnology-related patents, including novel drug delivery systems, production of nanosized chemicals, and high-temperature synthesis of nanosized titanium carbide. In the industrial sector, Nano Biotech Ltd. is doing research in nanotechnology for multiple diagnostic and therapeutic uses. Dabur Research Foundation is involved in developing nanoparticle delivery systems for anticancer drugs. Similarly, Panacea Biotec has made advances in novel controlled-release systems, including nanoparticle drug delivery for eye diseases, mucoadhesive nanoparticles, and transdermal drug delivery systems. CranesSci MEMS Lab, a privately funded research laboratory located at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Indian Institute of Science, is the first privately funded MEMS institution in India; it carries out product-driven research and creates intellectual property rights in MEMS and related fields with an emphasis on social obligations and education.

Brazil. The government of Brazil considers nanotechnology a strategic area. The Brazilian national nanotechnology initiative started in 2001, putting together several existing high-level nanotechnology research groups in several academic institutions and national research centers. Four research networks have been created with initial funds provided by the Ministry of Science and Technology through the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development. Two virtual institutes operating in the area of nanoscience and nanotechnology have also been created through the national program. The total budget for nanoscience and nanotechnology for 2004 was about $7 million; the predicted budget for 2004-2007 is around $25 million. About 400 scientists are working on nanotechnology in Brazil. Activities include a focus on nanobiotechnology, novel nanomaterials, nanotechnology for optoelectronics, biosensors, tissue bioengineering, biodegradable nanoparticles for drug delivery, and magnetic nanocrystals.

South Africa. South African research in nanotechnology currently focuses on applications for social development and industrial growth, including synthesis of nanoparticles, development of better and cheaper solar cells, highly active nanophase catalysts and electrocatalysts, nanomembrane technology for water purification and catalysis, fuel-cell development, synthesis of quantum dots, and nanocomposites development. The South African Nanotechnology Initiative (SANi), founded in 2003, aims to build a critical mass of universities, science councils, and industrial companies that will focus on those areas of nanotechnology in which South Africa can have an advantage. To this end, SANi has an initial budget of about $1.3 million. The total spending in South Africa on nanotechnology is about $3 million. SANi is also interested in promoting public awareness of nanotechnology and assessing the impact of nanotechnology in the South African population. There are currently 11 universities, 5 research organizations (including the Water Research Commission), and 10 private companies actively participating in this initiative. The areas of interest of the private sector in South Africa appear to be chemicals and fuels, energy and telecommunications, water, mining, paints, and paper manufacturing.

Addressing the legitimate concerns associated with nanotechnology can foster public support and allow the technology platform to progress in a socially responsible manner.

Mexico. Mexico has 13 centers and universities involved in nanotechnology research. In 2003, the National Council of Science and Technology spent $12.5 million on 62 projects in 19 institutions. There is strong interest in nanoparticle research for optics, microelectronics, catalysis, hard coatings, and medical electronics. Several groups have focused on fullerenes (in particular, carbon nanotubes), nanowires, molecular sieves for ultrahard coatings, catalysis, nanocomposites, and nanoelectronics. Novel polymer nanocomposites are being developed for high-performance materials, controlled drug release, nanoscaffolds for regenerative medicine applications, and novel dental materials. Last year, Mexican researchers, along with the Mexican federal government and private investors, unveiled a project for the creation of the $18 million National Laboratory of Nanotechnology, which will be under the aegis of the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics. The initiative was funded by the National Council of Science and Technology, several state governments, and Motorola.

Biotechnology lessons

Lessons from successful health-biotechnology innovation in developing nations, by analogy, might also offer some guidance for nanotechnology innovation. We recently completed a 3-year empirical case study of the health-biotechnology innovation systems in seven developing countries: Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, India, China, and South Korea.

The study identified many key factors involved in each of the success stories, such as the focus on the use of biotechnology to meet local health needs. For instance, South Africa has prioritized research on HIV/AIDS, its largest health problem, and developments are under way for a vaccine against the strain most prevalent in the country; Egypt is responding to its insulin shortage by focusing its R&D efforts on the drug; Cuba developed the world’s only meningitis B vaccine as a response to a national outbreak; and India has reduced the cost of its recombinant hepatitis B vaccine to well below that in the developed world. Publications on health research in each of these countries follow the same trend of focusing on local health needs.

Political will is another important factor for establishing a successful health-biotechnology sector, because long-term government support was integral in all seven case studies. In efforts to promote health care biotechnology, governments have developed specific polices, provided funding and recognition for the importance of research, responded to the challenges of brain drain, and provided biotechnology enterprises with incentives to overcome problematic economic conditions. Close linkages and active communication are important as well. Whereas in some countries, such as Cuba, strong collaboration and linkages yielded successful health-biotechnology innovation, lack of these factors in China, Brazil, and Egypt has resulted in less impressive innovation. Defining niche areas, such as vaccines, emerged as another key factor in establishing a successful health-biotechnology sector. Some of the countries have also used their competitive advantages, such as India’s strong past focus on generic drug development.

Our study identified private-sector development as essential for the translation of health-biotechnology knowledge into products and services. South Korea significantly surpassed all other countries in this respect, with policies in place to assist technology transfer and allow university professors to create private firms. China has also promoted enterprise formation, converting existing research institutions into companies. To further explore the role of the private sector, we are currently examining how the domestic health-biotechnology sector in developing countries contributes to addressing local health needs and what policies or practices could make that contribution more effective.

The 2004 report of the UN Commission on Private Sector and Development, Unleashing Entrepreneurship, Making Business Work for the Poor () emphasized the important economic role of the domestic private sector in developing countries. The commission, chaired by Paul Martin and Ernesto Zedillo, highlighted how managerial, organizational, and technological innovation in the private sector, particularly the small and mid-sized enterprise segment, can improve the lives of the poor by empowering citizens and contributing to economic growth. The work of the commission also emphasized the lack of knowledge about best practices and the need for more sustained research and analysis of what works and what does not when attempting to harness the capabilities of the private sector in support of development.

The catalytic challenge

Although the ultimate success of harnessing nanotechnology to improve global equity rests with developing countries themselves, there are significant actions that the global community can take in partnership with developing countries to foster the use of nanotechnology for development. These include:

Addressing global challenges. We have proposed an initiative called Addressing Global Challenges Using Nanotechnology, which can catalyze the use of nanotechnology to address critical sustainable development problems. In the spirit of the concept of Grand Challenges, we are issuing a call to arms for investigators to confront one or more bottlenecks in an imagined path to solving a significant development problem (or preferably several) by seeking very specific scientific or technological breakthroughs that would overcome this obstacle. A scientific board, similar to the one created for the Foundation for the U.S. National Institutes of Health/Bill and MelindaGates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health, with strong representation of developing countries, would need to be established to provide guidance and oversee the program. The top 10 nanotechnology applications identified above can be used as a roadmap to define the grand challenges.

Helping to secure funding. Two sources of funding, private and public, would finance our initiative. In February 2004, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin proposed that 5 percent of Canada’s R&D investment be used to address developing world challenges (). If all industrialized nations adopted this target, part of these funds could be directed toward addressing global challenges using nanotechnology. In addition, developed-country governments should provide incentives for their companies to direct a portion of their R&D toward the development of nanotechnology in less industrialized nations.

Forming effective North-South collaborations. There are already promising examples of North-South partnerships. For instance, the EU has allocated 285 million Euros through its 6th Framework Programme (FP6) for scientific and technological cooperation with third-partner countries, including Argentina, Chile, China, India, and South Africa. A priority research area under FP6 is nanotechnology and nanoscience. Another example is the U.S. funding of nanotechnology research in Vietnam, as well as the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Committee for Science & Technology Cooperation. IndiaNano, a platform created jointly by the Indian-American community in Silicon Valley and Indian experts involved in nanotechnology R&D, aims to establish partnerships between Indian academic, corporate, government, and private institutions in order to support nanotechnology R&D in India and to coordinate the academic, government, and corporate sectors with entrepreneurs, early-stage companies, investors, joint ventures, service providers, startup ventures, and strategic alliances.

Facilitating knowledge repatriation by diasporas. We have recently begun a diaspora study to understand in depth how emigrants can more systematically contribute to innovation and development in their countries of origin. A diaspora is formally defined as a community of individuals from a specific developing country who left home to attend school or find a better job and now work in industrialized nations in academia, research, or industry. This movement of highly educated men and women is often described as a “brain drain” and is usually seen as having devastating effects in the developing world. Rather than deem this migration, which is extremely difficult to reverse, an unmitigated disaster, some developing countries have sought ways to tap these emigrants’ scientific, technological, networking, management, and investment capabilities. India actively encourages its “nonresident Indians” diaspora to make such contributions to development back home, and these people have made a valuable contribution to the Indian information technology and communications sector. We foresee a significant role for diasporas in the development of nanotechnology in less industrialized nations.

Emphasizing global governance. We propose the formation of an international network on the assessment of emerging technologies for development. This network should include groups that will explore the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology, incorporating developed- and developing-world perspectives, and examine the effects of a potential “nanodivide.” The aim of the network would be to facilitate a more informed policy debate and advocate for the interests of those in developing countries. Addressing the legitimate concerns associated with nanotechnology can foster public support and allow the technology platform to progress in a socially responsible manner. Among the issues to be discussed are who will control the means of production and who will assess the risks and benefits? What will be the effects of military and corporate control over nanotechnology? How will the incorporation of artificial materials into human systems affect health, security, and privacy? How long will nanomaterials remain in the environment? How readily do nanomaterials bind to environmental contaminants? Will these particles move up through the food chain, and what will be their effect on humans? There are also potential risk management issues specific to developing countries: displacement of traditional markets, the imposition of foreign values, the fear that technological advances will be extraneous to development needs, and the lack of resources to establish, monitor, and enforce safety regulations. Addressing these challenges will require active participation on the part of developing countries. In developing these networks, the InterAcademy Council of the world’s science academies could play a role in convening groups of the world’s experts who can provide informed guidance on these issues.

The inequity between the industrialized and developing worlds is arguably the greatest ethical challenge facing us today. The gap is even growing by some measures. For example, life expectancies in most industrialized nations are 80 years and rising, whereas in many developed nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV/AIDS is rampant, life expectancies are 40 years and falling.

Although science and technology are not a magic bullet and cannot address problems such as geography, poor governance, and unfair trade practices, they have an essential role in confronting these challenges, as explained in the 2005 report of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation (http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/documents/Science-complete.pdf). Some will argue that the focus on cutting-edge developments in nanotechnology is misplaced when developing countries have yet to acquire more mature technologies and are still struggling to meet basic needs such as food and water availability. This is a short-sighted view. All available strategies, from the simplest to the most complex, should be pursued simultaneously. Some will deal with the near term, others the long-term future. What was cutting-edge yesterday is low-tech today, and today’s high-tech breakthrough will be tomorrow’s mass-produced commodity.

Each new wave of science and technology innovation has the potential to expand or reduce the inequities between industrialized and developing countries in health, food, water, energy, and other development parameters. Information and communication technology produced a digital divide, but this gap is now closing; genomics and biotechnology spawned the genomics divide, and we will see if it contracts. Will nanotechnology produce the nanodivide? Resources might be directed primarily to nanosunscreens, nanotrousers, and space elevators to benefit the 600 million people in rich countries, but that path is not predetermined. Nanotechnology could soon be applied to address the critical health, food, water, and energy needs of the 5 billion people in the developing world.

Recommended Reading

  • E. Court, A. S. Daar, E. Martin, T. Acharya, and P. A. Singer, Will Prince Charles et al. Diminish the Opportunities of Developing Countries in Nanotechnology? (2004). Available at http://www.nanotechweb.org/articles/society/3/1/1/1.
  • E. B. Court, A. S. Daar, D. L. Persad, F. Salamanca-Buentello, and P. A. Singer, “Tiny Technologies for the Global Good,” Nano Today (April/May 2005): 14–15.
  • Meridian Institute, Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks (2005). Available at .
  • F. Salamanca-Buentello, D. L. Persad, E. B. Court, D. K. Martin, A. S. Daar, et al., “Nanotechnology and the Developing World,” PLoS Medicine 2 (2005): e97.
  • H. Thorsteinsdottir, U. Quach, A. S. Daar, and P. A. Singer,“Conclusions: Promoting Biotechnology Innovation in Developing Countries,” Nature Biotechnology 22 (2004): DC48–52.
  • H. Varmus, R. Klausner, E. Zerhouni, T. Acharya, A. S. Daar, et al. “Grand Challenges in Global Health,” Science 302 (2003): 398–399.
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Cite this Article

Daar, Abdallah S., Fabio Salamanca-Buentello, and Peter A. Singer. “Harnessing Nanotechnology to Improve Global Equity.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 4 (Summer 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 4, Summer 2005