Nanotechnology development in Thailand: Meeting society's needs

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Like other technologies, nanotechnology must address society’s needs and expectations. It should also respect the fundamental values associated with society’s rights. In doing so, the development of nanotechnology will ensure that its use is beneficial to society’s needs.
“When people look at research centers they often picture an ivory tower that shows researchers going about their research work that is not related to their life. Our job at NANOTEC (National Nanotechnology Center) is to use what is considered high technology to produce products that people can see and that matters to them” said Prof. Sirirurg Songsivilai during an interview session with BBC Click UK that was shown world wide in September 1, 2012. “Various research projects that we decide to undertake must be of national importance. This is one of the key prerequisites that we will base our decision whether to engage in those research programs or not”.
Getting on the bandwagon
Thailand has an incentive to exploit nanotechnology coupled with the dramatic economic growth of neighbors. This progress prompted Thailand to develop the capability to identify, promote and invigorate niche industries and products for sustainable development and national competitiveness in the global market. Science and technology (S&T) development was adopted as one of the indispensable key strategies for Thailand to make her economy and society more robust and competitive. Both the government and experts are focusing on science, technology and innovation development to make it more competitive on global markets, especially with the approach of a single Asean market by 2015. Nanotechnology development is expected to stimulate Thailand to leapfrog in key areas of S&T.
The government, realizing the importance of nanotechnology to economic growth, established the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC) in 2003 as one of four national research centers under the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA). With an annual budget of US$11 million, NANOTEC is the key research funding agency for nanotechnology in Thailand. NANOTEC is investing in nanotechnology as a means of differentiating and adding value so that domestic products can compete effectively.
Roles of NANOTEC
Roles of NANOTEC.
The center has a dual role of serving as a national R&D centre and as a funding agency to support universities and other research institutes. It has established strong links with other institutes in Thailand and with more than 400 nanotechnology researchers, as well as with leading nanotechnology centers overseas.
On August 29, 2012 NANOTEC joined 8 universities in signing the Center of Excellence (CoE) Agreement in which a 5 years funding approach between the 9 partners was established. The agreement focuses on joint research collaboration to create high impact results in industrial and commercial sectors.
The direction of nanotechnology development in Thailand draws on three key aspects:
  • National Importance: Conduct research and development activities that are of national importance to social and environment for the betterment of life as a result of economic improvement in areas related to industrial and agricultural sector, simultaneously building a pool of knowledge resources to generate experts in nanotechnology for sustainability growth.
  • International Excellence: Provide quality research and development, services, and supports that meet international standards practices.
  • Global Visibility: Help to promote both local and global awareness of in-house research outputs.
  • Sustainable development requires government support
    It is a well known fact that for any national development programs to be sustainable and have the opportunity to succeed, it requires the input and support of the government.
    The Thai government recently passed the National Nanotechnology Policy Framework (2012 -2021) which provides national guidelines for nanotechnology development, and it calls for science, technology and innovation in nanotechnology to be increased by 10-fold.
    The momentum continued in the area of building public awareness of direct and indirect effects of nano materials and nano products to health and environment. This year the government also approved the National Nano Safety and Ethics Strategic Plan (2012 – 2016). The aim of the plan is to work in parallel with nanotechnology development thus minimizing potential risks related to nano materials and nanotechnology applications. The plan aims to establish three strategies: establishment of knowledge management center, develop and reinforce measures, and promote public engagement activities. Progress is being made on many fronts. However, more work is still needed by the academia, policy makers, regulators, industrial sectors and the public to ensure risk governance of nanotechnology is upheld.
    In addition, the new NANOTEC Technology Roadmap was recently approved by the NANOTEC board and will run from 2013 to 2017.
    Ongoing research projects
    “Nanocatalysts are playing crucial roles in biorefinery and biofuel industry which would lead Thailand to the low carbon and bio-based society” said Dr. Kajornsak Faungnawakij from NANOTEC (Nanomaterial for Energy and Catalyst Lab). “Studies have shown that nanocatalyst can be used for biodiesel production with yield of more than 96%”.
    The research uses nano catalysts to convert used palm oil - the oil which is plentiful in supply and has high acid value - into biodiesel. The catalyst is porous with particle sizes of 30–100 nm which helps to increase catalytic activity, stability, and improved efficiency of transesterification.
    The application of nanocatalyst does not only apply to the energy sector but other sectors as well such as water purification, fuel cell, drug delivery, and photocatalytic activities. The Nanomaterials for Energy and Catalysis Lab focus its research activities on nanomaterial synthesis, processing and utilization in nanocatalysis for biomass conversion to various products, including biofuels, biochemical platforms, organic acids and soil conditioner.
    “Smart Glass” research at the Organic Nanomaterials Lab at NANOTEC focuses on enabling users to change a window’s color or opacity. “The potential applications of the smart glass technology are windows, sunglasses, and electronic displays” said Dr. Chuleekorn Chotsuwan one of the research team members. “ As a matter of fact, the technology could make curtains an obsolete item in a home”.
    Chuleekorn said that the material that has been tested for potential use as smart glass is a mix of organic and inorganic. The properties of the chosen materials can be designed through synthetic method. The researchers hope the technology will catch on and will move from lab to commercial opportunities.
    “Smart Soil” is a bio-product (peat moss like) synthesized by any cellulosic material (especially water hyacinth) via hydrothermal bio-conversion process.
    “Smart soil could be used as seed sowing or growing media” said Dr. Wiyong Kangwansupamonkon, researcher at Hybrid Nanostructure and Nanocomposites Lab. “The high water absorption and physiochemical properties of smart soil makes it effective for playing the role of soil conditioner”. The project has been receiving much attention since water hyacinth is considered an environmental menace in Thailand’s water canals.
    Nanotechnology to the rescue
    The 2011 mega flood in Thailand provided an opportunity for agencies and researchers to show how nanotechnology can help to mitigate the impact of future natural disasters. Several innovations have been produced and some are already in the market or under technology licensing negotiation.
    Nanotechnology for flood relief
    Nanotechnology for flood relief.
    An example of such innovation is the SOS water, a mobile water purification unit which uses both electricity and solar power to produce safe and clean water for disaster relief.
    The innovation combined the use of antimicrobial nanocoating to ceramic filters. Compared to conventional ceramic filter, an antimicrobial nanocoating ceramic filter will increase an extra security by killing or incapacitating bacteria left in the water and preventing the growth of mold and algae in the body of the filter. The project was implemented as a result of the need to provide drinking water to communities affected by the 2011 mega flooding in Thailand.
    SOS water system offers a mobile water purification unit integrated with a portable solar power option. The raw water goes through 6 filtration steps one of which is the antimicrobial nanocomposite ceramic filtration unit. The quality of drinking water meets the 2010 guide standard of drinking water by Department of Health, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand. The SOS water system is capable of producing 200 liters of drinking water per hour, suitable for community of 1000 inhabitants, and easily integrated into a pick-up, light truck, a trailer or a flat hull boat. The collaborator on the SOS water system included the Thai Red Cross which now operates one of the prototypes. The BBC Click, UK and the Technology Review (MIT), USA has both filmed the working of the SOS water system. The video can be viewed below:
    By Prof. Sirirurg Songsivilai, Executive Director of National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC), Thailand.

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