Anno Nano could well be the newfangled mutation in calenderics. The anticipation of nanotechnology was first articulated in Richard Feynman’s renowned 1959 lecture – There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, while the formal definition of the term `nanotechnology’ was established in 1974 by Norio Taniguchi. Nanoparticles, owing to their diminutive size and expansive surface area, exhibit distinctive properties that can revolutionise various fields.
India has shown significant interest in the field of nano-biotechnology, evident in the launch of the National Nano Mission, overseen by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), which explores nanotechnology applications for safe drinking water, material development, sensor innovation, drug delivery, and more. Addressing the essential needs of a growing global population while minimising environmental impact is a significant challenge today.
The concept of sustainable development, as defined by the Brundtland Commission, emphasizes meeting current needs without compromising future generations. With the world population projected to reach 8-10 billion by 2050, there is a pressing need to enhance living standards while mitigating environmental consequences. Nanotechnology, envisioned as a solution, holds potential in areas such as agriculture, water treatment, and renewable energy. In an increasingly multidimensional approach to sustainability, the role of nanotechnology in advancing sustainable development must be closely strategized, aiming to provide insights for scientists, engineers, policymakers, and business leaders. Nano-sustainability involves developing and utilizing nanotechnologies with a focus on environmental responsibility and long-term viability.
It seeks to integrate nanoscale innovations that minimise ecological impact and contribute to the overall well-being of the planet. Embracing nano-sustainability ensures the responsible advancement of technology at the smallest scales for a greener and more sustainable future. In Bharat, the Modi government has paid particular emphasis on the deployment of nano-products in various areas of development as well as the associated regulations for the same, over the past decade. In this essay, I shall be looking at this in greater detail, with a focus on possible avenues of further progress, in the bid to move towards true and comprehensive nano-sustainability or Anusthāyitā (अणुस्थायिता).
Nano-Agriproducts and DBT Policy 2019
In the realm of agriculture, nanotechnology presents a promising frontier, holding the potential to revolutionise crop yields and bolster crop protection in response to the escalating needs of a burgeoning global population. The integration of innovative nano-interventions in agriculture brings the prospect of cost-effective, highly efficient solutions, particularly advantageous for developing nations. However, the transformative attributes of nanoparticles introduce a dual aspect. While they offer significant advancements in agricultural practises, concerns loom over potential nanoparticle-related toxicity, posing risks to both human health and the environment. The evaluation of nanoproducts for agriculture surpasses the complexity of traditional assessments for fertilizers, pesticides, or food safety.
The efficacy and impact of nanomaterials depend on the intricate interplay between their physico-chemical properties and diverse environmental factors, necessitating a multidisciplinary approach for alternative evaluation strategies. Addressing this challenge requires a revision of existing policies and the development of new standard guidelines informed by the latest scientific insights. The dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, spanning chemistry, materials science, physics, biology, engineering, and medicine, poses a considerable challenge for regulatory bodies worldwide. Interdepartmental convergence is imperative, underscoring the necessity for a unified approach.
The DBT 2019 guidelines aimed not only to ensure the quality and efficacy of nanotechnology-based innovations but also to prioritise safety. By emphasizing a high benefit-to-risk ratio compared to bulk counterparts, the guidelines sought to facilitate the commercialization of nanotechnological advancements while safeguarding against potential risks. Despite the presence of global provisions such as REACH, EPA, AVMPA, OECD, and FAO/WHO offering guidelines for nanomaterials, the ever-evolving landscape of nanotechnology complicates the application of universally accepted evaluation parameters.
The inherent variability in nanoproducts and their diverse applications necessitates a nuanced, case-by-case evaluation approach for nano-agriproducts (NAPs). The guidelines provided detailed considerations for nano-agriproducts (NAPs), talking of which, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is poised to formulate a comprehensive framework building on the output by the United States Food and Drug Administration (2014a, 2014b, 2015) and the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006.
These guidelines have categorised NAPs based on degradability, organicity, function, approvals, and synthesis methods, with specified safety and efficacy data requirements. In alignment with REACH, OECD, and FAO/WHO provisions, they establish criteria for the quality, safety, and efficacy of nano-agriproducts. Stakeholders involved in the research and development of NAPs, including manufacturers and importers, stand to benefit from these guidelines.
The evaluation of nano-agriproducts is recommended to be conducted on a case-by-case basis, considering scientific evidence, valid justifications, and adherence to safety and quality standards. Notably, the guidelines also outline specific criteria for nano-feed safety and evaluation under the Cattle Feed (Regulation of Manufacture and Sale) Order, 2009, emphasising additional considerations in nano-feed inclusion. In parallel, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) released a zero draft in November 2017, underscoring the transformative potential of nanotechnology in global food production.
The draft advocated for the controlled use of nano-fertilizers to enhance nutrient efficiency, provide stress tolerance to crops, and reduce environmental pollution. The DBT’s 2019 guidelines complement this vision, aiming to foster interdepartmental and interministerial cooperation within the Indian government. Together, these initiatives focused on leveraging nanotechnology to improve agricultural systems, reduce nutrient losses, minimise agrochemical use, and optimise water and nutrient management for increased productivity. The proposed policy promoted innovation and translational research, positioning India at the forefront of agri-nanotechnology and food technology. The guidelines attempted at encompass a range of nano-products, including nano-fertilizers, nanopesticides, finished food formulations, feed formulations, nanoprocessing aids, nanocomposites for food packaging, and nano-sensors for food safety applications.
Nanomaterials for Water Purification, Clean Energy, Greenhouse Gas Management and Green Manufacturing
Nanomaterials, with their unique physicochemical properties, offer significant potential for sustainable technologies. Their extensive and active surface areas, functionalization capabilities, and superior electronic, optical, catalytic, and magnetic properties make them valuable in various forms, such as water-soluble supramolecular hosts, particles, fibers, and membranes.
The increasing demand for clean water poses a critical challenge globally, exacerbated by contamination and salinization of freshwater sources. The convergence of nanotechnology with water science has led to revolutionary advancements in water treatment and desalination technologies. Pressure-driven membrane processes like reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, ultrafiltration, and microfiltration are key components in these advancements. Fundamental investigations into membrane processes, materials, and systems contribute to shaping efficient water treatment strategies.
Metal oxide nanoparticles, particularly titanium dioxide (TiO2), have emerged as promising catalysts for water purification due to their large surface areas and unique properties. There has been significant work on the synthesis, characterization, and evaluation of TiO2-based photocatalysts, showcasing their efficacy in degrading pollutants under various light conditions. Additionally, the use of metal oxide nanoparticles in magnetic separation technology is a matter of active research, presenting opportunities for efficient water treatment. Magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles functionalized with proteins exhibit potential for time-efficient water treatment, demonstrating recyclability and effective removal of turbidity from surface water.
Bharat has been making strides in this direction. Global climate change stands as another formidable challenge in the twenty-first century, primarily driven by escalating emissions of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide (CO2), from fossil fuel combustion. Acknowledging this, the consensus is that addressing the surging energy demand while curbing CO2 emissions requires a substantial increase in clean and renewable energy systems. Nanotechnology emerges as a pivotal tool, offering unparalleled prospects for advancing clean and renewable energy technologies.
Solar photovoltaics, a leading renewable energy source, has seen new frontiers in areas such as the templated synthesis of mesoporous TiO2 thin films for dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs). Nano-gold and nano-silver have seen application in this area, across the world. The India nanogold market was valued at Rs 1676.8 crores in 2019, and is projected to reach Rs 4160.5 crores by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 17.0 per cent from 2020 to 2027. On the other hand, the India nano silver market size was valued at Rs 512.9 crores in 2019, and is projected to reach Rs 1733.5 crores by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 21.3% from 2020 to 2027.
Hydrogen generation through solar water splitting demonstrates a rooftop prototype of a hybrid photovoltaic electrolysis system. This innovative system utilizes semiconductor nanoparticles coated onto metal substrates as electrodes, coupling hydrogen generation with the oxidation of organic compounds in wastewater. Considering the transportation sector’s substantial contribution to oil consumption and CO2 emissions, polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) present a promising solution. In line with National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap of the Government of India, there have been initiatives to develop and demonstrate hydrogen-powered IC engines and fuel cell-based vehicles, integrating PEMFCs. Several organisations, including CFCT-ARCI, CSIR-Network Labs, NMRL, VSSC, and BHEL, are actively involved in the comprehensive development of PEMFC systems.
Various research projects being undertaken in Modi’s Bharat to this end include the development of stabilised forms of phosphomolybdic acid, phosphotungstic acid, and silicotungstic acid incorporated into PVA cross-linked polymers, novel mixed-matrix membranes like sodium alginate (NaAlg) with PVA and specific heteropolyacids (HPAs), high-temperature polymers such as PBI and SPEEK, cross-linked SPEEK-reactive organo-clay nanocomposites, phosphonated multiwall carbon nanotube-polybenzimidazole composites, blends of PBI and poly(vinyl-1,2,4-triazole), oligosilsesquioxane hybrid membranes, anhydrous proton-conducting hybrid membrane electrolytes for high temperature PEM, zwitterionic silica copolymer-based cross-linked organic-inorganic hybrid polymer electrolyte membranes, carbon nanotubes-rooted montmorillonite (CNT-MM) reinforced nanocomposite membranes, domain size manipulation by sulfonic acid-functionalized MWCNTs, functionalized CNT-based composite polymer electrolytes, and minimally hydrated polymers replacing water with proton mobility facilitator.
Sustainable material utilisation is integral to the development of next-generation technologies. Nanotechnology has played a role in achieving material sustainability for energy generation. Researchers have also tried to undertake electronic waste (e-waste) management by converting e-waste into mesoporous silica, offering an environmentally friendly solution. Auxiliary research, in this respect, is the controlled release of the pesticide metalaxyl using silica nanoparticles, contributing to smart systems in agriculture, as well as the biosynthesis of iron oxide nanoparticles using Aspergillus japonicus fungus, showcasing the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology for eco-friendly green chemistry routes.
Prospects in Namo’s Bharat
Bharat has expanded on the Nano Mission launched in 2007, with the application of cutting-edge technology in the nano-realm for societal benefit, particularly around the theme of sustainability. After Bharat was swept by the Modi-wave in 2014, the Union Cabinet granted approval for its continuation into Phase-II during the 12th Plan period, allocating a substantial amount of ₹650 crore for its implementation. Over the years, we have seen the initiative has significantly elevated Bharat’s global standing, with the nation being among the top five in the world in research publications in the realm of nanoscience. The ongoing commitment and support for the Nano Mission reflect the government’s dedication to fostering advancements in nanoscience and technology, positioning India as a key player in this cutting-edge and dynamic field. In 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s inaugural nano-urea liquid plant established by IFFCO in Kalol, Gujarat. What is most important is that in our bid to move ahead in the realm of nano-sciences, we have nano-sustainability as an integral part of our vision, reflecting the Dharmic moorings of our Bharatiya civilization. The one aspect that could be enhanced Is the involvement of the private sector in nanotechnology research, which, in Bharat, has been relatively limited, contrasting with the significant insights provided by academic institutions into the transformative potential of nanotechnology for addressing crucial needs in the Indian market. The latter has seen the likes of researchers at IIT Madras who have harnessed nanotechnology to address arsenic contamination in water and the team from IIT Delhi that has developed a water-based self-cleaning technology tailored for the textile industry. This is where the current Union government, with its historic track-record of pathbreaking initiatives – from the National Quantum Mission (NQM) and National Education Policy (NEP) to the Labour Code 2023 and Goods and Services Tax (GST), can lay the regulatory groundwork for private sector involvement in nano-sustainability, with a possible focussed extension of the recently promoted Green Credit programme of the government. The only way for Bharat today, nano-sustainably speaking, is upwards. Be it Modi’s emphasis on clean energy technologies with nano-sciences or the push for sustainable nanomaterials in Bharat today, we are surefootedly moving on our path to attaining Anusthāyitā (अणुस्थायिता).