CAIRO: As the technology sector continues expanding in Egypt, a concerted effort has been made to forge ahead in the field of nanotechnology. As well as capitalizing on the potential benefits of nanotechnology, Egypt is hoping to avoid falling through the crack of what scientists have termed the “nanodivide.”
Hassan Azzazy, professor and chairman of the chemistry department at the American University in Cairo (AUC), underscored the dilemma: “Egypt is falling behind,” he said, as research and development only represent 0.5 percent of GDP, which is “miniscule.”
“Egypt must enter heavily into the field now, or risk losing out” by having to invest even more funds in the future to catch up to the west. “The longer we wait, the harder it will be,” Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb, chairman of SabryCorp, told Daily News Egypt.
In 2007, the global nanotechnology market was worth $148 billion; since that time, however, different organizations have arisen that use divergent variables to establish a figure, and as a result, there has been discord in reaching a consensus, noted Abdel-Mottaleb. In either case, Egypt’s slice of that pie is crumb-sized.
“For industrial countries, nanotechnology merely represents a matter of lifestyle, while for developing countries, it is a matter of life itself,” he added.
Individuals such as Abdel-Mottaleb and Azzazy have set out to ensure that nanotechnology will be used to alleviate some of the ubiquitous, overwhelming problems faced by emerging economies like Egypt, and to eschew being left in the dust by industrialized countries.
Saving time, money and lives
Nanotechnology applications are portentous, especially for developing nations, and can be applied to a panoply of industries: from healthcare to sanitation to construction to agriculture — just to name a few.
To illustrate, the technology, with which scientists create new materials and products by tinkering around at the molecular level, can be used to improve the cleanliness of buildings facades by making them dirt-resistant — or 40 percent cleaner.
The technology can also destroy pollution through the use of a special paint infused with nanomaterials that create a photochemical reaction when the two come into contact. This reaction “disarms” pollution — a highly enticing concept for cities suffering dense air pollution, Abdel-Mottaleb explained.
Painting interior walls with nanoinfused paint increases insulation to keep cool air inside, which can reduce energy consumption by 40 percent. This is a particularly salient application in Egypt, which is facing increasing pressure to meet the growing national energy demand.
In the world of medicine, nanotechnology will be used for “drug targeting,” which means a nanodrug carrier will be programmed with extreme precision to seek out and destroy infected cells for all types of illnesses, such as HIV, thereby making treatment more effective and efficient.
A plastic devise currently being developed called “lab on a chip,” costing about $10, will allow medical staff to detect up to 10,000 different illnesses within minutes from examining one drop of blood.
This represents a major boon for developing countries, which face significant challenges regarding the equitable distribution of health services throughout the country. Indeed, it is a hefty economic burden for the poor rural populations to halt work to access treatment in city centers.
The technology will be delivered to the person in need, Abdel-Mottaleb said, and provide continuous healthcare. “Instead of a ‘point of sale,’ you have ‘point of health,’” he said.
This is particularly crucial for those may have contracted Hepatitis C, a prevalent illness in Egypt, with around 10 million cases. “Many can’t get treatment, and when they do, the diagnosis comes too late,” said Abdel-Mottaleb. But with a targeting system, the diagnosis could be attained in 30 minutes, added Azzazy.
In a nutshell, “You save time, money and lives,” Abdel-Mottaleb stated.
In a best-case scenario, these applications could be implemented in three to four years if the technology is developed indigenously; if it must be imported, it could take up to 15-20 years, he highlighted. The argument for immediate funds and heightened focus on research is therefore overwhelmingly clear.
Weighing the risks
The benefits of the applications are certainly palpable, but the risks mustn’t be discounted. The regulatory framework for nanomaterials in Egypt is currently nonexistent, as both Azzazy and Abdel-Mottaleb said.
Yet, they are confident that regulations will be established once the need arises, and to guarantee that Egyptian regulations are up to international norms, they will be based on EU and US standards, which in turn will be adapted to local needs.
Concerns have been flagged as regards the impact of free nanoparticles that enter the natural environment — when products containing nanomaterials, for example, begin to decompose in landfills or when humans consume medicinal products containing nanodrug carriers.
Abdel-Mottaleb affirmed that this is a grave concern, but the industry has made a serious move to address these issues. He admitted though that, at best, little is known about the technology’s risks. Nonetheless, by 2018 nanomaterials will be prevalent in a myriad of products, according to industry predictions.
Abdel-Mottaleb attempted to assuage fears, stating that the Egyptian government and researchers would apply the precautionary principle when creating and introducing new products with nanomaterials into the market.
Unifying local talent
In spite of the dire warnings of failing to bridge the nanodivide and concerns over human health and the environment, inroads are, in fact, being made.
The Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) and IBM teamed up to create Egypt’s first national research lab, launched in 2008, to the tune of LE 300 million in seed money for the first three years, explained Ahmed Tantawy, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Nanotechnology and director of research at IBM.
The research lab will focus on creating nanotechnology applications for a range of international and local clients. The aim is have an impact on the national economy versus producing endless reams of research papers, explained Tantawy.
Two key areas of research, for instance, include renewable energy solutions, such as solar technology, as well as water desalination in addition to manufacturing applications.
Tantawy said the lab would be fully operational by the end of 2011, at which point “serious research work” will begin.
The establishment of the lab signifies a serious stride forward into the nanotechnology realm for Egypt, he said, nevertheless, more money is required. Future funds, however, will be sought from the lab’s growing base of clients rather than from the government.
Abdel-Mottaleb and Azzazy believe that if a national plan were established, through coordination and consolidation of Egypt’s talent pool as well as shoring up supplementary funds, the glimmer of hope for the country in nanotechnology would be a tad brighter.
Citing Iran as an example, Abdel-Mottaleb explained that in 2003 the country was ranked 134 internationally, but now it has swiftly climbed the ladder to 16 thanks to the country’s national nanotechnology initiative.
Thus, as Abdel-Mottaleb stressed, in a span of six to seven years, Iran has become a major nanotechnology force. As he put it, “They had a critical mass, got organized, and created local knowledge instead of importing it.”
Evidence of such a strategy seems to be emerging, as a symbiosis and exchange is occurring between the recently established Nile University nanotechnology program –under Abdel-Mottaleb’s direction, which is the first in the Middle East and Africa — the IBM research center as well as the nanoscience research being conducted at AUC.
If these efforts are unsuccessful in helping Egypt get a leg up on the nanotechnology competition, it would both bode poorly for the country’s downtrodden and also represent a missed opportunity for Egypt to contribute to, what Abdel-Mottaleb calls “the renaissance of science.”
By Christopher Le Coq
© Daily News Egypt 2010