Soft nanotechnologies – levelling the playing field?

Knowledge brokering25 Oct 2010Vinod Subramaniam

Growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, the dream of many a young student, including myself, was to participate in the nanotechnology revolution represented by the integrated circuit. That meant engineering school, graduate studies in the United States, and then a jump into Silicon Valley or the Intels of the world. We had all heard of Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun, and Vinod Dham, the ‘father of the Pentium’; there were legions of other success stories.

This nanotechnology revolution had bypassed India; the hardcore technology that enabled the electronics revolution never really took root in the land, even while billion-dollar chip fabs were being established in Taiwan, China and other countries in Southeast and East Asia. Even now, there is no large-scale chip fab in the country, while a very great deal of the software that runs on the platforms enabled by these advances originates there. There are many reasons for this curiosity, including the economic and bureaucratic environment, the inability to support such astronomical capital investments, but certainly not a lack of desire, knowledge or ambition.

The more recent emergence of soft nanotechnologies, based on chemical or biological principles, promises to be a very different story. The capital investments for these approaches are not nearly so high, and there is an immense pool of smart, well-educated young people in Asia and Africa who could prove to be engines of creativity. I dare to think that this soft nanotechnology revolution could prove to be one that is more inclusive, and could find roots in places that one would not traditionally associate with the high-tech nanotechnology industry.