Think little


The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand)
February 15, 2011

Hans van der Voorn believes that New Zealand needs to back nanotechnology to stay competitive.

Asking whether New Zealand should be involved in nanotechnology is a bit like asking 15 years ago whether we should be involved in the internet. You simply cannot have aspirations to be a first world country and ignore it.

Advanced economies like Singapore, Germany and Australia have been spending large amounts on nanotech research for many years. High- growth economies like China and India are heavily backing nanotechnologies to lift their productivity and living standards.

There are many different varieties of nanotechnology and there isn't an exact definition to cover all of them. They operate in a size range roughly between a single atom and the wavelength of light. The reason that light matters is that below the wavelength of light it gets hard to "see" anything clearly. Scientists and engineers have developed new technologies and methods to measure, analyse and control material in the size range that we couldn't otherwise "see". It is the availability of all this equipment that allows nanotechnology to occur.

When optical microscopes were invented they enabled rapid advancements in scientific knowledge. For the first time we could actually see bacteria and cells and the structures of plants, rocks and insects so the understanding of them evolved rapidly. We are now in a similar situation with nanotechnology equipment. Many of these technologies were first invented 30 or more years ago but the equipment is becoming cheaper, faster and easier to use, which in turn enables greater participation and more discoveries. Izon's nanopore technology is a good example of this and detailed measurement at the nanoscale is available to undergraduates and even high school students.

The application of these nanotechnology tools in medicine, renewable energy, electronics, viruses, computing, biology, food and industry helps us understand what happens at the very fine scale. New tools are being applied to traditional sciences and enabling breakthroughs. One of the main applications of nanotechnology is the study of very small systems that occur in nature, down to the level of biomolecules. Medical researchers are using that information to radically change the way we understand and apply medicine. Extremely precise diagnostic systems are being developed, as are equally precise drug delivery systems, using nanoengineering techniques.

In New Zealand, as is often the case, we do quite well in a small way. The total nanotechnology research spend in New Zealand is less than $20 million a year, which is tiny in terms of what the rest of the world spends and also in relation to our gross domestic product. It is never enough, yet we have a group of people, for example in the MacDiarmid Institute, who can generate good ideas. The advent of new technologies creates change, which provides the opportunities for those who can think and move quickly. In this environment the fact that we are in a small economy and distant from our markets doesn't count against us.

Claims are regularly made about the huge economic impact of nanotechnology-derived products. The use of nanotechnology enables new products and improvements in existing products, but the added value arises from a whole chain of knowledge and events, not just from the nanotechnology. While there will inevitably be some big winners, there are many incremental gains to be made in most fields we are already good at.

There are only a few companies in New Zealand, including Izon, which could be called nanotechnology companies. They will create jobs and exports and increase our national productivity. The industry is small with exports of $2m a year, but it's growing rapidly. It's progress and better than many countries with bigger budgets. It took a long time for the wine industry to achieve $1 billion in exports and it is likely to be the same for the nanotechnology industry. As with wine, there are many wider benefits, which include providing career options for bright, hard- working young people. If we want to increase our standard of living and national productivity, we need high-value jobs with a sophisticated technically proficient workforce and an ecosystem to match.

On a broader scale we can apply nanotechnology to the dairy industry, for instance, to improve our understanding of milk products, improve cattle health and disease control with accurate on- farm detection, develop accurate and cheap biosensors, all of which lead to better and safer dairy products and better productivity. We won't be able to maintain the existing $10 billion or so of dairy exports unless we keep up with new technology.

Hans van der Voorn is the executive chairman of Izon Science Ltd.

Copyright 2011 Christchurch Press Co. Ltd. The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand)