Thais aim to make a mark with nano-fabrics
After sports shirts, researchers target uniforms and cotton
After spending three long years and over Bt200 million, Thai nanotechnologists have finally carved out a niche for development. It lies in creating nano-fabrics.
Since the successful introduction of a nano sports shirt recently, the next goals are school uniforms, and Thai silk and cotton products, Dr Teerachai Pornsinsirirak, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Centre (Nanotec), said.
"Both [Thai silk and cotton products] have been successful in laboratory experiments and we expect them to be launched soon," he said.
"Like the nano-shirt, we will focus on waterproofing and bacteria-preventing qualities in new nano-fabric products," he said.
Researcher Dr Wiyong Kangwansuphamongkhol said: "We have proved in the laboratory that school uniforms treated with nanotechnology can be washed by hand 30 times, and retain 99 per cent of their bacterial-prevention qualities.
"The nano-uniforms will also be sweat and dirt resistant, and are easy to clean," the researcher added.
Nanotec has joined hands with a private company, Nonami Science, to develop and commercialise nano-uniforms, Teerachai said.
For silk and cotton products, apart from the waterproofing and bacteria-preventing qualities, researchers are also applying nanotechnology to enhance colour quality, Wiyong explained.
"The development is a joint project with Bangsai Arts and Crafts Centre of Her Majesty the Queen. If we are successful in developing nano-silk and cotton, it will be a new product from Thailand to the world, combining local wisdom and high technology," Teerachai said.
Both products have been in development for the past three years, since Nanotec was established in August 2003.
"In the first year, we experimented trying to produce nano-fabrics in a lab. In the following years, we joined a sportswear company, Grand Sport Group, to develop the technology, both in the lab and in the factory," the researcher explained.
This year, the nano sports shirt was launched under the brand Grand Sport. The technology was also applied to manufacture yellow shirts to celebrate His Majesty the King's 60 years on the throne, and received a warm welcome from customers, Teerachai said.
"While most countries might have their eye on electronics and computers as target sectors for nanotechnology, Thailand's should focus on the fabrics sector," Teerachai said.
Huge budgets, and enormous staff numbers are needed to compete in electronics and computer applications, he explained.
In South Korea, for example, he said the government has announced the spending of Bt40 billion in the next 10 years for nanotechnology development, aiming at the electronics and computer sectors.
In Thailand in the past three years, the budgets have been only Bt6 million, Bt22 million and Bt200 million each year, respectively, with an increase of 10, 30 and 70 staff during the same years.
Nanotechnology is among the newest technologies in the world, and only 25 years have passed since the development of the scanning tunnelling microscope, which allow scientists to enter the world of the atom. Its growth and application is rapidly developing with grand incentives such as the possibility of producing computers of today's size but with 300,000 times the capacity.
"Nano means one-billionth. Nanotechnology therefore deals with tiny sizes of between one-billionth and one-millionth of a metre. Thus, its application is wide ranging and could apply to various fundamental sciences today," Nanotec director Wiwut Tanthapanichakoon explained.
In Thailand, nanotechnology was introduced and promoted shortly before 2003 when Nanotec was established under the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA). It is the fourth national centre under NSTDA after Nectec, Biotec and MTEC, which focus on electronics and computer technology, biotechnology, and metal and materials technology, respectively.
Due to its relatively recent establishment, Nanotec's work has been mostly in the laboratory. "Our neighbours [countries] know that we are heading in this new direction, and are possibly competing with Singapore," Teerachai said.
The Phor Por Ror - nano letters printed in the smallest size ever, containing three Thai characters representing the short version of HM the King's designation - was the first product from Nanotec to gain national recognition for nanotechnology.
The nano-shirt is the second obvious product from the national centre.
"Nano-fabric is not an innovation by Thai researchers. It had been developed before by researchers in Hong Kong, but we retraced the technology to prove our capability in this area, and then developed it for our special purposes," Wiwat explained.
Assisting the nanotechnology research at Nanotec is the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO), which is developing a cream using the Thai herb khamin chan (Curcuma longa Linn) under the brand "GPO Curmin", he added.
Most of the research we do is on a laboratory scale with high potential for commercialisation, Wiwat said. Projects include gas nano-sensors, semiconductor devices and carbon nano-tubes.
Under the new policy of the NSTDA to conduct research based on application clusters, each national centre has to work more closely with the others, unlike before. Nanotec has therefore set a policy to aim at four main areas.
Apart from nano-fabrics, the other areas are solar cells, active film for the packaging industry, and cosmetics and medical research.
"In the next ten years, Nanotec aims to have at least 50 upstream factories using nano raw materials as well as more than 250 mid-stream companies in seven key industries," Wiwat said.
"We should be able to manufacture products accounting for 1 per cent of our gross domestic product, around Bt120 billion, by investing Bt12 billion - 30 per cent from the private sector - to have at least 2,000 researchers and another 500 support officials, and generate more than 300 patents in the next decade," the Nectec director predicted.
"Nanotechnology is gaining increasing importance and we have to be able to cope with it," Teerachai said. "To develop nanotechnology efficiently, both state and private sectors have to invest in it. From experiences in foreign countries, we know that legislative backup and ten-year strategic plans are needed, as well as sufficient budgets, staff training, and quality labs," he said.