Material Magic

A small band of hand-picked scientists are manipulating materials on the nano scale looking for new ways to give companies A competitive edge through cutting-edge R&D

By Echelon.

Published on March 17, 2014 with No Comments

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“Sir, you’re giving us a one-way ticket to Mars, aren’t you?” Veranja Karunaratne recalls asking Professor Tissa Vitarana, Minister of Science and Technology at the time, just before he began work as a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) on November 1, 2008. Vitarana, who played a key role in the nanotech initiative and today is Senior Minister, Scientific Affairs, replied: “Yes, exactly. How you come home is up to you.”

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It was the magnitude of the task, of venturing into a relatively new field of science and technology, and asked to deliver quick results to improve the competitiveness of the island’s corporate sector through research & development with the resources, or lack of them, of a typical Third World country, that prompted Karunaratne’s question. Usually, in developed countries innovation organisations like SLINTEC have access to established scientific infrastructure, no red tape and enough funds for 5-7 years before delivering results. SLINTEC’s early days in a temporary lab in the Biyagama industrial zone were challenging. Ordering a chemical here takes six months, whereas in First World countries with one telephone call, in two days you can get a chemical down.
The first year and a half was tremendously hard work – no one went home before eight o’clock. Karunaratne, a Senior Professor, lives in Kandy but spends five days of the week in Colombo, having been given leave from the University of Peradeniya, where he was the former Head of its Department of Chemistry, to work at SLINTEC. Once, his wife, also a scientist, was hospitalised, but there was no way he could go to see her the day she was admitted.
“I told her to wait till Friday – the last patent is to be filed. Those deadlines even God can’t change. We did what needed to be done. Personal sacrifice, yes. Why not? So personal lives – we just completely forgot about everything.”
nano2He sees SLINTEC’s team as a bunch of people running with a medicine for which a disease had not been discovered. “Because we know that when the run is over, the disease will be known. So it was like our back was on fire,” Karunaratne declares in an interview at the outfit’s new home, a gleaming, spotless, futuristic-looking hexagonal building that is the first phase of the 50-acre Nanotechnology and Science Park coming up at Pitipana, Homagama, an hour’s drive from Colombo. The team’s early success – five international patents filed in the United States within ten months – convinced the government to go ahead with building the facility.
“With a lot of luck, a lot of serendipity – after all, we come from this country – and with a lot of hard work we were able to make it out of that facility in Biyagama to here”. “Luck” Karunaratne is fond of saying, “is the interface between preparation and opportunity.”
As scientists, he says, they are always prepared: “We were shining our boots every day, but no trip to make. When the opportunity comes to make the trip, we go. So that’s how people got lucky.”
Karunaratne was one of the few scientists hand-picked to build SLINTEC’s team and direct research. Only scientists the private sector was comfortable to have in their own companies were hired. That’s because university professors are sometimes seen as a little archaic, not fitting into a corporate culture. A very active researcher in his area of organic chemistry, Karunaratne also had some managerial experience, having headed the Peradeniya University’s Chemistry Department. And he was an academic who had worked for ‘Big Pharma’, large firms which develop new drugs, having done research for Quadra Logic Technologies, a global biopharmaceutical company affiliated with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada where he had earned his doctorate in Chemistry.
“The research at
is very different from what a normal academic would do in the university because here, you’ve got to ‘plug and play’ to the industry immediately, not just publish papers,” he explains. “Here, industry requires one of their needs fulfilled and we need to plug into that immediately. Because this is commerce. If you don’t make money no one commercialises anything – for the love of science or love of the human race or whatever.”
SLINTEC has the culture of a private company, and most importantly, as a scientific innovation company, a start-up mentality. A flat organisational structure, with no red tape ensures people communicate and work together as effectively as possible. It employs 55 staff of whom 35 are scientists but no peons, nor lab technicians running the instruments, nor lab attendants to make starting solutions for scientists and clean their glass ware, as in other scientific institutes.
Nanotechnology sounds like an arcane branch of science, far removed from the struggle for survival in a developing country. But prospects for the technology, known as the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale, seem good enough to attract some of the island’s biggest businesses. SLINTEC is a public-private partnership, half owned by government and the other half by six private sector equity partners.
There’s money to be made at the nano scale – where the physical, chemical and other properties of materials change in a way – almost like a modern form of alchemy – that they can be manipulated to make new materials that are stronger, lighter, better. The institute, which began research in August 2009, now has expanded its scope to include advanced technology and engineering. Its work ranges from making coatings that prevent clothes from getting wet, important for big garment exporters to retain their competitive edge, to slow-release fertilizer whose improved efficacy helps increase rice yields, and helping tea plantations cut energy costs.
nano3“It’s very exciting and yet very challenging,” says Karunaratne. “But if you think something is difficult and it wears you down, you’re not going to do well in anything you do.”
What drives him is a childhood love of chemistry and the satisfaction of making a living from it. “For me,” he declares, “the most important thing is that the science is very exciting. If I can earn a living by doing chemistry then two things are satisfied – I earn a living as well as I enjoy life. So what drives me foremost is that scientific research is fascinating; that we do it for a living is doubly fascinating.” He works seven days a week and enjoys every minute of it. “When I wake up I feel like it’s a great day because I’ve got the best job in the world,” he chuckles, “and I’m very happy to start yet another day.”
Not many know that although he has been released from Peradeniya University, he still continues his undergraduate lectures in the weekends when he goes back to Kandy.
He packs a full second job onto the weekend, all voluntarily as he’s not entitled to two salaries. He also supervises research students, including a couple of PhD students. One recent Sunday, when he left the Chemistry Department at Peradeniya at 4.30 pm he recalls asking himself: “Am I under stress?” The answer was: “No, this is fun. This is great. I come here to discuss science with my students. A lecture is always fun.”
nano5Karunaratne got hooked on chemistry as a schoolboy. He remembers being fascinated by chemistry in Grade 7 when taken to the lab at Royal College where he studied, captivated by the different zones of colour – yellow and blue – in the flame of a burning candle and the colours of metal salts. He recalls with a chuckle how he found the chemistry classes given by a well-known teacher at the time, in the early 1970s, more interesting than the matinee show his friends were cutting classes to go for.
By the time he turned a teenager, he’d decided he was not going to do medicine, not because he didn’t like it, or respect it, but because he felt he would not be a competent doctor. So when he entered the University of Colombo, it was chemistry or nothing.
Karunaratne’s team won the 2010 National Science Foundation award for best innovation having commercial value and potential – for developing a slow-release nitrogen nano-fertilizer in a SLINTEC project started for Hayleys Agro. That technology, later bought by Nagarjuna Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd. of Hyderabad, one of the biggest players in fertilizer in India, is sought after as 50-70% of urea put into soil gets wasted by leaching and evaporation. Given the island’s annual fertilizer subsidy of almost Rs50 billion, even a 10% saving is significant.
“Globally, fertilizer research has not received much attention,” explains Karunaratne. “Because unlike drugs, people really think that if you throw a seed on to soil, it ought to give you a crop. Also, in the last 10 years there have been over 6,000 patents in the slow release drugs market but less than 100 patents for slow release fertilizer.” That gave Sri Lankan scientists a lot of space to play, since First World countries were not so interested in such research. Still, had his team not been Number 1 in the world in that particular technology, it would not have worked, for in R&D, no one is interested in the Number 2 innovation.
“You’ve got to be globally Number 1. Otherwise you can’t sell technology. In Sri Lanka, we were told Sri Lankan scientists have little value because they haven’t done anything important since Independence. But we proved that in Sri Lanka we can generate science and technology innovations and sell it, which hadn’t been done in a significant way prior to SLINTEC,” declares Karunaratne. “Sri Lankans are capable of doing big things if the opportunity is given. If the opportunity comes we are always prepared. But the opportunities don’t come too often in this country.”
nano4The most important principle, the team told themselves at the beginning, was that failure was not an option. And if failure was not an option, then practically everything they do must come right the first time. “So this ‘right first time’ percentage has to come close to 100%. No time for second chances,” he says, a tone of urgency in his voice. “But you know,” he adds with a sigh, “like everything else in life, if you don’t try something, you’ll never know whether you can do it right or not.”
One of SLINTEC’s thrust areas of research is to try to use nanotechnology to add value to the island’s mineral resources, largely exported as low-value bulk commodities. One of them is ilmenite sand in Pulmoddai with 60-65% titanium – one of the highest concentrations of titanium globally. State-owned Lanka Mineral Sands (Pvt) Ltd. sells some 80,000 MT of
partially purified ilmenite sand at about $250 a metric tonne annually, earning $20 million. But the country imports titanium dioxide (TiO2) for the same value, so there’s no net gain. Titanium dioxide pigment sells for about $3,500 a tonne.
There is no value creation in most of the things we do here, says Karunaratne, who leads another SLINTEC team developing a process to make nano-titanium dioxide, which is far more versatile (self-cleaning glass in high-rise buildings today have a coating of pigmented nano-titanium dioxide) and fetches a far higher price – around $8-10,000/MT – than ordinary titanium dioxide. Laugfs Holdings has come forward and plonked Rs80 million just to find out whether or not the process is economically viable – taking the process from the lab to pilot plant scale.
“To get an answer to that question, you have to spend Rs80 million,” Karunaratne explains, a hint of amazement in his voice. “You can see the difficulty why people don’t come forward to commercialise some of these things. Because if the answer is no, they might be seen to have wasted 80 million rupees. If the answer is yes, you’re earning a lot of money. So that’s the risk people have to take. If you don’t take risks, your gains are also limited in life. You’ve got to have the appetite to take those risks but of course with sensible, scientific thinking.”
A critical mass of scientists is required doing research to create a broader culture of innovation that SLINTEC represents. Sri Lanka does produce high quality undergraduates in engineering and science but most end up abroad, doing PhDs and never to return. Salary is an issue that prevents scientists from coming back but it’s a known fact that scientists, unlike other professionals, don’t only work for money. While there’s a minimum income everybody requires, scientists can be motivated if there are good research facilities they can work at. SLINTEC has in some ways reversed the brain drain, luring a number of PhDs who have relocated from the US and the UK to come and work here.
“You need people,” says Karunaratne. “No amount of money is useful without qualified people. And Sri Lankans are qualified, except they work for other countries. If that changes and if the government continues to increase funding for research, I think both of them will have a synergistic effect – people, money – and we should be able to go forward.”
While one SLINTEC alone might not be able to increase the country’s GDP, its success as a flagship institute can show what can be done. In the years ahead, Karunaratne hopes their work will help make local industry more competitive in the global market place. Their innovations will also ensure a steady stream of income, through royalties for their patents or joint venture stakes they hope to have in companies commercialising their work. That should ensure enough return on their efforts to get a return ticket even from Mars.

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Sri Lanka’s industrial sector is coming of age in understanding the requirement to do research in order to stay competitive in the market place, says Professor Gehan Amaratunga, SLINTEC’s Chief of Research and Innovation, referring to the interest shown by the private sector in supporting its work.

“It’s the first time corporates have got involved with the government and collectively on a technological initiative.”
Amaratunga believes that what is lacking for an innovation eco-system, and what perhaps is now emerging, is the ability to have risk capital – people who will invest in innovation, which is not always guaranteed to be successful.
“So the reduction of risk aversion is one of the most important things coming,” he says. “Everybody wants to put money in when they know there is a guaranteed return. But the big return can come when you can take some risk. In terms of innovation you’ve got to have that mindset of taking risks because that’s the only way you’re going to innovate, really. Otherwise you’ll always follow.”
Amaratunga expects SLINTEC to emerge as a premier research institute in nanotechnology and advanced technology with very strong organic links with local industry. He hopes it could enhance manpower training position and be a portal through which people come and get trained and become available to be hired by industries.
Projects SLINTEC is working on include reducing energy costs for Brandix Textured Jersey and enhancing the products of Orange Electric, which makes Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs, to give them certain unique characteristics which should be in the market in the next year or so.
It has also developed some coatings which are super hydrophobic – that means the garments won’t get wet – which are being commercialised by apparel exporters.

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