Making a contribution to exciting new technology

Nanotechnology is the new word in technological development and cutting-edge research, and Rhodes is right up there with the action.

South Africa's first two nanotechnology centres are up and running at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria and the national mineral research organisation Mintek in Johannesburg.

The national Department of Science and Technology (DST) is one of the major stakeholders in this initiative through its National Nanotechnology Strategy, which was launched in 2006. The DST believes that nanotechnology has the potential to make energy use more efficient, help protect the environment by reducing waste and harmful emissions, and solve major health problems, among other advantages.

The DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre has three initial focus areas: sensor (for early disease and toxin detection); biolabel (the addition of a marker or label, which can subsequently be detected, to a biological sample); and water nanotechnology. The three focus areas fall under the supervision of three different academic institutions that form part of the Mintek consortium: Rhodes University, whose Chemistry Department will perform tests on a device for the early detection of disease and toxins; the University of the Western Cape, which will focus on the destruction of pathogens and diseased cells; and the University of Johannesburg, which will look for solutions to remove water-borne pathogens.

Nanotechnology is a fairly new branch of science and involves the manipulation in useful ways of materials on the nanoscale, with a nanometre being one-millionth of a millimetre! At this level materials can't be seen with even a light microscope - special equipment must be used to observe them – and they can have different properties than they do on a normal scale. They may be stronger, conduct electricity more efficiently, have different magnetic properties, or reflect light better. As such nanotechnology potentially holds the key to new materials with undiscovered properties. It is the task of Mintek and the CSIR to establish these properties in the materials they study, and develop applications for them that will improve the lives of South Africans.

Nanotechnology holds immense promise for innovations in the development and administration of medicinal drugs that treat critical diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS and this is the area where Rhodes is most involved. There are numerous other real-life applications for nanotechnology, ranging from computer hard drives and landmine detectors to burn and wound dressings, sunscreens and more durable tennis balls.

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