Nanotechnology in South Africa: Market Report

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South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent and has an area of 1,214,470 km2. The population of the country was 72,956,900 as of 2018.

South Africa has abundant natural resources such as gold, gemstones, diamond, platinum, coal, phosphates, rare earth elements, uranium, salt, natural gas and several other metals. The country has a mixed economy that is considered the largest in Africa. In 2019, the GDP of the country was US$371.3 billion.

Nanotechnology Organisations

South Africa has a few organisations and networks committed to promoting and exploring nanoscience. A brief introduction to these is given below:

  • NanoLand South Africa-  a resource site for nanotechnology products and services in South Africa. Through this portal, consumers and researchers can utilize emerging technological services.
  • National Centre for Nano-structured Materials (NCNSM) - is promoted by the Government’s Department of Science and Technology. The research focus of the group is in design, modeling and synthesis of nanomaterials with specific properties and other possible applications. Their core focus is on carbon nanotubes, silicon nanoparticles and nanolayer deposition techniques. The group collaborates with units and centres in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), universities, science councils, the private and public sector and international research institutions.
  • DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC) - a national facility established at Mintek in 2007 by the Department of Science and Technology. NIC activities are aimed at addressing national priorities highlighted by both the national nanotechnology strategy and national research and development (R&D) strategy. It focuses on the transformation of South Africa from a resource-based economy towards a knowledge-based economy using nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Companies

Through nanotechnology’s versatility, its applications are useful in a myriad of industries. A few nano-based companies in South Africa are listed below along with a brief introduction to each of them:

  • PST Sensors - founded in December 2010 by David Britton and Margit Harting, with the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a minority shareholder. From the broad range of applications, which can only be realized by the unique features of printed silicon technology, temperature sensors have proven to have the fastest market entry for both existing and new applications. PST Sensors works closely with the UCT NanoSciences Innovation Centre and other academic institutions for basic nanomaterials R&D and pre-commercial prototyping.
  • Comar Chemicals - one of the leading manufacturers of catalysts suitable for the production of synthetic polybutadiene rubber. Comar's products include Cobalt Rubber Adhesion Promoters, as well as nanoparticle chemicals. The company has two manufacturing plants; Atlantis near Cape Town and Infrapark Baselland, Muttenz, Switzerland.

Nanotechnology Education and Research

South Africa is home to a few universities offering research and educational opportunities in nanotechnology. These are listed below:

  • University of the Western Cape - offers a postgraduate programme in nanoscience, introductory courses in the wider aspects of nanoscience, courses in advanced nanoscience studies in the respective study fields, and a research thesis on a nano-study project.
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal – located in Pietermaritzburg. The University promotes research work in nano-therapeutics.
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) - The Department of Physics provides research opportunities in the field of nanotechnology.
  • University of the Free State (UFS) - The University offers research opportunities in materials and nanosciences.
  • University of Johannesburg (UJ) - The Department of Applied Chemistry offers research options in the field of nanotechnology under the name of Nanomaterials Science Research Focus (NSRF).
  • Rhodes University - The Department of Chemistry offers research options in nanotechnology.
  • NanoSciences Innovation Centre - is an initiative of the Department of Physics at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The Centre aims to turn cutting-edge nanoscience research into practical nanotechnology.

Further Developments

In November 2007, South Africa launched its first nanotechnology innovation centre. Being a developing nation, South Africa had a lot to gain from pursuing nanotechnology.

In 2008, significant investment and research was provided for nanotechnology. One example was the launch of the International La Villette nanotechnology exhibition at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg. The event was a partnership between the Department of Science and Technology (DST), France and the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.

In 2011, South Africa became the first nation in the African continent to own a new US$15 million electron microscopy centre that aimed to enable the country and Africa to compete with the world's best in nanoscience and nanotechnology research.

Government funding of R&D outweighs that of the private sector. South Africa also intends to add capacity for developing advanced manufacturing technologies and R&D-led industries to transform its industrial base. From 2009-10, data indicated that South Africa's commitment to R&D spending had dropped off with US$2.3 billion spent in the 2009-10 fiscal year, equating to 0.87% of GDP, falling short of their goal of 1% of GDP by 2010. This was the third year in a row where R&D spending decreased (as a percentage of GDP), raising serious doubts that they would achieve the research expenditure goal of 2% of GDP by 2018. This reduction in R&D expenditure is the result of a massive drop off in funding from the business and non-profit organisations, despite an increase in funding from the government.

The 2013-14 budget includes medium-term funding for two new universities and the improvement of facilities in existing universities. However, South Africa will need to increase its expenditure on research to maintain its level of competitiveness as other nations continue to work on strategic plans and increase their levels of research expenditure.

In terms of nanotechnology, this has not been a specifically targeted focus area, with the Ten-Year Innovation Plan (2008-18) identifying its five "grand challenges" as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, space, energy security, climate change and understanding of social dynamics. This, combined with reduced levels of R&D spending, does not paint a positive picture for South African nanotechnology and it would not be surprising to see South Africa overtaken by some other emerging economies.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on the 2nd September, 2019

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