• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Nanotechnology is the ‘new oil’ Nigeria needs to extend frontiers of innovation – Prof Agbaje


Nanotechnology Research Group (NANO+) of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, Nigeria, recently held its maiden international conference on Kola plants where it explored the economic benefits of kola plants for circular economy. In this interview, Lateef Agbaje, the head of NANO+ speaks about a decade of research endeavours and LAUTECH’s contributions to nanotechnology in Nigeria. He also spoke on the reasons for the slow pace of nanotechnology research in Nigeria, proffering solutions to address the seemingly lagging outlook of the country in nanotechnology. Excerpts by JOHN SALAU:

How has the journey been for NANO+ in the last 10 years?

So far, so good. The LAUTECH Nanotechnology Research Group known as NANO+ was formed in September in 2014 at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso. It is a multidisciplinary research group with the focus on integrating nanotechnology in our research activities. We are ambitious at positioning LAUTECH as a centre of excellence in nanotechnology R&D in the country. The founding members had some training on nanotechnology, and with the monthly intellectual engagements, it was not difficult to upgrade our knowledge about the bourgeoning field. We started with five members in the disciplines of botany, microbiology, zoology and mechanical engineering, which has now grown to fourteen with specialists from physics, biochemistry, food science and internal medicine. We also have robust collaborations with scholars from different institutions in Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and India to mention a few. We have remained focused and resilient in the face of several challenges to advance our activities. Not many people thought we could go this far, but we thank God for the exceeding grace of matching forward. Members of the group are expanding nanotechnology discourse in their various departments, training a new generation of nanoscientists and have produced more than 170 research articles on nanotechnology in a decade to project the University among the top 3 in the generation of knowledge in nanotechnology in Nigeria. The group was recognised by the University in 2022 for its scholarly contributions to the ranking of LAUTECH at the 14th combined convocation ceremonies. At the moment, three TETFund NRF projects are being executed by members of the group from the 2021 and 2023 cycles. We have established a specialized journal on nanotechnology, which we are canvassing for its patronage, and we maintain adequate web presence since 2016 to project our range of activities. We have also established some collaboration with industries and government agencies in our engagements. Our group has organised seven annual workshops and conferences on nanotechnology since 2017, which is the largest to be organized by any group in the country. Both 2022 and 2023 editions of the conference were held in Abuja at the facility of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) through partnership with the agency and the Federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology, Abuja. The 2022 edition witnessed the physical presence of the then honourable minister of science, technology and innovation, Senator Olorunnibe Mamora and top military brass. Our 8th International Conference on Nanotechnology is scheduled for 18-22 November, 2024 at our main campus, LAUTECH, Ogbomoso.

We have deepened nanotechnology discourse in Nigeria through writing of commentaries, coverage by national and international media and invitations of secondary school students to all our conferences. Till date, more than 60 news items covering our research activities and advocacy on nanotechnology are in the public domain. In 2019, we staged an essay-writing competition for students of some secondary schools in Ogbomoso on nanotechnology for national development to promote the knowledge of nanotechnology among the younger generation.

However, there are challenges which are tied to inadequate funding and the lack of research facilities in nanotechnology. Without our international collaborators, it would have been practically difficult for the group to go this far. Some of our members and mentees have enjoined further training in nanotechnology in India, Malaysia, South Africa, and UK through different fellowships. Early this year, our proposal to the University for the establishment of a Centre on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research (CEENANO) was approved by the University Senate and the Governing Council. We are calling on the government, private sector and public-spirited individuals and national and international organizations to join hands with us to develop the centre into an enviable research cluster. CEENANO is programmed for cutting-edge research and multidisciplinary postgraduate training in nanotechnology. We are grateful to the successive administrations of LAUTECH since 2014 when the group was formed for the various supports that were given to our activities. We appreciate our Vice-Chancellors; Prof. Adeniyi S. Gbadegesin, Prof. Michael O. Ologunde, Late Prof. Mojeed. O. Liasu and Prof. Razaq O. Rom Kalilu for their support for the group.

Read also: LAUTECH, Space Agency, ministry of Science to deepen advocacy on nanotechnology

Over the years, the group has championed research into nanotechnology; what are some of the findings and how beneficial are the findings to Nigeria academic and social spaces?

As stated earlier, members have contributed to the knowledge base in nanotechnology in Nigeria. In a study that surveyed Nigeria’s contributions to nanotechnology from ‪2010-2020‬ through the analysis of publications that were indexed in Scopus, five of our members were among the top 17 scholars in Nigeria, placing LAUTECH as the 3rd most productive institution in the country. Researches carried out by members are diverse along the line of their disciplines with applications in engineering, solar energy, biomedicine, food and agriculture, environment, industrial biotechnology and consumer products. We have unparalleled expertise in the chemical and biosynthesis of metal, metal oxides and alloy nanoparticles with profound antimicrobial, anticancer, antioxidant, antidiabetic, wound healing, anticoagulant, thrombolytic, and catalytic properties. We have developed some prototype products that include nanopaint, nanofertilizer, nanoadsorbents, nanobiocides, nanolubricant, anti-corrosive agents, nanotextiles, composite aluminum and dye-sensitised solar cells. These products can be commercialised to enhance the manufacturing base of Nigeria. Beyond these, we have carried out scientometric analysis of Nigeria’s contributions to nanotechnology in a decade (‪2010-2020‬) to map the spread of nanotechnology research in different institutions and disciplines, revealed the funding patterns of nanotechnology R&D, international collaborations, and evolved schemes to rank scholars and institutions on their contributions to nanotechnology in the country. It is a study that laid bare the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of nanotechnology in the country. It can serve as an instrument to lay the foundation for interventions in nanotechnology R&D in Nigeria. From the information revealed in the publication, I presented a memorandum on behalf of the group and LAUTECH to the 19th National Council on Science, Technology and Innovation chaired by the former Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu in 2021 to mobilise national action on nanotechnology R&D. Through our research activities, we have diffused the knowledge on nanotechnology among colleagues in LAUTECH to stimulate their interests which are yielding fruits. We have also mentored colleagues from more than 20 higher institutions in the country who have integrated nanotechnology in their research endeavours.

On the back of these, what are the economic benefits that Nigeria can tap from nanotechnology as a body of knowledge?

Nigeria can derive a lot of economic benefits from nanotechnology enterprises. The technology which is the production and manipulation of materials at nanoscale is revolutionising all aspects of human endeavours with the projection that it will account for 10 percent of the world’s GDP and provide six million jobs by 2030. With dwindling revenue from crude oil and other natural resources, Nigeria needs to diversify her economy. And one of the ‘new oils’ is nanotechnology, which is a knowledge-based enterprise that extends the frontiers of innovation in all ramifications. We can apply nanotechnology to expand the production of competitive products and market share, which will increase job creation and employment. Nanotechnology is apt to address our peculiar issues in food production, healthcare, and degradation of the environment, energy crisis, insecurity and availability of clean water.

The group recently organised a conference on kola plants; can you give us more insight into some of the outcomes of that conference?

Let me begin by saying that the conference was unplanned. It was an unplanned event that occurred naturally. Some of us have been engaged in valorising kola wastes to produce enzymes, food supplements and nanomaterials since 2012. All these efforts were summarised in an article authored by me and published in 2023. The article generated interests of an outfit-The Conversation Africa, which publishes scholarly commentaries. I wrote a commentary for The Conversation-Africa on the new findings on the utilization of kola, particularly microbial biotechnology and nanobiotechnology, which in turn motivated Pan-Africana Strategic and Policy Research Group (PANAFSTRAG), Lagos. The executive-secretary of PANAFSTRAG, Major-General Ishola Williams sought for our collaboration to organise the conference on kola plants in May 2024. The conference themed ‘The treasure beyond consumption: exploring kola for sustainable development’ brought into fore the immense values of kola plants in culture and values, trade, phytomedicine, biotechnology, biocatalysis and nanobiotechnology. It also discussed the challenges in the breeding of high-yielding kola plants and their cultivation. The conference recommended various interventions to promote cultivation and utilisation of kola plants for sustainable development. I must also state that our work on kola, focusing on biotechnology and nanobiotechnology has been sought for display at the gallery of Wellcome Collections, London, UK. This is a milestone for us.

You spoke to a centre of excellence in nanotechnology; what is the essence of such a centre?

Nanotechnology is a specialized field, and its study requires sophisticated equipment to characterise nanomaterials. These equipment are expensive and may not be found in the regular settings of our usual laboratories. Therefore, resources can be conserved and maximized by setting up regional centres of excellence on nanotechnology in universities with high productivity in nanotechnology to stimulate groundbreaking research. This approach has been effectively utilised by different countries to concentrate on nanotechnology R&D. For instance, Iran, Egypt and South Africa have 31, 9 and 6 centres of excellence on nanotechnology, respectively at the moment. We hope that in the near future, CEENANO will be in the league of centres of excellence in nanotechnology in Africa.

Having a centre is one thing, sustenance is another; is there a guarantee that such a centre will be maintained properly?

This question is very important and can be answered in affirmative if all the loose ends are tied properly. For instance, such centres must be established in Universities with a very high level of contributions to nanotechnology and proven records in nanotechnology R&D, and should be free of bureaucracy in its operations. Secondly, the centres must be guided by the national aspirations on nanotechnology to remain focused. In this case, a national policy on nanotechnology which has been dragging for years is inevitable to guide national conscience on nanotechnology. Thirdly, the funding of such centres should not be a one-off engagement. A 10-year national development plan on nanotechnology must be executed, and funding agencies such as TETFund must be mobilized into funding research endeavours in nanotechnology. The National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) under the presidency must also partner with institutions on the development of nanotechnology for Nigeria’s prosperity. The centres must prioritize aggressive grant-seeking initiatives and extensive international collaborations. At the heart of the national policy on nanotechnology, nexus with the private sectors must be strengthened to enhance product development and industry-related investigations by the centres. Through these efforts, sustainability of the centres can be achieved.

As the head of a group that champions research into nanotechnology; how can Nigeria increase research into this field of knowledge?

We have to address all the constraints to nanotechnology enterprises in the country. It is appalling that South Africa that we started nanotechnology initiatives together in 2006 has gone far ahead us to implement a dedicated national nanotechnology equipment programme, executed a 10-year development plan, developed national policy on nanotechnology, moved to translational research, developed standards on nanomaterials, established nano-based companies and have nanoproducts in the market. What did South Africa do that we have not done? We must put in place the national policy on nanotechnology, establish centres of excellence on nanotechnology with adequate funding, and increase the training and retraining of scholars on nanotechnology R&D. The federal ministry of innovation, science and technology, TETFund and NASENI must spearhead these interventions. The academia-government-industry-society nexus must be strengthened for national focus and development on nanotechnology. Within institutions, curricula of courses must be infused with the ingredients of nanotechnology to raise awareness and research interests in the field.

Finally, what field of study is nanotechnology domicile?

Interesting; the home of modern nanotechnology is physics. Its proponents were physicists- Prof. Richard Feynman and Prof. Norio Taniguchi. In actual fact, Prof. Feynman whose talk in 1959 at the meeting of the American Physical Society held at the California Institute of Technology gave birth to nanotechnology is recognized as the father of nanotechnology. But it was Prof. Taniguchi that used the term nanotechnology for the first time in 1974 while working on semiconductors and thin films. Both of them won the Nobel Prize in Physics. However, the field of nanotechnology has blossomed in the last two decades and expanded to other areas of physical sciences, chemical sciences, engineering, life sciences, built environment, medicine and agriculture. The production and applications of nanomaterials have assumed cosmopolitan status among several disciplines. Just like ICT and AI, nanotechnology is unifying disciplines into a converged knowledge. Therefore, practitioners of nanotechnology are now found in every discipline including social sciences, built environment, arts, law and humanities.