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Small world: SA nanotech scientist achieves big results

Home Engineering Chemical Small world: SA nanotech scientist achieves big results

PROFESSOR Suprakas Sinha Ray leads one of the CSIR’s most productive research groups in the field of nanotechnology, and he is one of the most often cited authors by scientists around the world and in South Africa.

“This kind of recognition means we are making an impact in the science community. It means we are doing something relevant for the world, and that really boosts our motivation. It also means that funders can see how well our researchers are doing.”

Figures collected by research.com show that Ray’s research articles have been cited 34 509 times by scientists from over 180 different countries, and he ranks as South Africa’s number two researcher in materials science.

This is a measure of his output and performance as a scholar, and Ray says that the ranking reflects the hard work of the centre’s junior and senior experts in fields as diverse as modelling, chemistry, biochemistry, engineering and physics.

“We have the most diverse team, which we have built from the bottom up,” Ray says.

“We can draw on computer modelling and medical knowledge when it comes to wound healing materials because we can predict how a material might interact with human skin, and we can predict side-effects like swelling or secondary infection.”

How nanotech is changing the way industry works

Ray and his team are making an incredible impact on sustainable agriculture and environmentally-friendly chemicals, first by developing new ‘green’ materials, and then transferring those technologies to industry.

“We are serving seven different industries right now. We are working with SAPPI on biomass conversion, which means finding value-added uses for the plant waste created during their paper-making process. We are also working with Engen on processing optimisation for environmentally benign polymers, and we have provided medical nanotechnologies to 3Sixty Health.

“In four or five years we want to see that we are top in the country and in Africa. We are doing something good here, so we would like to be number one in relevance and cutting-edge science.”

For Ray cutting edge means researching and creating sustainable materials in the most efficient way possible.

“For any new materials that we are trying to develop, we ask ourselves what the fate of that material will be,” he says. For instance, we are working on packaging made from plant-based polymer nanocomposites, which can be discarded to biodegrade without harming the environment,” he said.

The team is now using data science to streamline research. “Say for instance we want to develop a new plastic material, there are thousands of research papers already available on plastic materials known as polypropylene composites. Before wasting time and money testing new plastics blindly, we can first gather all this available data and use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict how new materials will work, so we select only the best candidates to test,” he explained.

“The future lies in advanced manufacturing, robotics and AI. These industries need tougher, lighter, more intelligent materials that don’t harm the environment or human health,” he added. The demand for these materials is booming globally, and Ray and his team are now in a comfortable sprint to meet that need.

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