Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) reaches a significant scientific milestone

Veranja Karunaratne and Gehan Amaratunga, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology

The Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in Sri Lanka launched though the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) in 2006, is unique among many such initiatives worldwide, by being a public private partnership. The vision of NNI is to facilitate development and make Sri Lanka an industrial power in order to enable the country to emerge from poverty by infusing nanotechnology based innovations through research and development utilizing local raw materials and resources.

Therefore, SLINTEC, which initiated research in August of 2009, aims to provide platform research solutions based on nanotechnology to the Sri Lankan industries. Significantly, thus far SLINTEC has applied for five patents at the United States Patent Office to cover the innovations for its joint venture partners. Specifically, two of the patents pertain to slow release nanofertilizer formulations developed by SLINTEC which releases nitrogen to the soil in a slow and sustained manner.

Recently, there has been much interest in this area as nitrogen, a key nutrient for food production in agriculture, which is undoubtedly the most important macronutrient in fertilizers considering the energy required for the synthesis of urea, the large quantities used and its monetary value. However, between 50 and 70% of the nitrogen applied using conventional fertilizers is lost due to leaching in the form of water soluble nitrates, emission of gaseous ammonia and nitrogen oxides, and long-term incorporation of mineral nitrogen into soil organic matter by soil microorganisms.

Numerous attempts to increase the nitrogen use efficiency have thus far met with little success, signaling that nanotechnology based solutions might solve some of these problems. Current patent literature shows that the use of nanotechnology in fertilizer development remains relatively low with about 100 patents and patent applications between the period between 1998 and 2008, compared with the pharmaceuticals sector where there have been more than 6,000 patents and patent applications over the same period. Significantly, in Sri Lanka, the current fertilizer subsidy allocation by the government in the paddy sector alone is Rs. 30 billion.

In a landmark scientific development, SLINTEC entered into a strategic collaboration with Nagarjuna Fertilizers and Chemicals Limited (NFCL) of Hyderabad, India, to develop the next generation of Nanotechnology based plant fertilizer solutions. These are next generation nanofertlizer products is aimed at increasing productivity and income for farmers and creating a sustainable business for all the stakeholders engaged in agri-business. As part of this strategic partnership Nagarjuna, which has outside India fertilizer plants in Nigeria and Brazil with another planned in Morocco, is purchasing the SLINTEC first generation nano plant fertilizer products, taking it from proof of concept to proof of value for commercialization, and entering into a long-term strategic technology development program for the second and third generation nano plant nutrition products.

For SLINTEC, this is an opportunity to work with a global partner to take the product development journey from lab to field. NFCL aims at establishing a long-term business partnership with SLINTEC as an exclusive nanotechnology research facility for its nano plant nutrition products. In this strategic research programme over the next three years, a total investment to be made by Nagarjuna is projected to be US$3M (SL Rs 366 M)

Nagarjuna Group, established in 1974, is one of the most successful and respected agricultural input brands in India, with a track record of industry firsts - innovating, launching and successfully achieving product and market leadership positions across the agricultural value chain. It has business interest in Plant Nutrient, Plant Protection, Water Management, Power, Refineries, Renewable Energy and Green Chemicals. The Group has a futuristic vision and technology development mission being engaged in identification and development of emerging technologies in all its interest areas.

The fertilizer developed at SLINTEC takes the urea molecule, which is widely used as a source of nitrogen in agriculture, and has it bonded to an inorganic nanoparticle based on a combination of calcium oxide and phosporic acid. These particles with urea anchored to the surface can in turn be inserted into a bulk nanostructured carrier system. Clay and gliricidia wood chips has been used for the bulk nano system in demonstrations and field trials. The nanoscale ‘architecture’ of urea attachment and insertion dramatically slows down the rate at which urea is made available in the soil for absorption by plants following application. This allows the availability of fertilizer in the soil to be optimally matched with the rate at which a particular plant can take it up. In this way, the amount of fertilizer needed to obtain the same yield, for example kilograms per acre of paddy, can be very significantly reduced.

Wastage of fertilizer, due to leaching and conversion to gaseous ammonia is minimized by this slow release process. Reducing fertilizer wastage not only decreases the cost of fertilization, but it also minimizes the amount of nitrogen released into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas nitrogen dioxide. Thus far, in most product developments in Sri Lanka, pollution mitigation is not taken as critical to the acceptability of a technology. Given that urea is manufactured from natural gas or petrochemical derivatives, the more efficient use of fertilizer through the nanotechnology based slow release method developed at SLINTEC, also allows less carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere while maintaining agricultural yields.

NFCL plans to build a pilot plant in India very soon, and upon the success of the development phase it will undertake commercial production in the near future for the global market. However, SLINTEC will have the rights to commercialize the product in Sri Lanka, initially through Hayleys Agro who initiated the research at SLINTEC as a founding investor.

It is of great importance to agriculture in the developing world that nanotechnology shows promise in providing a profound impact on energy, the economy and the environment, by improving fertilizer products. SLINTEC’s efforts in this very important area may pave the first steps in contributing to a brighter future in world agriculture and the Sri Lankan economic development drive.

Professor Gehan Amaratunga is Professor of Electronic Engineering at the Cambridge University, UK and the Head of Research & Innovation at SLINTEC while Professor Veranja Karunaratne is Professor in Chemistry at the University of Peradeniya and the Science Team Leader at SLINTEC.

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