(Published article in Defence and Security Alert Apr 2012)
A conference of National nanotechnology Coordination Committee was held in Beijing on 11th Jan 2011, where in it was announced by the Chinese minister for Science and technology, Mr Wan Gang that China would seek original breakthroughs in nanotechnology in the next five years and would have in place national nanotechnology programs to achieve the same. The Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences however, indicated that there were several shortfalls in the strides made in nanotechnology and that clarity about the specific needs of the industry for nanotechnology was still an issue.
In the same conference it was brought out that, whereas, China had invested 1.5Bn Yuan in the period 2001-05 on R&D in Nanotechnology, in the period 2006-10 it had spent more than 3 times the amount, i.e. 5BnYuan. Further, two national level research centres in addition to the National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology were also established. China had also become the second largest patent applicant in the world in the field of nanotechnology, with over 12,000 patents in 2009, as against 4600 in 2005.
China appears to be a late entry to the nanotechnology scene as hardly any details were available about its involvement in nanotechnology prior to 2000. If reports coming out of China are to be believed, today it has become a multibillion Yuan flourishing industry at urban centres like Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou. The tremendous strides in nanotechnology have its roots in the late 1990s, when both the central and local governments provided large funds for its development under the National 863 Hi-Tech R&D plan with specific time lines. It would be worthwhile to discuss in brief the Chinese philosophy and approach to development of emerging technologies, which has apparently spurred growth of nanotechnology in China.
The Chinese believe that in today’s world warfare implies not only weapons, but also a contest in totality with the adversary involving- military, politics, economics and science and technology. Thus weapons need to be developed keeping all these factors in forefront. Therefore when the science and technology is advancing at a rapid rate and better and better weapons are being designed it is imperative that the material base (R&D) of the defence economy be outstandingly strong. In the words of General Mi Zhenyu:
“Weapons development is reliant on the development of the national economy. It also encourages the growth of national defence science and technology. Military high-technology also gave impetus to the development of the economy. Looking at this from two-dimensional space, this big “O” cycle could possibly expand further. Analysing it from a three-dimensional space, this kind of spiralling trend is perfectly suited to the objective laws of material development.”
The advancements in technology on the battle field brings about changes in military theory and tactics to be adopted, which leads to a gamut of changes in strategic thought, defence structures, combat doctrines etc. In fact in his view, development of weapons “enhances man’s strategic consciousness, deepens his strategic reflections, and increases the emphasis on strategic projections”. Further China, sees itself a major force for the preservation of world peace along with the Third World countries, this aspiration demands that it should have a sound weapon development program and the military wherewithal to protect itself against aggression from outside its borders.
Major General Sun Bailin of the Academy of Military Science had expounded his views on nanotechnology in an article “Nanotechnology weapons on future battlefields” in National Defense, June 15, 1996. With reference to the MEMS (micro-elctro-mechanical systems) revolution, he believes that it has opened frontiers of scientific developments which will have great significance in national defence and economy; it will usher in a ‘nano-era’ in the 21st century encompassing; nanobiology, nanomanufacturing, nanomechanics, nano-electronics, nanomicrology, nanocontrol, nanosurveying, and the study of nanomaterials. Further, he believes that both Nano and MEMS are in the dual use regime and hold tremendous potential for growth in military power and economics. He has talked about:-
-‘ant robots’ which could replicate themselves and lie dormant in enemy war equipment till activated to destroy them.
-‘blood vessel submarines,’ for molecular surgery.
-‘Distributed Battlefield Microscale Sensor Networks’ dispersing swarms of these molecular devices, which are practically invisible, for gathering battlefield environment information.
-‘Nanosatellites’ these would be step forward of the information gathering molecular devices, and could form a local distributed satellite system, or for complete 24/7 earth coverage a total of 648 nanosatellites could be placed in orbit (with 36 nanosatellites placed evenly into each of 18 equally spaced solar stationary orbits).
In his view the crucial military technology in the 21st century would be nanotechnology, and nanoweapons would bring about profound and fundamental changes in military thought and affairs.
Review of Progress in Nanotechnology. With the above backdrop a review of China’s progress in nanotechnology is discussed in succeeding paragraphs.
A development strategy plan in respect of nanotechnology for the period 2001-2010, was issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2001. The plan was drawn in consultation with the National Natural Science Foundation Committee (NNSFC), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Education, and, the National Development and Program Committee. Under the plan continuous improvements are sought in innovation, development of technology and establishing industrial products specific to China’s long term national development objectives. In medium term the aim is to develop nanomedical and bionano technologies, whereas in the long term emphasis is on nanochips and nanoelectronics.
According to the policy plan, the Chinese government is committed to continuously improve innovative capability, develop advanced technology, and finally attain industrial applications relevant to China’s present status with a focus on national long-term development. With this plan the Chinese government also made clear that it will insist on its set principle that it will support what is beneficial to China, i.e. catching up with international development in general, while finding breakthroughs that can solve key problems in China (Gu, Schulte, 2005).
In basic research and advanced technology, exploration and innovation are emphasised; in applications, the development of nanomaterials is the main objective for the near future. The development of bionanotechnology and nanomedical technology is a main objective for the medium term, whereas the development of nanoelectronics and nanochips is a long-term objective. Therefore across the board coordination and safe guarding of IP rights is to be mandated.
The key areas identified include; accelerating communication and multidisciplinary R&D, aligning market requirement with R&D, aligning nanotechnology development with innovation policy, keeping focus on IPR while promoting fundamental and applied research. The tenth five year plan highlights; exploring market requirement based application, focus on mass production, research and education, accelerating nanotech research leading to formation eventually of national nanotechnology system, by first establishing a nanotechnology centre. As fundamental research bears fruit, it will be utilised to design new nanochips, nanomaterials and structures using molecular manufacturing techniques. Subsequently a database and a standard on national level would be established, creating a fertile ground for flourishing of industrial applications and nanotech industry. The Chinese government plans to provide strong support to existing labs and institutions to enable them to become leading nanoscience laboratories, this will also lead to an internal competition amongst them and in turn, better research outputs. For achieving this goal two approaches have been identified (Gu, Schulte, 2005):-
-A national science nanotechnology research centre with latest equipment is to be established as a national pilot centre with multi disciplinary environment.
-A national nanotechnology engineering research centre to speed up innovative research in nanotech application areas and its industrialisation thereafter.
The Chinese Government has set up a national nanotechnology development overseeing committee, called the Guidance and Coordination Committee of National Nanotechnology with representation from all connected and relevant ministries.
Funding for nanotechnology comes from programs 973 and 863, the Natural Science Foundation and the National Technology Gong Guan Program. Private funding is not yet very significant but is likely to catch up in future as more and more applications mature.
Nanotech R&D Centres Beijing and Shanghai have the two major R&D centres for nanotechnology in China. The Beijing Nanotechnology centre encompasses, Beijing Chemical Engineering University, Tsinghua University, Beijing Institute of Construction Materials Research, Beijing Science and Technology University, Beijing Normal University, Nankai University, the Beijing Steel Chief Research Institute, Jilin University, Tianjing University, Beijing University, Chinese Academy of Science Institutes(Semiconductors, Physics, Chemistry,and, Metallurgy) etc.
The Shanghai Nanotechnology centre encompasses Shandong University, Chinese Science and Technology University, Tongji University, Huadong Normal University, Nanjing University, Huadong Science and Engineering University, Chinese Academy of Sciences Institutes (Metallurgy, Solid Physics, Silicates, and Nuclear science) Shanghai Technological Physics Institute, Zhejiang University, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiaotong University etc. In addition to the above, Chengdu, Xian and Lanzhou are the cities where nanotechnology research is being carried out.
The national and local governments have set up organisation for promoting nanotechnology, some of them are; the Jiangsu Engineering Center of Nanotechnology, the Guidance and Harmonization Committee of National Nanotechnology, the Shanghai Industrialization Base of nanotechnology, the National Industrialisation Base of Nanotechnology in Tianjing, the National Industrialisation Base of Biological, the Shenyang Industry Park of Nanotechnology and Medical Nanomaterials in Sichuan, etc (Gu, Schulte,2005).
Strategic Collaborations in R&D Phillip Shapira, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology has said “Despite ten years of emphasis by governments on national nanotechnology initiatives, we find that patterns of nanotechnology research collaboration and funding transcend country boundaries” “For example, we found that U.S. and Chinese researchers have developed a relatively high level of collaboration in nanotechnology research. Each country is the other’s leading collaborator in nanotechnology R&D.” (Quoted in Georgia Institute of Technology Research News– 09 Dec 2010). This is not surprising since 700 Institute level agreements, and about 70 cooperation agreements, spanning over 60 countries, have been signed by The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). These encompass multi-lateral and bilateral seminars, workshops, joint ventures, young scientist groups, joint investigations, training courses, etc. Thus it can be seen that China is not shying away from acquiring fundamental research benefits through collaborations, it clearly realises that today’s R&D involves tremendous monetary and material resources and there is no gain in reinventing the wheel. It has protected its own research through strict IPR, and prefers those who invest in China and research in fields required by the Chinese National development plan.
Contribution to Defence Efficiency As the nanotechnology programme is based upon the overarching military strategy in respect of nanotechnology; it requires that it enhances defence capabilities and efficiency by developing military specific nanomaterials, nano aircraft, nano engine technologies, nanosensors and nanosatellites etc. Nanotechnology has enabled significant improvements in triggering devices of strategic weapons by ruggedizing fusing,arming and exploding mechanisms. Further on another front, there has been a quest to develop very low yield nuclear explosives which could be used as controlled micro explosions source for nuclear bombs as well as weapons if compact fusing mechanisms were available. This got a further impetus when it was found that it was more practicable to design a micro-fusion explosive then a micro-fission device. (Micro-fusion results in much less radioactive fallout then an equivalent fission explosive!). This research forms the main thrust areas at nuclear weapons laboratories like US National Ignition facility (NIF) and the French Laser Mega joule laboratory.
There are speculations about China’s Nanoweapons programme but nothing concrete has been cited as yet, it is a question of time before these dual use technologies fructify into tactical Nuclear weapons in the 10 to 100 KT TNT range, which is below the NPT levels and also highly efficient fourth generation strategic Nuclear weapons.
(The author is a retired Director General of Naval Armament Inspection, Naval Head Quarters ,MOD, Govt of India, and holds a PhD from SIS at JNU New Delhi)
 Xinhuanet Web site [Online web] Accessed on 29 Jan 2011 URL: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-01/c_13686054.htm
 Zhenyu Mi (1998), China’s National Defense Development Concepts, Edited by Michael Pillsbury, Chinese Views of Future Warfare, National Defence University Press , Washington DC, 1998.
 quoted in ‘Chinese Views of Future Warfare’, Edited by Michael Pillsbury, National Defence University Press, Washington DC, 1998.
 Bailin Major General Sun (1996), “Nanotechnology weapons on future battlefields” in National Defense, June 15, 1996; quoted in ‘Chinese Views of Future Warfare’, Edited by Michael Pillsbury, National Defence University Press , Washington DC, 1998
 Gu, Hongchen and Schulte, Jurgen (2005), Scientific Development and Industrial Application of Nanotechnology in China, in Nanotechnology: Global Strategies, Industry Trends and Applications Edited by J. Schulte, 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd