China as the World Leader in Nanotechnology: Another Wakeup Call for the West
By Dr. Mahbube K. Siddiki
The Nanotechnology industry in China is moving forward, with substantially high levels of funding, a growing talent pool, and robust international collaborations. The strong state commitment to support this field of science and technology is a key advantage for China to compete with leading forces like US, EU, Japan, and Russia. The Chinese government focuses on increasing competitiveness in nanotechnology by its inclusion as strategic industry in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, reconfirming state funding, legislative and regulatory support. Research and development (R&D) in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology is a key component of the ambitious ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative aimed at turning China into a high-tech manufacturing powerhouse .
The return of foreign-trained Chinese origin researchers and scientists, lured by the promise of competitive salary, readily available research funding, home grown production of cutting-edge research tools and techniques are playing the vital role of China’s steady progress. The Chinese government is heavily promoting Public-Private collaboration as well allowing China to find noticeable success in myriad areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology .
A bright example of Chinese nanotech success is the world’s largest nanotech industrial zone called ‘Nanopolis’, located in the eastern city of Suzhou. This futuristic city houses several private multinationals and new Chinese startups across different fields of nanotechnology and nanoscience. Needless to say, China leads the world’s nanotech startups. Involvement of private sector opens new and unique pools of funding and talent, focusing on applied research. Thus, private sector is leading in R&D in China, where state-sponsored institutions still dominate in all other sectors of rapid industrialization and modernization. From cloning to cancer research, from sea to space exploration, this massive and highly populated nation is using nanoscience and nanotechnology innovation to drive some of the world’s biggest breakthroughs, which is raising concerns in many other competing countries .
China's nanoscience and nanotechnology programs are based on a central policy architecture announced by Deng Xiaoping in 1986, the “National High Technology Research and Development Program”, commonly known as the “863 Program”. Th program aims to promote the development of key novel materials and advanced manufacturing technologies for raising industry competitiveness. The “863 Program” is implemented through successive “Five-Year Plans” and is the key government program behind the national R&D capacity in support of domestic innovation. In fact, from 1990-2002 the program funded over 1000 nanotech projects. This well thought out program is managed by an “expert responsibility system”, with field -/sector-specific expert committees and panels consisting of top scientists who supervise, advise, and assess projects. The first project adhering to the “863 Program” goals was the “Climbing Project” on Nanomaterial Science instigated from 1990-1999 and overseen by the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC), the predecessor to the current Ministry of Science and Technology. Given the Program's success, the government subsequently renewed its commitment to funding basic research on nanomaterials and nanostructures focusing carbon nanotubes, with the initiation of China's “National Basic Research Program” known as “973 Program” in 1997. The newly developed program complements the “863 Program” and is an evolving research agenda for nanoscience and nanotechnology . China’s Ministry of Science and Technology with the help of other associated organizations oversees all the programs and enact concerning regulatory issues. Figure 1 shows some of the agencies’ involvement and their coordination in promoting nanoscience and nanotechnology in China.
Fig 1. Policy and Key Regulatory Agencies for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in China
China has established numerous nanotech research institutions throughout the country over the years. Prominent universities like Peking University, City University of Hong Kong, Nanjing University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Soochow University, University of Science and Technology of China are the leading institutions that house state of art nanotech research labs to foster study and research of nanoscience and nanotechnology . Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) and Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics (SINANO) are top among the state sponsored specialized nanoscience and nanotechnology research centers, which have numerous labs and prominent researchers to conduct cutting edge research in the area of nanotechnology. Public-Private collaboration along with the above mentioned research institutes gave birth to many nanotechnology companies, most notable of them are Array Nano, Times Nano, Haizisi Nano Technology, Nano Medtech, Sun Nanotech, XP nano etc. . These companies are thriving on the research breakthroughs China achieved recently in this sector.
Here are some of the notable achievements in this sector by China. In June 2020, an international team of researchers led by Chinese scientists developed a new form of synthetic and biodegradable nanoparticle . This modifiable lipid nanoparticle is capable of targeting, penetrating, and altering cells by delivering the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool into a cell. This novel nanoparticle can be used in the treatment of some gene related disorders, as well as other diseases including some forms of cancer in the brain, liver, and lungs. At the State Key Laboratory of Robotics in the northeast city of Shenyang, researchers have developed a laser that produces a tiny gas bubble. This bubble can be used as a tiny “robot” to manipulate and move materials on a nanoscale with microscopic precision. The technology termed as “Bubble bot” promises new possibilities in the field of artificial tissue creation and cloning .
A new nanomaterial invented by researchers from the Institute of Chemistry under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has demonstrated the potential to effectively eliminate millions of metric tons of liquid pollution and emissions from organic chemicals used in printing plates and ink, which are quite dangerous to human health. One of the major breakthroughs in Chinese nanotech research, this invention is expected to lead a green revolution in the printing industry. It is one of the many headline grabbing acts for CAS as it is moving fast to applying nanotechnology innovation to the development of consumer tech. Since 2013, CAS researchers have cooperated with more than seventy national and multinational companies in studying lithium batteries, nano printing, nano catalysts, health care, and drinking water treatment etc. So far, the project has landed $780 million in investment .
The combination of a growing talent pool and a state-sponsored desire to become a global leader, with an expanding private-sector ecosystem, will be hard for other countries to match. In fact, China’s big leap in small science i.e., nanoscience is just starting. Recent report published by prominent publication outlet Nature, shows a comparison of research article published there and its affiliated publication outlets for China and its archrival the United States in different research areas, particularly related to nanoscience and nanotechnology. They compare published research articles in 10 fields of research (FoRs) selected from the top 10 FoRs by Share  in each country. Physical chemistry is at the top of most popular research areas in China, followed material engineering and organic chemistry. All are related to nanotech. The U.S. is leading on research related to biological science . The report found that China’s Share in 2020 is more focused on chemistry, i.e., it has 50% more Share than that of US. The life sciences dominate the US effort which is 5 times more. In physical science the US is ahead but by a small margin. The same can be said for “Earth & Environmental Science” area.
In another report  it was shown that China surpassed the U.S. in chemistry in 2018 and now leading the later with a significant gap, which might take years to overcome. In the meantime, the country is approaching the US in Earth & Environmental sciences as well as physical sciences. According to the trend China may take five years or less to surpass US. On the contrary, in life science research China is lagging the US quite significantly, which might be attributed to both countries’ priority of sponsorship, in terms of funding. In fact, in the time of CORONA pandemic, US can use this gap for her strategic gain over China.
Outstanding economic growth and rapid technological advances of China over the last three decades have given her an unprecedented opportunity to play a leading role in contemporary geopolitical competition. The United States, and many of her partners and allies in the west as well as in Asia, have a range of concerns about how the authoritarian leadership in Beijing maneuver its recently gained power and position on the world stage. They are warily observing this regime’s deployment of sophisticated technology like “Nano” in ways that challenge many of their core interests and values all across the world. Though the U.S. is considered the only superpower in the world and has maintained its position as the dominant power of technological innovation for decades, China has made massive investments and swiftly implemented policies that have contributed significantly to its technological innovation, economic growth, military capability, and global influence. In some areas, China has eclipsed, or is on the verge of eclipsing, the United States — particularly in the rapid deployment of certain technologies, and nanoscience and nanotechnology appears to be the leading one. China’s economic clout backed by cutting edge technologies is a prime example of “Global Entanglement”. These entangled dynamics are contributing to U.S.-China tensions over many different issues, e.g., raising tension in global supply chains, creating debates over norms of research access and concerns about technology transfer, global technology standard-setting, regulation of large technology firms etc. In these circumstances, the US and her allies need to take the immediate steps to claim the leading role in the area of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The very first step in this direction would be refocusing on the strategic goals set by the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
I’d like to thank Ms. Fatima Al-Shaikhli, MS Electrical Engineering student, for helping me to verify some of the information. I’d also like to thank Mr. Steve Banach for his encouragement.
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