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                                           Emerging
                                      Research Areas
EMERGING RESEARCH AREAS (ERAs) are new areas of science that the CSIR deems important to pursue. These
typically require a significant investment in developing or recruiting scarce skills with a view to build a national
science capacity. New areas include artificial intelligence, bio-engineering technologies, nanotechnology, enviro-
informatics, human language technologies, modelling, prediction and optimisation technologies, opto-electronics/
photonics, pharma and nutrienomics and sensor technologies. In this edition, ScienceScope features the fields of
nanoscience and mobile intelligence – new ERAs, indeed.




                                                                                                           Research group
                                                                                                       leader Dr Suprakas
                                                                                           Ray, says the nanotechnology
                                                                                       group aims to be a world player
                                                                                     in the discovery and development
                                                                                          of new materials and material
                                                                                             properties at the nano-scale
                                                                                        level within the next five years.
                                                                                           Through this, the CSIR aims to
                                                                                           contribute considerably to the
                                                                                            development and application
                                                                                            of new nano-based products
                                                                                      and processes that could improve
                                                                                            the competitiveness of South
                                                                                      African industries and the quality
                                                                                              of life of all South Africans
16         SCIENCESCOPE JUNE 2007              EMERGING RESEARCH AREAS




Understanding and
controlling the basic
building blocks
Dr Suprakas Ray left a promising career in Canada,
and turned down an attractive offer from Japan,
to move his family to South Africa – all because
he realised the country’s immense potential in the
booming nano-structured world market.




                                                               Research focus
                                                               When the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched the
                                                               National Nanotechnology Strategy (NNS) in April 2006, it invited the
 “NANOTECHNOLOGY RESEARCH is leading to an un-                 CSIR into the fold. This initiative and subsequent strategy and implemen-
 precedented understanding of and control over the basic       tation plan led to the establishment of the new nano-focused centre in
 building blocks and properties of all natural and man-made    early 2007.
 objects,” says Suprakas, the research group leader and
 chief researcher of the newly established National Centre     The following research focus areas have been identified for the centre,
 for Nano-Structured Materials at the CSIR in Pretoria.        based on trends and developments, the existing science and technology
                                                               strengths in the CSIR and the need to align with and support the NSS:
 New devices and processes                                     • Fabrication of novel nanostructured materials
                                                               • Synthesis and characterisation of quantum dots
 Over the past few years, nanotechnology has radically         • Synthesis of polymer nanocomposites
 changed the fields of physical sciences and engineering,      • Application of nanostructured materials in the energy sector.
 somewhat comparable to the emergence of superconduc-
 tivity in 1986. It encompasses not only physics, chemistry,
 materials science and engineering, but also biology and
 medicine. In addition to an understanding of and control
                                                                     “Nanotechnology research is
 over the basic building blocks and properties of objects,           leading to an unprecedented
 advances in nanofabrication – using top-down as well as
 bottom-up technologies – make it possible to work at the            understanding of and control
 atomic and molecular levels to create large structures with         over the basic building blocks
 fundamentally new functionalities.
                                                                      and properties of all natural
 “Beyond the scope of our current conception, perhaps 30
 to 40 years ahead, completely new forms of devices and
                                                                       and man-made objects.”
 processes will emerge,” Suprakas says.
            SCIENCESCOPE JUNE 2007                 EMERGING RESEARCH AREAS
18




      New and exciting,                                                                            Dr Ajith Gopal and Johan Strydom
     and guaranteed to be
     a global technology
     in the future: Systems                         Mobile, intelligent,
     that operate auto-
     nomously and exhibit
                                                    autonomous:
     intelligent behaviour                          Systems of the future
     with minimum human
                                                    ment and acts in real time in pursuit of       exploratory discussions are ongoing about
     intervention. This is                          a specific agenda. Using existing inter-       autonomous identification and assessment
     the kind of futuristic                         national examples of field robotics endea-     of the condition of road markings and
                                                    vours, it could be an exploring device on      traffic signs. Climate monitoring is another
     technology discovery                           the moon to investigate hydrogen concen-       area with huge potential benefits from
     that exhilarates many                          trations; a system that monitors environ-      autonomous, intelligent systems,” Ajith
                                                    mental data and irrigates plants when          explains. He looks forward to the new
     young scientific minds                         needed; or a robot that is deployed in         talent that will be the lifeblood of the new
     – and now it’s hap-                            a mine to repair pipes. The research           group, “The MIAS research group has the
                                                    challenges therefore centre on the ability     opportunity to make a significant impact
     pening at the CSIR.                            of a system to localise, navigate and          on human capital development (HCD),
                                                    avoid obstacles simultaneously in an           also in terms of transformation of the
                                                    unstructured, dynamic, three-dimensional       South African science, engineering and
                                                    environment,” he says.                         technology base.”
 A NATIONWIDE RECRUITMENT process
 was recently conducted to find top minds,          Ajith, a PhD engineering graduate, says        “The researcher profile of the group is
 across a range of – as yet scarce – skills to      the new group is set to play a leading role    envisaged to be approximately 12 core
 work in this domain within an emerging re-         in establishing the national research          researchers supported by some 20 MSc
 search area (ERA) formally                         agenda in field robotics. “This was a future   and PhD studentships. Opportunities for
 established at the CSIR on 1 April 2007.           requirement for the CSIR unit that under-      postdoctoral researchers also exist and
                                                    takes research and development in de-          the advantages of this mechanism for HCD
 Dr Ajith Gopal, who has been named                 fence, peace, safety and security.             will be maximised,” says Ajith.
 interim head of the mobile intelligent             However, since it also has applications in,
 autonomous systems (MIAS) research area            for example, mining, transport and envi-       When asked how he feels about heading
 together with colleague Johan Strydom,             ronmental matters, a new ERA with links        a research group that is relatively new in
 says research in this field is currently           and access to the various established CSIR     the CSIR and the rest of South Africa, he
 extremely fertile and presents an ideal            research units, was set up.                    says: “It does not give me sleepless nights,
 opportunity for South Africa to position                                                          as it is so obviously a research area that is
 itself as a technology leader.                     “We are already talking to peers in mining     a future global technology. We know we
                                                    research about an autonomous platform          are moving in the right direction.” The
 “Mobile intelligent autonomous systems is          that can mine in narrow stopes where it is     CSIR, he adds, has a sound track record
 also called field robotics. Simplified, it is a    not feasible – and too hazardous – to have     of creating new capability.
 system that is situated within an environ-         human miners. In the built environment,                            – Mzimasi Gcukumana

				
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