The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Centre for Nanostructures and Advanced Materials chief researcher and manager Professor Suprakas Sinha Ray has praised the team at the research centre and said the recognition by peer scientists worldwide means they are making an impact in the science community.
The 615 research articles produced by Ray on nanotech inventions and discoveries over the past 15 years had been cited 34 509 times by scientists from more than 180 different countries.
This is a measure of his output and performance as a scholar, and the website ranks him as South Africa’s number two researcher in materials science, the CSIR said.
“My name is ranked, yes, but it is really a team achievement. 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,” Ray commented.
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, he said.
“We have a very diverse team, which we have built from the bottom up. For example, 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,” he illustrated.
His multidisciplinary team is also making an impact on sustainable agriculture and environment-friendly chemicals, first by developing new green, or environment-friendly, materials and then by transferring those technologies to industry.
“We are serving seven different industries right now. For instance, the team is working with [wood-based product company] Sappi on biomass conversion, which means finding value-added uses for the plant waste created during their paper-making process,” he said.
The team is also working with oil and gas company Engen on processing optimisation for environmentally-benign polymers, and has provided medical nanotechnologies to medical aid company 3Sixty Health.
“We have been setting up our centre for the last decade, and now we are moving fast. In the next decade, we will do more and more,” Ray said.
“Being rated South Africa’s second-highest materials scientist is simply a stepping stone to bigger things. We want to be even more relevant to society and industry. We want to see, in four to five years, that we are top in the country and in Africa.
“We are doing something good here, and would like to be number one in relevance and cutting-edge science, which means researching and creating sustainable materials in the most efficient way possible,” he said.
For any new materials that the team tries to develop, the scientists ask themselves what the fate of that material will be. For example, his team is working on smart packaging made from plant-based polymer nanocomposites, which can be discarded to biodegrade without harming the environment.
The team is also using data science to streamline the research process. If the team wants to develop a new plastic material, there are thousands of research papers already available on plastic materials known as polypropylene composites.
“Before 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 that we can select only the best candidates to test,” he explains.
“The future lies in advanced manufacturing, robotics and AI. These industries need tougher, lighter, more intelligent materials that don’t disturb the environment or human health.”
The demand for such materials is already booming globally, and Ray and his team are currently in a sprint to meet that need.