Archive for the ‘Nanotechnology and the Environment in the Arab World’ Category

Nanotechnology and the Environment in the Arab World – Moshe Terdman

April 22, 2010

Written by Moshe Terdman

Muslim Environment Watch

Muslim Environment Occasional Papers

Vol. 1 (2010), Number 1 (April 2010) 

Site: Email:; All material copyright Moshe Terdman unless otherwise stated. Credit if quoting; ask permission to reprint. 



On February 20, 2010, Mohamed H. A. Hassan, executive director of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, and President of the African Academy of Sciences, said that “Nanotechnology could aid the future of development of the Arab region”. He said that at a panel session called “Re-emergence of Science, Technology and Education as Priorities in the Arab World”, taking place at the AAAS’s annual meeting in San Diego. He further said that “the Arab region, home to some 300 million people, faces a host of daunting development challenges. Three of the most fundamental involve ensuring adequate supplies of water, energy and food”. Advances in nanotechnology could help achieve progress by helping to address each of these challenges”.[1]

Nanotechnology is the study of the controlling of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally speaking, nanotechnology deals with structures of the size 100 nanometers or smaller, and involves developing materials or devices within that size.

The aim of this article is to give a short outline of the development of nanotechnology research throughout the Arab world, while focusing on its application in environmental projects.  

Research Centers 

The development of nanotechnology research throughout the Arab world is a very recent phenomenon, which started to take place only two years ago in Saudi Arabia and since then has spread to other Arab countries.

It is not surprising that the pioneer in acknowledging the importance of nanotechnology is Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as part of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s strategy to transform their industries from petroleum production to knowledge-based industries using nanotechnology and biotechnology, research centers have been established recently in Saudi Arabia as well as in the UAE in order to provide the human resources, innovation and pioneering technology needed for its implementation.[2] 

The agreement on the establishment of the first such research center was signed in Riyadh on February 26, 2008 between the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), the Saudi Arabian national research and development organization, and IBM Research. The research center is called the Nanotechnology Centre of Excellence. Its aim is to seek key innovations, and explore and develop breakthroughs in applying molecular-scale engineering to critical energy and sustainable resource issues. Under this agreement, Saudi scientists and engineers will work side by side with IBM scientists and engineers on advanced nano-science and nano-technology programs in the fields of solar energy, water desalination and petrochemical applications such as recyclable materials. The work will be conducted between teams working at IBM laboratories in Zurich, Switzerland; Almaden, California; Yorktown Heights, New York; and the KACST/IBM Nanotechnology Centre of Excellence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[3]

It should be mentioned that IBM is one of the leading global technology companies and the world’s largest nanotechnology research institution.

The joint research work in solar energy will include a focus on novel materials for the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity, known as photovoltaics. The water treatment research will focus on the use of new nano-membrane materials for reverse osmosis seawater desalination. The research on efficient organic catalysts builds on IBM’s advance materials expertise to develop synthetic methods for recycling of plastic materials.[4]

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia donated US$9.6 million to establish further nanotechnology institutes at universities around Saudi Arabia, to promote education and research in nanotechnology. The US$3.2 million King Abdullah Institute for Nanotechnology was opened in mid-2008 at the King Saud University in Riyadh. Two other nanotechnology institutes are also planned, for King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and the King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals in Riyadh, at a cost of US$3.2 million each.[5]   

On April 28, 2009, Intel and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology signed a collaborative research agreement to establish CENA, Center of Excellence in Nano-manufacturing Applications. The focus of CENA is to conduct leading-edge research on advanced nano-processing and fabrication technology, nano-sensors/network, nano-devices, and synthesis and deposition of nano-structures. CENA will commence its activities in October 2010.[6]

A nanotechnology research center was also established in the UAE. On November 16, 2008, the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (KUSTAR) in Abu Dhabi announced that it would set up a nanotechnology research center in collaboration with the Asian Nano Forum. The announcement was made during the Fifth Asian Nano Forum Summit which started at that day in Abu Dhabi.[7]

According to its website, the aim of the KUSTAR’s nanotechnology center is “to play a leading role in the establishment of nanotechnology research, development, and industry in Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The centre will be dedicated to research on theoretical and experimental nanotechnology with strong emphasis on education and training”.[8]  

The interest in nanotechnology in the Arab world is not limited only to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Scientists in North African countries are increasingly interested in nanotechnology. In January 2009, Egypt launched the first North African nanotechnology and nanoscience research center in Cairo that aims to be world-class, with support from IBM Research. Egypt’s Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) and Science and Technological Development Fund (STDF) signed the three-year partnership agreement with IBM on September 18, 2008. Joint investments will be in the region of US$30 million. Partners in the Center, Cairo University, Nile University and IBM will collaborate in the areas of simulation and modeling software, alternative energy sources (thin film silicon photovoltaics) and energy recovery for desalination.[9] 

More recently, Algeria launched several joint research projects with Iranian scientists in nanotechnology applications in environment and water management. But most of this research is yet to be applied, partly because of limited funding.[10]

And, even more recently, the Jordanian Higher Council for Science and Technology decided on August 17, 2009 to establish the National Nanotechnology Centre of Jordan (NANCEJ). The Centre started to be officially active in early February 2010. Its aim is to build the “scientific capacity in the field of nanotechnology in the Kingdom through programming and coordinating scientific research and development activities in this field nationwide, making the necessary financial support available for them, and networking Jordanian researchers with their counterparts abroad. The centre will establish an advanced specialized research laboratory capable of implementing the wide range of R&D and production…”.[11]

From Theory to Practice: Environmental Projects Applying Nanotechnology

The establishment of nanotechnology research centers throughout the Arab world, but especially in Saudi Arabia and North Africa, and the development of knowledge and awareness to the uses of nanotechnology for environmental and development projects have contributed to the launching in 2010 of two major environmental projects using nanotechnology. 

On January 12, 2010, Tunisia has launched the first project applying nanotechnology in the Maghreb. The project aims to monitor and purify the waters of the Madjerda River, the longest river in Tunisia. Three mobile laboratories will monitor river water, after which data will be analyzed at a new research center. The laboratories will then be mobilized to expand the project to other areas of the country. The Tunisian government has set an initial budget of around US$580,000 for the project. The project, partially funded and supported by Belgium, is the first project of the Tunisian Association for Environmental Nanotechnology. The association was set up in December 2008 but it took a year to convince policymakers of the importance of nanotechnology, particularly for providing water suitable for drinking and irrigation.[12]

On January 24, 2010, the KACST launched a major national initiative to produce desalinated water and electricity at a much cheaper rate – less than a riyal for a cubic meter of water and 30 halalas per kilowatt/hour. According to Prince Turki bin Saud bin Muhammad, Vice President of KACST for research institutes, the initiative will reduce the cost of water and electricity production by 40 percent. The first solar-powered desalination plant with a capacity of 30,000 cubic meters will be built in Al-Khafji. It will serve around 100,000 people using nanoscience techniques developed by the KACST and IBM. The project will reduce dependence on oil and gas to operate desalination plants. Currently, desalination plants on the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf consume a total of 1.5 million barrels per day. The new initiative was carried out by the Ministries of Finance, Water and Electricity, and Commerce and Industry, and the Saline Water Conversion Corporation.[13]  


It seems like more and more Arab countries acknowledge the importance and potential of nanotechnology to address the three most fundamental development challenges facing the Arab world, which include: ensuring adequate supplies of water, energy, and food. Thus, there is no wonder that that two first major environmental projects applying nanotechnology have to do with desalination and purification of water.    

This acknowledgment of the importance of nanotechnology to the Arab world will, most probably, result in more research centers established in all the Arab countries and in more environment projects launched using nanotechnology.

In order to cover the knowledge gap with the West, joint nanotechnology research centers and projects have been launched in collaboration with foreign companies and research centers, who already have the needed knowledge in nanotechnology.  

Facing the challenges of lack of water, energy, and food is a need common to all the countries located in the Middle East and North Africa. This need might also bring the Arab countries to collaborate with each other and even to collaborate with Israel, which has the knowhow in this field.  

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