From Molecules to the Market

Taking single molecules and tethering them to a surface to produce highly controllable functions as the basis for precision sensors, medical diagnostic tools or even lighting arrays may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the groundwork is being tackled in the University of Canterbury lab of Dr Alison Downard.

The MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator and Professor of Chemistry is investigating the fabrication of practical molecular materials.

“The idea is that, in the future, various functions could be provided by a single molecule.”

Working from the molecule up is a far cry from the more usual top-down approach of the current silicon-based technology, and comes with a whole host of new challenges. You have to understand the properties of the nanoparticles, identify what suitable surfaces allow retention of the desired properties, and how to connect the two. Downard’s research group has been focusing on identifying the best surfaces to work with at the sub-nano-metre level. Until now, they have worked on contributing to the basic understanding of how the structure of layers on a surface affects the methods for patterning the tethers. “I welcome the opportunity to take our knowledge and move it in a more practical direction.”

If these molecules are going to have practical applications, they have to be attached to a surface to enable their position and use to be precisely controlled. One of the biggest challenges at present is determining whether such placement techniques are successful. When you’re working at levels under the one-nanometre mark, it’s not easy to see whether you’ve got a single molecule set in position or a clump.

The new research has meant working across a range of disciplines and accessing expertise and instrumentation from people and places up and down the country. Downard and her group have been working with physicist and Principal Investigator Dr Simon Brown and MacDiarmid Institute postdoctoral fellow Dr Haifeng Ma on the scanning tunnelling microscopy needed to see down to single-molecule resolution.  “They may speak different scientific languages,” says Downard, “but they’re strongly motivated to try to bring that knowledge together. It’s contributing to an emerging pan-institute interest in molecular electronics.”

The work is very recent, having begun this year, and Downard admits it is a very long-term project- “it may be decades before we ever see anything practical out of this”. But she’s also quick to note that you need such aspirational projects to run alongside the more commercially focused, short-term work, adding that seeing some of her research move in a more applied direction has been “particularly exciting”.

One of her current projects, in conjunction with Principal Investigators Simon Hall and Richard Tilley, has a two-year timeframe, with two MacDiarmid Institute postdoctoral fellows, Drs Paula Brooksby and Eric Njagi,engaged in research relevant to energy conversion and storage. The goal is to have work with definite commercial potential that can be protected by intellectual property agreements. Hall, with two successful spin-offs under his belt, brings some “real marketplace knowledge” to the research.

A MacDiarmid Institute Commercialisation Fellowship has gone to PhD student Andrew Gross to investigate other commercial possibilities within Downard’s research group.

“We have a mix of things going on in my group,” Downard says. “You do have to aim for the long term, but you also need shorter term goals, and they bring a different kind of satisfaction.”