Material Century Demands High Value Products

Professor Roger Reeves - Science Leader - Materials For High Value TechnologiesThe time has come to make money-making ventures a priority, and The MacDiarmid Institute has a number of projects which fit the bill.  The MacDiarmid Institute’s Science Leader of Materials for High Value Technologies, Roger Reeves, says New Zealand needs to focus on making things that are relatively specialised. “If we start making 10 million MP3 players at $10 each we’re going to have difficulty managing resources and transport logistics to be competitive. So we need to make fewer very sophisticated things with greater individual value,” says the Professor of Physics at the University of Canterbury. “The nature of science is that there are always unanswered research problems. We must balance their priority with acting on what we already know to get  products to market. “We must still underpin everything we do with fundamental research. But MacDiarmid has had 12 years of funding to build up our ability and expertise in human and physical resources. We need to leverage off this and look to projects that have the potential to generate economic value.”  Four key projects in this area have very good prospects of generating a return in the medium term. Work on rare nitrides could lead to more efficient electronic devices.  “In electronics we have two types of charge carrier, negatively charged electrons and positively charged holes. The operating speed of any device is limited by the weakest link in the chain and in this case it’s the holes, which are intrinsically less mobile. If we can use different types of electrons instead, either spinning up or spinning down like tops going clockwise and counter clockwise, the overall efficiency is better.” One application could be a magnetic field sensor moving along metal pipes probing for cracks. “Magnetic fields will make these two types of electrons travel differently. In large continents like the USA there are thousands of miles of metal pipes transporting gas, and if cracks can be detected easily we can stop leaks, save money and the environment.”  Further research into high-temperature super-conductivity could lead to an industrial magnetic resonance imaging machine working on less power at a higher temperature, making it cheaper and easier to use. “It’s the kind of thing that can be used in an oil refinery. Oil is distilled into different types of petroleum products, first methane and butane then the very heavy things like bitumen, tar and grease. Its makeup is variable so it’s important to determine its purity and this can help.”  Realising a new generation of optoelectronic devices in the UV spectrum is the focus of oxide semiconductor research.  The group expects to prototype devices in high value applications such as invisible self-powered sensors, optical displays and smart windows. And work on photolithography, aims to reduce the size of the wires on computer chips from 100 nanometres to just 10–20 nanometres. “If you can have five times the number of wires in the same space you can reduce the density and size of what you are making.  “Having electronics smaller and lighter has all sorts of advantages when fuel is needed to move the object. It could be used in something as simple as the modern car or as esoteric as a satellite going into space.”  All of this research provides a platform to support the Institute’s drive to mentor emerging entrepreneurial scientists. “When I was an undergraduate at Canterbury in the 1980s we had very set experiments and apparatus that was quite a way from state-of-the-art,” says Reeves. “Now our students spend three-quarters of the year in project-based research groups, using modern apparatus in mainstream laboratories. That means they are engaged with current problems. They often see us surprised and even sometimes confused, then learn how we think about the problems and make real progress.”  He says we are firmly in a materials century, with rapid prototyping and push to market.  Alongside making new products, further motivation comes from a huge need to conserve energy. “Better control of advanced materials like the ones we are working on will give us more control over energy. That will make New Zealand society more robust for the foreseeable future.”