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Tripping the light fantastic from wallpaper to books
[July 06, 2006]

Tripping the light fantastic from wallpaper to books

(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) More than 1,000 scientists are visiting TCD this week to discuss nanotech research which is providing novel technologies, writes Dick Ahlstrom

You are sitting comfortably on a sunny beach on the Cte D'Azure. You have already rolled out a portable plastic solar cell to power a one page, microprocessor controlled "book", a single plastic page that can display words, pictures and even television signals.

Science fiction? Science fact. These kinds of hybrid devices are beginning to flow from intensive international research into nanotechnology and "synthetic metals".

Trinity College Dublin has been hosting a week-long international meeting in Dublin brought here by the International Conference on Science and Technology of Synthetic Metals (ICSM). It has attracted an amazing 1,100 delegates including no less than three Nobel Prize winners.

They aren't here for the tourist attractions, but for the quality of research in this field being done at Trinity and other Irish third-level institutions, says the director of the Materials Ireland Polymer Research Centre in the school of physics at TCD, Prof Werner Blau.

"We have a good reputation in this field and people also get the feeling that Ireland is one place where things are happening," says Blau. "It is important you are not just doing a tourist meeting, they want it to be an important place to visit."

Trinity won the right to host the event by beating competition from the US and Brazil, he added. "The location is chosen by an international advisory board of 60 people."

The focus is on synthetic metals, Blau explains. These are man-made materials that can have metallic properties such as being conductive, magnetic and capable of emitting light, despite being made from polymers and carbon nanotubes. Like plastics, they are lightweight and mouldable and are finding application in an extremely diverse range of areas.

They are being applied in the development of artificial muscles, electronic "noses" that can sense odours, plastic solar cells, chemical sensors, electronic textiles and nerve cell communications.

For this reason labs looking at synthetic metals and their applications are inherently multidisciplinary. Scientists are manipulating materials at the nano scale, where objects are produced and measured in the billionths of a metre across.

Synthetic metals are ideal for nanotechnology given they meet engineering needs in being strong and light, and can be fabricated at this incredibly small scale. A "synergy" has opened up between synthetic metals and nanotechnology with products emerging from plastic solar cells to medical devices.

The conference has been discussing the preparation and use of the new materials in electronics, health and medicine. "Mainly it is looking at polymers and synthetic nanostructures and the biomedically active nanotech materials," he says.

Blau's own group at Trinity involves researchers in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology and computer simulation. He has been involved in this work for 20 years. "We have been very much at the forefront in photonic polymers, plastics which can be used to make displays and also plastic solar cells," he explains.

Many of these developments are getting close to market, for example a plastic solar cell array that can be rolled up like a sheet of paper and deployed where ever power is needed. Plastic displays using light-emitting synthetic metals are also under study, he adds. "There are all sorts of ideas."

He believes the topics being discussed at the ICSM conference which ends tomorrow are "perfectly aligned" with the Government's current science and technology strategy. It also has given Ireland a chance to showcase its research capabilities in this and other areas.

ICSM meetings take place every second year. In 2004 the meeting went to Australia. Although held in Trinity, the Irish programme committee included scientists and engineers from DCU, DIT, UCD, NUI Maynooth, NUI Galway, UCC, UL and from companies including NTERA, Intel, Dow Corning and HP.

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