The next big thing will be the science of little things


5 Aug 2010

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A leading Irish nano scientist has won a €1.5m European Research Commission (ERC) Starter Grant to investigate and develop next-generation materials.

Irish nano scientist, Prof Jonathan Coleman, principal investigator at CRANN, the TCD and UCC-based nanoscience research institute, and professor in the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, has been awarded a prestigious European Research Commission (ERC) Starter Grant of €1.5m.

The awards are given to only 300 top scientists across Europe, representing less than 10pc of those who apply. The awards recognise scientists who are working on research with major potential so that they will have the funding and encouragement to develop cutting-edge technology.

Coleman’s grant will support his research group for the next five years.

“These awards are only made to Europe’s top scientists and it is great recognition of the work being done by professor Coleman and his team to develop next-generation materials,” Prof John Boland, director of CRANN, said.

“It is vitally important for Ireland’s competitiveness that we continue to attract these awards and this kind of funding from academia as well as industry. Ireland has built up its expertise in the area of nanoscience which is globally recognised, as evidenced by the increasing number of international research grants we are attracting.

“Ireland is beginning to take a globally recognised leadership position in nanoresearch and scientists of the calibre of professor Coleman are critical to building our reputation in this area,” Boland added.

The research grant is based on Coleman’s work with graphene and his team’s novel method of being able to split graphite (millions of graphene sheets stuck tightly together) down into individual layers of graphene, which could be used to make stronger and lighter materials.  They could be incorporated into any product that uses plastic, making composites which are stronger, lighter and more environmentally friendly than their pure plastic counterpart, eg, aircraft parts, car parts, sport and household goods.

Two of the materials that Coleman is researching are Bismuth Telluride and Molybdenum Disulfide.

Bismuth Telluride is used to generate energy from waste heat, for example from car engines or nuclear plants, etc. Coleman’s method of separating graphene using a liquid process could be applied to bismuth telluride, which could then be coated onto thin film substrates and attached to the side of a moving car or a nuclear plant to capture the lost heat energy and convert it into usable electrical energy.

Molybolenum disulfide is being evaluated for use in batteries. However production of this is time consuming and complicated.  Using the methods developed by Coleman’s group, one would be able to produce and apply the films much simpler and faster, allowing industrialisation of the process.