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Researchers awarded £7 million for quantum engineering of organic smart materials

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A world leading team of scientists has been awarded more than £7 million to develop radically new disruptive organic materials for everything from smart textiles to self-powered patches for healthcare.

The five-year project, funded by a UKRI EPSRC Programme Grant entitled “Quantum engineering of energy-efficient molecular materials (QMol)” is led by Professor Colin Lambert with Dr Ben Robinson and Dr Sam Jarvis from Lancaster University.

Demand for wearable electronic devices has increased significantly in recent years and integration of these devices into textiles is highly in-demand.

However, a key problem is the need for a power supply, typically in the form of a battery or supercapacitor, which need to be recharged.

Professor Lambert said: “Wouldn’t it be great if the health benefits of smart clothing and electrically stimulated wound healing could be delivered without the need to change a battery?

“Wouldn’t it be great if the huge amounts of energy wasted by computers and other low-grade heat sources could be reduced significantly or converted back into electricity?”

However, the efficiency of the world’s best inorganic thermoelectric (TE) material is only 5 per cent, with this poor performance reflected in the slow growth of the global market for inorganic TE materials, which is only 14 per cent per annum.

To solve this problem, the QMol researchers aim to develop flexible TE materials based on organic materials that can covert waste heat from the body and other sources into electricity.

The key to reducing this energy cost is to utilise “memristors” –  low-power devices able to simulate the synapses in our brain and also to act as interesting sensors.

The researchers are targeting organic materials, because inorganic memristors have a variety of problems, which is why the global memristor market is only $80 million (£62.7 million) per annum.

However, if these problems can be solved using organic memristors, then this market is predicted to reach $2.8 billion (£2.1 billion) by 2026.

The market for lower-temperature organic materials is also predicted to grow at 110 per cent per annum, because these materials can be used for smart clothing, the internet of things, self-powered patches for healthcare and energy recovery from low-grade sources of heat such as data centres.

The aim of QMol is to deliver radically new disruptive organic materials, which address both the memristor and thermoelectric generator markets.

Professor Lambert said: “We know that we can deliver these materials, because recently we discovered that quantum interference effects can be utilised to enhance the switching functionality and thermoelectric performance of single molecules and few-layer molecular films.

“The aim now is to continue this trend to thicker films, which will allow us to exploit quantum interference in the third dimension.

“This is not a trivial step – in fact, we believe that moving from single molecules to functional films will be as transformational as the scaling up from single transistors to integrated circuits was in the 1960s.”

Image: Lancaster University

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