Nanoscience has captured the imagination of industry and the wider community primed to expect ground-breaking devices and technologies made possible thanks to European leadership in a complex field at the tiniest of scales – organic electronics.
Thanks to new thinking and developments in the Superior(1) Initial Training Network, scientists are paving the way for lightweight, low-heat 'organic' alternatives to meet demand for smaller, more powerful electronics to keep pushing the limits of Moore's law – which describes the size-to-power relationship of integrated circuits.
But complex work such as organic electronics calls for specialist expertise in chemistry, physics and engineering – skills that no single lab or site can deliver, according to Superior's coordinator Prof. Paolo Samori. The Superior network combines the skills of experts in all three fields, a collaboration that started when the principle investigators were themselves PhD researchers and postdocs.
"The fact that we didn't start from zero with this consortium really makes a difference," says Prof. Samori. The principal investigators in Superior today have collaborations dating back nearly two decades starting in the EU's Fourth Framework Programme (FP4) Sisitomas project.
"We've been building on a critical mass of know-how and collaboration for decades, so we've observed and influenced the field's evolution towards complexity, building blocks, self-assembly and multifunctional materials and devices."
Currently, 16 Marie Curie fellows from 12 nationalities worldwide are getting invaluable experience and skills to help them develop their careers. In total, Superior will train 19 fellows (14 PhDs and five postdocs) by October 2013.
"We are promoting the new generation of leaders in a similar way that Professor Frans De Schryver, under the Sisitomas project, mentored the current leaders in the field. Of course, we hope the new generation will do better than us!" says Prof. Samori.
These are future innovators, like Dr Emanuele Orgiu who was appointed to the University of Strasbourg as an assistant professor shortly after his 24-month fellowship. He entered the project with a background in electrical engineering, device physics and organic semiconductor transport and came out with new skills in chemistry and a vision for a future in multidisciplinary research.
Organic electronics is a team game, he says: "You can be a great chemist and synthesise the best molecule ever but not know how to apply it. And the best 'device man' can struggle to understand why a certain molecule works better than another."
Superior provided strong scientific ties to equally talented and enthusiastic researchers and mentors in organic electronics. This excellent "scientific web", he says, is a wellspring of exciting ideas and prospects: "I discovered in science you can be either a follower or an innovator. Now I know I'm an innovator."
According to Prof. De Schryver, Sisitomas was also one of the first to mix synthetic and physical chemistry (physics) in its approach to supra-molecular science, now better-known as nanoscience. Sisitomas tried to assemble materials into a predictable architecture from which to study physical properties – at the molecular level.
From these tentative early steps, the field has moved on, from super molecules to super functions, explains Prof. Samori. "Next, we'll go from mono- to multifunction – looking to integrate multifunctionality inside a single electronic device." And from there, who knows where this multidisciplinary field will take science?
The professor offers a hint. "In electronics today, you have a button (a transistor) and by applying voltage to it you determine if it is 'on' or 'off'. But we are looking to go beyond the 'one-function' paradigm, to integrate more functions on a device using different stimuli to turn a device on and off."
He says he cannot reveal too much ahead of a publication which will add to Superior's tally of 55 already in circulation, including leading titles like Science and the Chemical Society Review. But he insists the results are a big step towards the first multifunctional computers.
Already, this nanoscience dynasty has proven capable of translating pioneering research into market success. For example, spin-offs under Prof. Richard Friend of the University of Cambridge include recognised names such as Cambridge Display Technology's polymer organic electronics, and Plastic Logic's new-generation display technologies.