Making an impact - Q&A with the Director of the Materials and Surface Science Institute

Materials World magazine
,
26 Nov 2012
Interior of a high pressure autoclave for composite material manufacture at the MSSI.

The Materials and Surface Science Institute (MSSI) in Limerick,
Ireland, is thriving where others have foundered. Its Director,
Professor Noel O’Dowd, speaks to Eoin Redahan about medical textiles,
optimising composite materials and securing state support. 

How does MSSI work? 
MSSI is one of four research institutes in the University of Limerick
(UL). We’re made up of academics in the university who are carrying out
research on materials and surfaces. We cover physics, chemistry,
biology, biochemistry, materials science and engineering with all the
various flavours – mechanical, aeronautical, biomedical and chemical. 

What is your role and how has this changed over the years? 
I joined the University of Limerick in 2006, having worked in the UK for
quite a while at Imperial College London. I joined UL as Professor of
Mechanical Engineering, and I’ve been Director of MSSI for about two
years. I direct the strategy for the Institute and work with the Vice
President for Research in targeting opportunity areas for MSSI and in
recruitment. We are very interdisciplinary, so I’m always looking for
opportunities to collaborate and engage in larger European proposals. 

You now have 200 researchers. How much has the centre grown? 
In 1998 (when the MSSI building was built), we had 80 PhD students and
postdoctoral researchers. We’ve grown a lot since then. We will be
expanding the Institute over the next year to almost double in size,
with 2,500m2 of additional research space. In 2014 the new
extension will open. In 2011, we had about £8.9m of research income.
Back in 1998, it was just £800,000. 

Since the MSSI was set up in 1998, of what specific achievements are you most proud? 
We lead the solid-state pharmaceutical cluster (a national consortium
involving industry and academia conducting research in pharmaceutical
production). The pharmaceutical industry is very important to Ireland –
accounting for roughly half of our exports – so it’s very important that
we have a strong research base. We also lead the technology centre in
composite materials, which is an all-island collaboration of industry
and university partners carrying out research in carbon-fibre composite
materials. 

What products have you brought to industry? 
We’re working with a medical device company in Ireland to develop a new
alloy for biomedical stent applications. The goal is to increase the
radiopacity of the alloy (visibility under X-ray). When you insert the
device, you want to see under X-ray that it is located in the right
place. Existing alloys tend to be quite difficult to see under X-ray,
and the ones that are visible are quite expensive. So we’ve been trying
to develop a nitinol alloy with the same performance in terms of
mechanical properties and ease of manufacture with increased
radiopacity. We’ve also developed a processing technique to improve the
infection resistance of textiles such as medical robes. The technique
involves depositing nanoparticles on the surfaces of these textiles,
improving their resistance to infection. 

Tell me more about your nanoscope that screens for Alzheimer’s disease? 
Existing infrared spectroscopy doesn’t give you very high resolution in
terms of spatial resolution. It’s not good at detecting very small
variations in cells. The advantage of the MSSI nanoscope is that because
of its high resolution it will be able to detect early the small
abnormalities in the cells associated with Alzheimer’s, which you
wouldn’t pick up with other forms of spectroscopy. A lot of the
technologies that are used for imaging at very high resolution are not
suitable for biomaterials or cellular imaging, but by using infrared we
can look at biomaterials at very high resolution. The research is funded
through a four-year EU Framework 7 project called LANIR (Label Free
Nanoscopy Using Infrared). 

What advances have you brought to the field of carbon fibre-reinforced composites? 
Industry is currently not using composite materials to their full
potential. The failure mechanisms of these materials are still not well
understood, so industry has to be overly conservative in its designs. At
MSSI we’re developing new modelling techniques for composite failure
analysis. We’re also looking at developing manufacturing technologies
for composite materials. The technologies we have at the moment are slow
and expensive, so we’re looking at ways to optimise new technologies
for composite manufacturing. One technique is called automated tow
placement – it basically uses a robot to lay up the fibres and matrix.
By optimising the resins, you can manufacture more quickly and more
efficiently. We’re also looking at microwave processing of composite
materials. We use microwaves to heat up the resin so it can be processed
easily. Particular additives are required in the resin to allow the
material to absorb the microwaves, so you need to optimise the material
to make it microwave processable. It’s very expensive to produce
composite materials in large-scale autoclaves, which require high
temperature and high pressure. Using microwave technologies would reduce
the cost. 

In relation to photovoltaics, how close are you to producing technology that will be commercially viable? 
Photovoltaics are mainly based on thin film technology, where you
deposit a thin film under vacuum. That’s an expensive process. Our team
uses a chemistry-based approach. The PV material is formed in solution
and deposited on the surface, so it’s a lower-cost technology. In terms
of time to develop a commercial product, we’re saying a two to three
year time frame. The resultant technology may not be as efficient as the
current state of the art [technology] based on silicon, but it would be
much cheaper. The advantage is that the researchers use very common
materials such as copper, zinc, tin, sulphur and additional quaternary
materials. 

In what areas would you like to see MSSI focus on? 
Strategically we have four focus areas, which are pharmaceutical
materials, composite materials, biomedical engineering and biomaterials,
and materials for energy and environment. All of those areas have a
strong Irish industry focus. 

You recently received a €700,000 grant from the Irish Government. How important is state support? 
This funding was awarded as part of a competitive process. We need the
funding to survive as I think any research institute does. Research
projects can’t run without funding for PhD students and post-doctoral
researchers, and a portion of this funding comes from Government
sources. There has been some reduction in funding at a national level
but the Government has always stated that one of the areas it has tried
not to cut back on has been in research funding. It’s very competitive
out there, so it needs to be good research to get funded. There has also
been an increased emphasis on what the Government and funding agencies
call impact. So we need to demonstrate that the research we’re doing has
an impact, which ultimately means job creation.