23 October 2015

Organic electronics is a rapidly-widening niche within materials science that promises to deliver novel technologies such as flexible video displays, ‘e-paper’ that mimics real paper in look and feel, and flexible organic solar cells.

Dr Wallace Wong, who is an ARC Future Fellow at The University of Melbourne, is an expert in the characteristics of all kinds of organic electronic materials and has been finding ways to increase their efficiency and durability by precisely manipulating their material structure, and applying new synthesis techniques. 

“In the area of materials chemistry, the research focus is usually on structure, properties and applications,” said Dr Wong.

“In some cases, large quantities of materials are required and my research group has been one of the first to apply continuous flow processing for the synthesis of organic electronic materials.”

Continuous flow processing means mixing chemical ingredients in a continuous way, rather than in small batches and is the first step in making a new material available in commercially useful amounts.

Dr Wong’s laboratory is part of the Bio21 Institute. The institute was established by Professor Andrew Holmes, who has been leading the research effort into a novel kind of solar energy technology. The technology is based on printable electronic devices with organic semiconducting molecules as the active component.

President of the Australian Academy of Science and a former ARC Federation Fellow, Professor Holmes established a multidisciplinary research laboratory in the Bio21 Institute at The University of Melbourne, which is focussed on translating the special properties of organic molecules for use in not only electronic devices but also biological applications.

“My background [at The University of Cambridge] was in stimulating fluorescence in special organic molecules by sandwiching them between electrodes,” said Professor Holmes.

This light-emitting technology is now well on the way to commercial applications overseas with flexible flat screen devices entirely based on organic light-emitting molecules. 

“On coming to Australia I was looking for a new angle with less encumbered intellectual property, and so began working on the reverse. Instead of emitting light, we can use these molecules to absorb light and generate electricity—and this is the basis for the organic solar cell.”

Solar cells based on organic molecules can be printed on a wide range of materials—from corrugated iron to flexible plastic—and although they are not yet as efficient as silicon based solar panels, the range of uses is potentially much wider due to their inherent flexibility and ease of application.

Research led by Professor Holmes has been steadily increasing the size of these printed cells as well as increasing their durability and efficiency.

In addition to improving the technology itself, the challenge of building an international research team and attracting industry and government support has been a large part of the task that Professor Holmes has tackled in the ten years since he has been in Australia.

“The solar cell project for the first five years was supported by my ARC Federation Fellowship. We then formed a consortium in Australia of all those working on organic materials—this was a great way of getting Australian partners linked up and it was funded by a Federal Government International Science Linkage grant.

“Although the ‘engine room’ was still ARC funding, the linkage money allowed international post-doctoral researchers to come in and it really glued the Australian groups together.”

During this time, and with funding support from ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme grants for essential equipment and instrumentation, the project obtained backing from the Victorian State government, industry partners and grants also from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

The Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) was established with the involvement of research groups from CSIRO and Monash University as well as a few industrial partners.

VICOSC Project Coordinator and Senior Research Associate, Dr David Jones, said that this funding provided an additional impetus to the project, and took it to the next stage with concrete goals and benchmarks to meet the expectations of stakeholders.

“Our industrial partners at that time were a company called Innovia Security that printed the security features on the Australian Polymer bank note—and with them we set out to make printable large area solar cells,” said Dr Jones.

“We also entered a three year collaboration with BlueScope Steel for a ‘principle to pilot’ project. This serious industry commitment was on the model of an EU (European Union) consortium—there were fortnightly meetings, a project team, and quarterly reporting to ARENA.”

Dr Jones, who recently returned from an organic electronics conference in the United States, said a biologist was interested in using one of the team’s materials as the basis of a sensor to take readings from cells.

“A number of these sensors can be fitted on one chip, to measure things like changes in acidity.”

With the research and manufacturing expertise housed in The University of Melbourne group and its partners, the unique opportunities for Australian industry look brighter than ever.

The next challenge is what Professor Holmes describes as the ‘valley of death’—that is the final translation stage. 

“We have to do a pilot in the lab—then jump—this is the moment that you really need industry commitment.”  

For more information please contact Professor Andrew Holmes.


Image: Dr Jones and Professor Holmes at CSIRO holding a section of printed solar cell. Image courtesy: Tracey Nicholls.