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Researcher's ‘smart silicone’ reacts to heat & light

Wellington nanotechnology researcher Andreas Zeller has created new techniques to make high value smart elastic silicone by incorporating nanocrystals and quantum dots. The smart elastomers have a wide range of commercial applications from smart bandages that change colour when they need changing, to soft robots for delicate surgical manipulation, to eco-friendly paints that could control their environment by absorbing or reflecting heat depending on the season.

Dr Zeller started his Emerging Innovator project to identify the beach-head application for the ‘smart silicone elastomer’ technology as a Research and Development Scientist at the MacDiarmid Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. He is continuing his research project in his new role as a member of Callaghan Innovation’s Microfabrication Team, with ongoing support from the MacDiarmid Institute and Principal Investigator, Professor Thomas Nann.

“Silicone is an important material as it is biologically inert, highly elastic, optically transparent and easily moulded. Its excellent properties lend it to widespread and diverse applications from lab-on-a-chip devices for point of care diagnostics to solar cells and holographic displays,” says Dr Zeller. “I’ve taken this silicone a step further by adding nanocrystals and quantum dots to add photochromic and thermochromic characteristics, which means it has new high value function as it can react to heat and light.”

Silicone functionalized with photochromic nanoparticles responds quickly to UV light as a reversible reaction darkens the film, which naturally returns to normal over time. “So thin photochromic silicone film could, for example, be used as UV and sun protectant on windows,” says Dr Zeller.

To create colour changing silicone that responds to changes in temperature, Dr Zeller has added thermochromic nanoparticles. “Thermochromic functionalised silicone has a diverse range of potential applications including smart industrial seals that signal if a device is overheating and medical devices that give feedback as to when they need cleaning or replacing,” he says.

Dr James Hutchinson, CEO of KiwiNet, says: “Through the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator programme Andreas successfully developed a proof of concept for his smart silicone technology and has undertaken important market validation across several industries. We’re delighted that as a result he’s attracted industry interest in his technology. We look forward to seeing his technology incorporated into a range of products of value in the future.”
Zeller’s work has been assisted by a network of researchers from Victoria University of Wellington, MacDiarmid Institute and Callaghan Innovation.
Andrea Bubendorfer, who leads the microfabrication team at Callaghan Innovation, says: “The technology Andreas has developed has really exciting potential. Soft, stretchy and flexible materials are coming into the spotlight for their ability to integrate into high value environments such as soft robotics, wearables and health related applications, for just a few examples. The work Andreas has done to make these materials “smart” by functionalising them creates new high value opportunities.”

Dr Zeller says, “The KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme has been invaluable as I’ve been able to gain a good assessment of the commercial landscape and potential demand for my technology. I’ve learnt that a successful pathway to commercialisation is achieved by knowing the issues and demands of the industry and then solving problems in new ways using not just my research, but that of my research collaborators too.”

The next step for Dr Zeller, following his graduation from the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme, is to conduct further research to obtain smart silicone films even thinner films than the 500 µm he has already developed.

The KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme is open to early career researchers based at universities and Crown Research Institutes across New Zealand. Programme recipients receive expert legal advice from KiwiNet corporate partner MinterEllisonRuddWatts and IP advice from Baldwins, as well as funding from the Norman Barry Foundation, which owns the Quality Hotel Parnell Limited.

John Smith, Chairman of the Norman Barry Foundation, which has contributed $475,000 to the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme to date, says: “We’re delighted to support innovative young scientists like Dr Zeller to take their smart research idea and turn it into something that could be a commercial reality.”


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