Environment & Engineering

Living in a materials world

Published Apr 17, 2020

Recognising the commercial potential of an idea aimed at enhancing research methods in his own lab has led one Victoria University of Wellington researcher and his former PhD student to develop— and try to commercialise—a novel software tool that could ultimately have global impact on the development of new materials for the electronics industry.

Dr Franck Natali, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences—and one of the lead scientists in the University’s Advanced Materials Lab—is also Wellington UniVentures’ ‘Innovator in Residence’ two days each week. He says that it’s this experience working in an “innovation bubble” that caused him to see the commercial potential of the idea—simulation software that allows better understanding of the shape and form of thin films—early on.

“Thin films are the building block of all modern electronic devices,” says Franck. “They are very different, unique materials that can’t be found in the natural world, and must be of the highest purity.”

However, he says that being able to quantitatively measure the quality of the films’ crystal properties while they are being grown under ultra-high vacuum conditions is one of the key needs for academic and industry researchers alike.

“An existing electron diffraction system—known as the RHEED technique—is able to gather some information about the surface layer of a thin film by beaming electrons onto the material where they scatter off atoms and form patterns,” says Franck. “But until now, there’s been a lack of tools available to interpret those patterns in a way that allows for any kind of predictions to be made about a film as it’s being grown—is it correct for what’s needed? And how does it compare with other experiments?”

He says that the problem could not be solved by a software developer alone, requiring a combination of skills in physics as well as coding—skills that Jay Chan, Franck’s PhD student at the time, had in abundance.

“Jay is an extremely talented physicist and software engineer, so I set him the challenge to develop the software as part of his thesis and he really stepped up to meet that challenge,” says Franck.

Funded by a Marsden Grant, Jay worked on the project under Franck’s supervision and is now in the process of refining the tool while working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University.

“It’s been really interesting to work on a project that has real-world application, and to see first-hand how commercialising research can get it out of the lab and into the hands of others where it can make a difference,” says Jay.

Franck says that working so closely with Wellington UniVentures in his role as Innovator-in-Residence meant that thinking about the commercial potential of the software came quickly and naturally. “With no commercially available solution on the market, we figured that others must be experiencing the same problems as us—so why not try and commercialise our idea so it can have positive impact on the wider research community?” he says.

Although the software is currently targeted at a niche market—primarily thin films electronic manufacturers, research labs and suppliers of RHEED acquisition and analysis software—Franck says that because it could be used with any type of material, and to simulate the transmission of electrons, there’s potential for it to be used in many other applications.

Wellington UniVentures is supporting his discussions with several overseas-based companies who have expressed interest in the software. “Industry feedback says they see it as an important addition to current characterisation tools that will help their researchers to tailor and shape the properties of new materials for use in modern devices.”

The French-born physicist says that commercialisation is not so completely different to scientific research as people might think. “They both involve experimenting with the unknown in the hope of potentially exciting outcomes that can have great impact in the world.”

Get in touch with Franck or Paul (below) to find out more.

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