A quantum leap for materials science: NUS launches world’s first research institute for intelligent materials
What if diabetic patients could simply pop an insulin pill instead of injecting themselves daily to manage their blood sugar levels? It is a possibility with new intelligent materials that will know exactly when to release the insulin into the bloodstream.
Such breakthrough innovations could soon become reality with the launch of the world’s first institute that is dedicated to the design, synthesis, and application of functional intelligent materials at NUS.
The Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials (I-FIM) – NUS’ newest national Research Centre of Excellence (RCE) – hopes to revolutionise new interdisciplinary approaches towards materials synthesis.
“We don't want to be slaves to the existing materials. We want to be able to create our own materials with pre-determined common properties for given applications,” said Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, Nobel-Prize-winning materials scientist and director of I-FIM.
With Prof Novoselov and Distinguished Professor Antonio Castro Neto at the helm, I-FIM joins five other RCEs in Singapore that are geared towards advancing research excellence on a national level.
I-FIM will supported with a funding of S$200 million for 10 years, with half (S$100 million) contributed by the Ministry of Education, and NUS contributing an equivalent of S$100 million.
Launching the new institute on 7 Oct, Education Minister Mr Chan Chun Sing said, “We look forward to I-FIM playing a significant role in our research landscape and becoming a globally-renowned institute that will attract, retain and support world-class academic investigators, enhance graduate education in NUS, and create new important knowledge in materials science.”
NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, noted that material advancements in this area of materials science are key to tackling pressing global challenges.
“We have amassed some of the world’s most prolific and prominent talents in this important field… With the establishment of I-FIM, I am confident that the impact of NUS’ materials science will become even more far-reaching,” he said.
Reinventing materials science
Most materials, like steel, have fixed properties. I-FIM intends to create intelligent and adaptive materials with properties that can dynamically change according to the environment – crucial for artificial organs, smart membranes and smart batteries, among others.
This is done by turning traditional research approach of trial and error into an interdisciplinary method that leverages on modern tools – from machine learning to artificial intelligence – to unlock new smart materials, explained Professor Chen Tsuhan, Deputy President of Research and Technology at NUS.
For Prof Novoselov, a physicist who co-created graphene, one of the world’s strongest but lightest materials that earned him the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, the quest to accelerate the process of creating cutting-edge materials that can be used for smart applications will require a fundamentally new interdisciplinary approach.
“It was very clear from the very beginning that material scientists with centuries of old techniques wouldn’t be able to tackle this problem. I would say that we are at the avant-garde of all the world research in this area,” said the professor who has been researching and teaching materials science and engineering at NUS since 2019.
This is why I-FIM is on a mission to grow its multidisciplinary panel of experts across machine learning, mathematics, material science, physics, chemistry, and biology, to achieve a quantum leap breakthrough.
Nurturing the next generation of Singapore scientists
In line with NUS’ broader multidisciplinary direction, I-FIM aims to develop a broad base of talents. Students from engineering and science to computing and business can look forward to learning this new approach to material sciences.
“We have a very strong educational component in what we're doing here,” said Professor Castro Neto, who was the founder and director of the world’s first graphene research centre at NUS called the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials.
“We're going to develop in collaboration with those faculty, the coursework that students would have access to, and it will be based on this new vision of how to do science, technology and entrepreneurship.”
The Institute plans to offer 50 PhD scholarships and more than 100 post-doctoral fellowships over the next 10 years.
For the greater good
Beyond the science, the team at the Institute is determined to solve real-life problems that will have an impact on the world. They are developing new materials that could revolutionise many technologies – making them greener, more affordable, and smarter.
The range of possible applications are broad, and the team has narrowed its focus into four areas that are most relevant for Singapore – electronics and telecommunications, membrane technology, energy, and healthcare.
These areas are closely aligned with the government’s $25 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan 2025.
A current project is in the field of water treatment, where the permeability of smart membranes can be automatically controlled by environmental factors to maximise filtration and flow efficiency.
“We are looking to produce results for Singapore, but also for the world,” said Prof Castro Neto. “We want to become a foundation of a new way of doing science: an interdisciplinary collaboration-like structure that will essentially make one plus one bigger than two.”