Assoc Prof Goki Eda: Beneath the 2D surface

Assoc Prof Goki Eda’s research in two-dimensional materials blurs the lines between chemistry and physics

The material world has always intrigued Associate Professor Goki Eda. Even as a small boy he wanted to understand the fundamental building blocks of our universe and the interactions governing natural processes. 

“I just wanted to get to the bottom of things. I felt like if you figured out what’s at the very bottom, you would understand the world in a more profound and enlightened way,” he said.

Assoc Prof Eda’s journey into this area started in high school when he studied some fundamental principles of philosophy to further his knowledge of the natural world. But soon he wanted more observable and defined answers to the questions he was asking. This led him to the physical sciences. 

“When I first started seeing the relationship between philosophy and physics, this was a revelation. The connection between philosophical abstract concepts and what you can actually go out and measure, feel and see for yourself was truly exhilarating,” he added. 

This excitement is something that he still feels today. “That’s what I love about being a scientist,” he said. “To be the first one to observe a new phenomenon is something that gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s why I never really feel like this is a job.”

The Japan-born scientist received his MSc in Materials Science and Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2006 and his PhD from Rutgers University in 2009. He then went on to become a Newton International Fellow of the Royal Society in the UK and worked at Imperial College London. 

Joining NUS as an Assistant Professor of Physics and Chemistry, and a member of the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials in 2011, he was at the boundary of both the physical and chemical fields. This allowed him to experiment in unusual and distinctive ways. 

“I like the interface between these two different disciplines. Chemistry is an enabling tool, whereas physics explains the concepts behind a phenomenon. If you can master both disciplines, I feel that you have the potential to do something really unique,” he said.

To be the first one to observe a new phenomenon is something that gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s why I never really feel like this is a job.

The thinnest materials on earth are only a single atom thick. Often called two-dimensional (2D) materials, they have shown great promise in a host of original applications. Graphene is the most well-known of these 2D materials and has been tipped to be used in everything from innovative biomedical devices to space elevators.

But Assoc Prof Eda pointed out that graphene is not the only 2D material with potential. “There are many other atomically thin materials with different chemical constitutions. In fact, the range of materials out there is literally infinite because you can have any kind of alloy or chemical composition. There’s a huge area for exploration. Just imagining what you could possibly do with all these materials is mind-blowing.”

Indeed, Assoc Prof Eda has many happy sleepless nights thinking about the unknown. “It’s always exciting to talk about new findings from the lab. Failure may happen and many times too but that’s just a consequence of the law of nature. Asking ‘what’s new’ is really the most fun part for me. Whenever you conduct experiments, no matter what the results may be, there is always something to learn. The more unexpected your results are, the more hidden the natural laws to be discovered are. Therein lies the excitement!”

Assoc Pro Eda thinks that the study of 2D materials is comparable to the discovery of plastics as they can lend their use in so many applications. “For example, 2D materials are flexible so you can have foldable and bendable electronic devices which can be integrated on human skin for medical applications. Atomically thin materials may also be useful in scaling down electronic systems and computer chips which in turn could lead to faster and better computers,” he added.

Surprisingly though, we know very little about how 2D materials behave electrically, optically, mechanically or thermally. “So we really need to start from the basics. For example, we would like to study how these materials interact with light, or how the 2D structure could be altered chemically, and what that means for future applications,” he said.

True to his explorer’s spirit, Assoc Prof Eda does not stop at materials research. He has ventured into something more artistic and musical. “I’ve been learning the violin for three years now. It’s been such a refreshing thing to do, because it makes me feel like a student again. Students come to me for advice, but now I need to go to someone else for advice instead, like a student!”

Assoc Prof Eda also confesses to learning from his two children. “It’s exciting to see my children grow up, and I find myself learning something new from them. When you’re an adult everything has to make sense. We feel we must achieve certain things to be happy. But when you spend time with children, you feel that you really don’t need this validation. You just enjoy the moment, and that’s definitely something about the world you can learn from kids.”