The enormous potential of polymers

23 February 2017
Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic outside her office at the Science Centre
Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic is excited about the interdisciplinary relationship between chemistry and its fellow sciences.

The field of polymer electronics is developing fast due to the interdisciplinary relationship between Chemistry and its fellow sciences. Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic from the University of Auckland is at the forefront of such developments that aim to 'exploit' the enormous potential of organic (polymer) electronics.

Polymer electronics is the science behind important advancements in technology, particularly around flexible electronic displays and transistor technology, and is underpinned by materials called conducting polymers.

Because these materials have special and unique optical and electrical properties such as photo or eletro-luminescence and electrical conductivity, but still retain polymeric properties, they can be processed into thin film devices similar to conventional polymers. This process makes them much more cost-effective than the current semi-conductor technologies.

In recent times the research potential of polymer electronics has been evident in collaborations between Jadranka and her colleagues from the Faculty of Engineering.

One such collaboration, an ‘acutated biomimetic robotic device’ research programme that Jadranka headed alongside Professor Bruce MacDonald, resulted in conducting polymer actuators propelling a robotic fish through water. The possible applications of the robotic fish acutators, and similar devices, can be used in such diverse areas as ocean investigation, defense and micro-surgery.

Using science to produce practical applications like the robotic fish is what Jadranka enjoys most about her research, “It is exciting to see science being applicable,” says the talented scientist. “These projects give a life and use to our materials.”

Another exciting collaboration with engineering, is Jadranka’s work with Associate Professor Kean C Aw resulting in further development and use of her materials. One example is novel strain sensors that are developed by depositing conducting polymers onto elastomeric substrates and have been used in Kean’s exoskeleton robotic hand devices. Overall, the research resulted in improving the comfort and practicality of hand exoskeletons that are lightweight and portable.

Jadranka is not only a Professor in the School of Chemical Sciences, she is also the Director of the Polymer Electronics Research Centre at the University, and a Principal Investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. She cites her research as being “one step beyond” the area of flexible electronics. The applications that Jadranka works with extend to other areas of science and technology, particularly the biomedical field and is “extraordinarily interdisciplinary,” involving chemists, physicists, engineers and biologists.

A recent project involved the fabrication of very sensitive, digital air flow sensors that may be applicable as flow sensors in neonatal resuscitators. And it is this kind of research that Jadranka is very excited about – the development of new materials to enable fabrication of novel electronic devices that will make our lives simpler and safer.

One of the more mainstream research areas in Jadranka’s group is her research on biosensing. Her team have developed a range of biosensors based on conductive polymers that provide a direct and electrical signal to the presence of the biological targets. She says,

“We functionalise those materials a little bit differently so they are of a more flexible design to allow easier fabrication into devices. What excites me even more is the opportunity to integrate flexible polymeric electronics with biological tissues, to advance diagnostics, repair, and improve human health in general. Our research is hoping to address these needs.”

The University of Auckland provides Jadranka with the environment to work with “some very clever people who are truly inspiring.” Although the collaborations with other researchers is the reason that there is quite a range to her research, at the core of her work is the drive to add multiple functionality to polymeric materials.

“The interface between polymer electronics and biology is one of the next big things that will change our everyday lives. We’ll be wearing electronic devices in textiles that will integrate devices and senses for health monitoring – it’s very exciting.”