New technology that challenges use of toxic materials in photodetectors wins top innovation prize

11 March 2016

New technology that will enable silicon-based photodetectors to detect wavelengths of light which previously could only be detected by devices using highly toxic materials has won a £245,298 Brian Mercer Award for Innovation from the Royal Society.

Professor Kevin Homewood from Queen Mary University of London is developing silicon photodetectors that can detect wavelengths in the mid-infrared (IR) region (previously they could only detect UV, visible and near IR light sources). The new technology could expand the use of silicon detectors and cameras into applications which are currently monopolised by detectors containing toxic materials like mercury cadmium telluride, lead sulphide and arsenic alloys. Replacing these with silicon detectors would also offer additional benefits including lower cost, reliability and performance.

The future application of silicon photodetectors working at these wavelengths includes use in smart buildings and cities; reducing energy consumption, greenhouse emissions and pollution. It also widens the use of silicon photonics technology in areas such as human health, for example diagnostic breath testing. They could also be integrated with other silicon microelectronics which underpin information technology and the digital world as we currently know it.

The Brian Mercer Award for Innovation is for scientists who wish to develop an already proven concept or prototype into a near-market product ready for commercial exploitation. The award is designed to promote innovation and fill the funding gap between scientific research and the exploitation of an idea through venture capital investment.

Commenting on the award, Professor Homewood said, “The Brian Mercer Innovation Award will enable us to take our technology to the next value point. All good current mid infra-red detectors and cameras have to operate at cryogenic temperatures (typically 77K or -196°C). Our technology, because of the low leakage currents inherent in silicon diodes, has the potential to operate at much higher temperatures even up to room temperature. This would open up the mass environmental sensing market that is being driven by the emerging “Internet of Things”.

Professor Hagan Bayley FRS, chair of the Brian Mercer Awards Panel said, “Science has the potential to solve some of the great challenges we face, but only if we continue to invest in good ideas. Professor Homewood is working on technology which could extend the wavelength range of photodetectors into the infra-red with low-cost green materials. Such detectors will have a wide range of uses. The Royal Society is pleased to help move this technology a step closer to application.”

The prize will be presented at the annual Royal Society Labs to Riches event tonight in London.  Labs to Riches is a major date in the Society’s calendar and this year will see a keynote address given by Martha Lane Fox. The evening brings together leading scientists, engineers, industrialists and policymakers to celebrate the achievements of some of the UK’s brightest and most innovative researchers. The event will focus on the theme of entrepreneurial risk and reward, and will explore how science and innovation systems can best support and encourage entrepreneurial success, strengthening the case for the importance of science and industry to economic growth and productivity.

The evening will also see two further prizes, the Brian Mercer Feasibility Awards, given to Professor Paul French (who receives £30,000) and Dr Teuta Pilizota (who receives £29,365). These awards are given to scientists who wish to investigate the feasibility of commercialising an aspect of their research.

Professor French and his colleague Dr James McGinty are planning to commercialise new biomedical imaging technology that will be able to provide 3D images of larger samples of tissue at faster speeds than is possible with standard microscopes. The new technology, which is based on optical projection tomography (or OPT), exploits recent advances in light sources and camera technologies and can look at fixed tissue samples or live organisms such as zebrafish. The non-invasive technology, which is essentially the optical equivalent of X-ray CT scans, uses optical radiation to capture information, for example, from fluorescently labelled cells. The technology has broad applications; it can be used for rapid 3D imaging to distinguish different types of tissues or cells and can be extended to enable researchers to visualise biological processes in live disease models, providing a way to track cancer progression and cell responses to inflammation and infection.

Dr Pilizota’s project aims to design a microfluidic platform that will enable automated imaging of individual bacterial cells (including product accumulation) during different stages of the bioindustry production process. This will address the lack of online information available to industrial biotechnologists when assessing product quality and quantity and will transform assessment of compound production. The products we use every day at home and work are made up or a myriad of compounds, many of which are produced by the $3 trillion global chemicals industry. However, given the negative impact of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry on our environment there is a strong push toward developing more sustainable yet commercially competitive options.

It is estimated that currently only about 3-4% of all chemical sales have been generated with some help from industrial biotechnology (IB). New tools and technologies are needed to enable IB to deliver and succeed in transitioning from resource intensive and environmentally costly chemicals production to next generation bioproduction.