Since 2013 Dr Joe Smerdon has been using ultra-high vacuum chambers to explore the fundamental physics of materials at the University of Central Lancashire. As leader of the Experimental Nanophysics Research Group, we were interested to know where he thinks the future of nanostructured materials will lead.
Q. What research projects are you and your group currently working on?
We’re interested in growing graphene. The twist is that we’re trying to grow it so that it forms with a well-defined defect pattern, which ought to give it useful semiconducting properties. Another research project is concerned with investigating molecular layers at surfaces, which really are some of the most interesting and beautiful things I have ever encountered. In addition to observing the fascinating geometric properties of molecular layers, we are also working on measuring their properties as prototypical electronic components.
Q. What motivated you to pursue this field of research?
The potential applications of nanostructured materials are almost unimaginable. Graphene, being 2D, is easier to nanostructure than other material in some ways. Also, while it is extremely exciting as a transparent conductor (it is far better than others available), if nanostructured, it could have its optical and electronic properties tailored to play an active role in devices.
Q. Where do you think the field is heading?
I think the first devices we’ll see will just use graphene’s transparent conductor properties. I’ve seen interesting prototypes of flexible touchscreens and displays, but these only scratch the surface of the potential of graphene and nanoscience in general.
Q. What do you consider to be the hot topics in condensed matter physics at the moment?
Graphene, perovskites, topological insulators, superconductors. Not in that order (not in any order).
Q. What current problem facing humanity would you like science to provide a solution to?
Energy. There is plenty of energy available – more than enough by several orders of magnitude from the sun alone – we need to harness it. And we are doing, but it takes time and investment.
Q. What has been the most exciting development in physics during the course of your career?
Graphene. It was the biggest overlooked thing ever, until it wasn’t overlooked. The most exciting developments without the physics qualifier have happened in computers, obviously.
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Photograph supplied and used with the permission of Joe Smerdon.