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Professor Pete Edwards has been appointed Chair of the European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Research Grant Panel on Synthetic Chemistry and Materials, which is part of a wider ERC Physical Sciences and Engineering grant funding structure. We interviewed him about his new role and his research work.

Professor Pete Edwards MPLS
Professor Pete Edwards

I’ve been involved in this ERC panel for the last five years and it’s absolutely clear to me how crucial it is to promote excellent, curiosity-driven frontier research in this critically-important area of multidisciplinary science. I’ve been constantly really impressed by the whole ERC ethos and vision.

If you look at the statistics – across all ERC programmes – the UK does really well in terms of success rates. Oxford alone has received €295,276,660 from the ERC since 2007.

Next year the budget for this Synthetic Chemistry and Materials programme is expected to be in the region of €50m. We award grants of around €2m to €3m euros per research project. We’re looking for the best science there is – innovative science.

Things are changing fundamentally for the chemical, physical and biological sciences. One must say that the intellectual challenges are greater, the opportunities are broader and more complex, and the potential impact on society is now even more significant.

We want to advance fundamental understanding in these sciences but at the same time solve pressing leading-edge challenges. In the past people thought ‘applied science’ was second rate but when you look at the big challenges now it’s not just curiosity driven research we are interested in, we are trying to solve some hard problems. This is the ethos I’m promoting on the ERC panel.

The panel obviously focuses on chemical synthesis and materials but our remit is exceptionally wide, from the structure and properties of materials from electronic to biomaterials, organic chemistry, biomolecular chemistry, colloid chemistry, polymer chemistry, and new materials and thin films and surfaces. What unites all of these themes for our panel is synthetic chemistry and the link between structure and properties.

Chemists are of course really good at synthesising things: whether it’s a new pharmaceutical drug, a new light emitting diode, or new avenues for a solar cell. The core strength is the ability to design and make things! The new horizons for chemistry encompass physics, biology, materials science and engineering. I highlight also emerging links with colleagues in the social sciences because we must think seriously about the impact our research will have on major societal problems.

As just one example, chemistry has a role in almost every aspect of what one can term ‘energy futures’. Here are just two examples: researchers are focusing on whether you could reuse CO2 and bring it back into the system and turn it into fuel, and improving the efficiency of new solar photo voltaics.

Chemists now increasingly interact with engineers and social scientists. I’ve recently worked with Sir David King, former director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. Our challenge was simple to state, but difficult to develop. If you take certain important catalysts and improve their efficiency by 50 per cent, as everyone wants to do, what would be the impact on greenhouse emissions? You need to quantify the impact and social scientists are crucial in this regard.

I’ll just outline a few major challenges, but I stress again the shear breadth of activities we fund under the ERC Synthetic Chemistry and Materials programme.

High temperature superconductors are a fascinating challenge. MRI superconducting magnets generate huge magnetic fields. When you cool them below a certain temperature they lose all electrical resistance to become superconducting, and they produce huge magnetic fields.

Until 20 years ago you had to cool the best superconductors with liquid helium, then two Swiss scientists in the late 1980s discovered that black ceramic oxides superconduct at a relatively high temperature of around 160K (or minus 90C), whereas it was previously about 23K (or minus 250C). The question now is whether we can get the superconducting transition temperature up to room temperature or above. It’s a really big challenge and surely worthy of a future Nobel Prize!

Another challenge from our own research is that of so-called transparent conducting oxides (TCOs). Every computer screen or device has a thin film on the front that is transparent but also needs to carry an electric current. I’ve been fascinated by this for two decades. We need to understand what it is about the physics that gives us the transparency of glass but the conductivity of a metal.

The material used in the manufacture of your phone or computer screen is probably indium tin oxide (ITO). Indium isn’t rare but it is expensive, and price fluctuation is a problem. So we need to understand the chemistry, physics and engineering of why indium works so well, and try to work out whether we can replace it with something else. We’re looking at zinc oxide based materials which are cheap. We need to understand what dictates the performance of the material, and then work back from the synthesis. The dream is an earth-abundant substitute for ITO. The potential market is enormous.

Professor Henry Snaith in his work on solar panels uses TCOs. In his group they use a tin oxide fluoride, but we are always looking for materials that are more efficient and have less environmental impact on our resources. Obviously you need to get the sunlight in, but once you’ve captured it you need to move it on quickly so you need good conductivity properties. We’re working with Henry on a new generation of earth-abundant transparent conductors. It’s an example of where the physics is reasonably well understood but we need to understand the underpinning chemistry of these materials.

This is a classic example of why modern science can’t look at things in isolation. The cost of producing silicon (Si) solar cells has come down, primarily because of subsidies. However, while the silicon used in solar cells is robust (it derives from sand SiO2) you have to go through some fairly awful chemical processes to get to high quality silicon. Also, Henry has a challenge in  that there is a toxic element – lead – in solar panels.

In summary, my vision will be to advance these, and many, many other areas of modern interdisciplinary science through ERC funding.