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Scottish universities showcase their talents

28 Feb 2008

Knowledge transfer and exchange were top of the agenda as researchers from six Scottish universities met to highlight their open-door policy to interaction with industry.

The first Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) Knowledge Transfer (KT) showcase was held on Wednesday in Glasgow, Scotland, to raise the profile of collaborative research between academia and industry. Bringing together researchers from six of Scotland's major universities, SUPA hopes that the event will highlight academia's willingness to interact with industry as well as promote further interaction.

"It is our intention that this showcase is read by industry as a clear demonstration of SUPA's willingness and engagement with the KT agenda," Ian Halliday, SUPA's chief executive told the 270 assembled delegates at Glasgow's SECC. "Our aim is to have a simple open-door policy that will allow and encourage interaction with industry without the complexity of interacting with many physics departments – the door is wide open."

SUPA is a research alliance between the physics and astronomy departments of six Scottish universities: Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Heriot-Watt, Strathclyde and Paisley. The alliance has identified photonics, life sciences and materials as key sectors for knowledge transfer, and estimates that it brought in a total of £11.2 million KT-related funding in 2006/7.

Wednesday's event gave attendees the opportunity to learn more about 30 research projects being carried out under the SUPA umbrella. A series of short talks running throughout the day also allowed academics, spin-outs, large companies and entrepreneurs to discuss knowledge transfer from their own perspective.

In summing up, Halliday raised the all-important question of funding. "This is an area where rhetoric does not always match the available funding," he said. "Willingness and capacity can only go so far if funding is not available both to pursue business opportunities and to deliver science and knowledge through technical endeavour. SUPA will increase its efforts and its impact in this area through more effective use of the resources already in departments and through securing greater external funding."

Here are just some of the highlights of today's exhibition.

Optical drug detection
Drug levels are traditionally measured by taking blood samples and sending them for analysis. However, as Glasgow University researcher Martin O'Dwyer explained, the drugs have an effect at tissue level and there may be large discrepancies between drug concentrations in the blood and in tissue.

"Our device uses 405 nm light to excite fluorescence from the tissue," said O'Dwyer. "If we can find a relationship between the amount of fluorescence and the drug concentration, then we can estimate the concentration of the drug in the tissue. Our system could run off a battery and the goal is to have a simple mobile device that could be used in pharmaceutical research laboratories or hospitals."

Micro-LEDs
Researchers from Strathclyde University's Institute of Photonics (IOP) were keen to show delegates an array of GaN-based micro-LEDs. The latest array has 64x64 LEDs where each element is 30 µm wide with a pitch of 50 µm.

"Each element is individually addressable and can be pulsed on the nanosecond regime making them ideal for time-resolved fluorescence studies," researcher Martin Dawson explained. "These are being designed for lab-on-a-chip instruments and we have recently used them to initiate and control the assembly of strands of DNA. We are looking to commercialise this technology."

Flexible solar cells on textiles
By depositing a thin film of nanocrystalline silicon directly onto to polyester substrate, researchers at Heriot-Watt University are hoping to commercialize a truly flexible solar cell. Robert Mather and John Wilson have formed Power Textiles Limited and are now working hard to produce a prototype. "We have already developed 5x5 cm fully integrated solar cells that are based on a woven polyester substrate and have received genuine commercial interest in our ideas," said Mather.

Laser machining of Zirconia
Working in conjunction with Renishaw, Duncan Hand and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University have been laser machining zirconia, a tough material typically used for bone, joint and tooth implants. However, because of the material's properties, Hand said that it can take up to two hours to machine one single tooth crown using traditional methods such as diamond grinding machining.

"Novel laser-based processes have been developed that can remove material much more quickly without inducing cracking in the zirconia," said Hand. "These processes enable the manufacture of more detailed features in order to ensure a better fit for the crown to the prepared tooth."

Dental imaging
In a bid to help dentists detect tooth decay early, Simon Poland of Strathclyde's IOP is just one researcher involved in developing an instrument that combines lasers and ultrasound. "X-rays tend to diagnose decay when it is at an advanced stage," he explained. "This system uses 810 nm laser diodes and optical fibre delivery to record a profile through the tooth and flag up any anomalies. The ultrasound is good at detecting enamel erosion on the tooth's surface. We are developing a handheld instrument that a dentist could use."

Semiconductor thin disk lasers
Vertical extended cavity surface emitting lasers (VECSELs), also known as semiconductor thin-disk lasers, are a speciality at Strathclyde's IOP. "We have been able to produce a range of wavelengths including 670, 850, 980, 1060, 1300 and 1500 nm," said researcher John-Mark Hopkins. "We have recently developed a source that can produce greater than 5 W in the mid-infrared, which is a great result. The good beam quality we achieved meant that we could use the VECSEL to pump a second laser."

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