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Kudos at nano conference for PhD student's cutting-edge research

A PhD student’s research on creating stretchable, light-emitting electronic devices placed her among the top students in the province at a recent conference held by an organization whose aim is to advance the interests of Ontario’s nanotechnology industry.

Heather Filiatrault, a student in Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Tricia Carmichael’s lab, took second-place honours in the poster contest at the nanoOntario Conference, held last month at the University of Waterloo’s Quantum Nano Centre.

The research she presented was based on a cover article she authored with her academic supervisor published earlier this year in the academic journal Advanced Materials. It describes a method used to make light-emitting devices designed to tolerate strain so that they can stretch, bend and wrap.

The concept could have a wide range of potential applications from electronic display signs that wrap around the corners of buildings to light therapy used for healing wounds or activating chemotherapy drugs.

“It was really nice to do so well at this conference,” said Filiatrault, who grew up in Windsor and graduated from École secondaire E. J. Lajeunesse. “It was really exciting to have such a strong showing.”

Steve Carmichael, a research associate in Dr. Carmichael’s lab, said her showing at the conference is significant.

“There were more than 100 posters in the competition from throughout southwestern Ontario,” he said. “It's quite an accomplishment really.”

Most of the work in Carmichael’s lab is focused on the fundamental science of making flexible and stretchable electronic devices. The challenge with making conventional light-emitting devices, which rely on technology currently used in cell phones, cameras and digital media players, is the device complexity. Their display screens consist of thin film layers and each one needs to have an element of elasticity.

Carmichael’s approach has been to reduce the device complexity by using light-emitting electrochemical cells, which rely on materials that give off light when voltage is applied, sandwiched between electrodes. Along with her team, Carmichael developed a way to make a light-emitting material—an organometallic ruthenium complex—stretchable by blending it with an elastic silicone rubber. Under lab tests to measure its “stretchability,” her team found the material could achieve about 25 to 30 per cent elongation before the device failed to emit light.

“It’s more suited to applications where you’d wear it on your body,” said Filiatrault, who took home a $300 cash prize for her work. “It’s a soft material, so you could laminate it on to other surfaces.”