NUS launches revolutionary materials science research centre

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has launched the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials (I-FIM) – the world’s first institute dedicated to the design, synthesis, and application of Functional Intelligent Materials (FIMs). Co-directed by Nobel-Prize-winning materials scientist Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov and Distinguished Professor Antonio Castro Neto, I-FIM will be the sixth research centre of excellence (RCE) in Singapore, and the fourth RCE hosted at NUS.

Most materials have fixed properties. For example, steel has a fixed strength, shape, and conductivity regardless of the environment it is in. However, emergent technologies need materials that can adapt, have memory functions, and have properties which change depending on the environment. These are FIMs, and they are crucial for artificial organs and tissues, smart membranes, smart batteries and catalysts, to name just a few.

“Currently, materials scientists can only describe the properties of materials when they are in energetic equilibrium. To describe dynamic, out-of-equilibrium properties of functional intelligent materials requires new approaches in physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering. That is the goal of I-FIM,” said Prof Sir Novoselov.

A world-class research institute

I-FIM is supported with a total investment of S$200 million over 10 years, with the Singapore Ministry of Education providing a funding of S$100 million and a matching contribution of an equivalent of S$100 million from NUS.

“RCEs are established with the mission to spur research excellence in our Autonomous Universities (AUs), create new knowledge and catalyse future innovations and discoveries that would contribute to positive economic and societal outcomes for Singapore. The first five RCEs have boosted Singapore’s research eco-system, and their outstanding research has helped Singapore to manage complex challenges, such as COVID-19. We look forward to I-FIM playing a significant role in our research landscape and becoming a globally-renowned institute that will attract, retain and support world-class academic investigators, enhance graduate education in NUS, and create new important knowledge in materials science,” said Minister for Education, Mr Chan Chun Sing.

“Materials research is poised to play a pivotal role in tackling some of the most pressing global challenges. For this reason, we have designated it a key area of focus at NUS, and over the years have amassed some of the world’s most prolific and prominent talents in this important field. Our hard work and focus are being recognised on the global stage with NUS recently placing 7th in the world for its materials science research output. Now, with the establishment of I-FIM, I am confident that the impact of NUS’ materials science will become even more far-reaching,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

At steady state, I-FIM will have over 100 researchers and PhD students working in its cutting-edge research facilities housed in the new S9 building on NUS Kent Ridge campus.

One of the major goals of I-FIM is to nurture the next generation of top research talent in Singapore and across the globe who will add to the unique strength of the Institute. 50 PhD scholarships and more than 100 post-doctoral fellowships will be offered over the next 10 years, with an emphasis on the building of a Singaporean core, and enhancing the pipeline of Singaporean talent in materials science under the tutelage of Professor Sir Novoselov.

“My research involves the application of machine learning methods in guiding scientific experiments in chemical syntheses. It is truly exciting to be involved in such an interdisciplinary area of research which challenges me to think critically and integrate ideas from different disciplines in solving complex problems,” said Mr Tan Jin Da, an NUS doctoral student.

Another NUS doctoral student Mr Glenn Quek, added, “I am particularly motivated about my work on living materials that can use electricity to coax bacteria into producing smart chemicals. My vision is that this synergy between living and synthetic components can achieve efficient conversion of renewable, but intermittent energy sources, into long-term energy stored in the form of chemicals. In addition, I believe that this strategy can simultaneously lower carbon dioxide emissions by converting it into complex chemicals, for example pharmaceuticals or fuels.”

A new approach to materials synthesis

I-FIM will create a library of designer materials – and develop systematic ways to describe them mathematically – as the building blocks of FIMs. Using these building blocks, the researchers at I-FIM will then develop a rulebook for predicting FIMs behaviour, structure and synthesis pathways. Using machine learning and robotics, the FIMs will be designed and synthesised with smart applications in mind. These applications could range from neuromorphic computers, to machine vision, smart membranes, smart catalysts, artificial tissues, and more.

The tight coupling between theory, algorithms and data will be facilitated by I-FIM’s Materials Robotics Laboratory – an automated experimentation lab, where training data will be collected and designed recipes will be synthesised and tested, and their performance tuned for technologies and applications. Essentially, this means that the materials will be synthesised based on what functions are required using computational models, time-dependent machine learning and optimal control. The goal is to design materials with desired dynamical properties in the face of limited experimental data and computational throughput. They will use the reduced representation of material components to create new FIMs for specific smart applications.

Modern applications require versatile, adaptive and flexible solutions. Researchers in I-FIM are already working on creating such solutions on a materials level, developing materials which have internal functionalities. One example is a novel drug delivery agent based on 2D-electrolytes which will allow targeted drug delivery. This is particularly important for diseases like cancer, as the smart material only releases the drug payload when it detects the presence of a cancer cell, leaving the patient’s healthy cells unharmed. The 2D-electrolytes also show promise for other applications , such as artificial muscles and energy storage, which require materials to be responsive to environmental changes. Another example is emerging living materials composites that extract electrical power from bacteria through tight synergy between biotic and abiotic elements.

“The new materials developed at I-FIM can be applied in many areas including life sciences and medicine. Applications such as artificial photosynthesis, artificial neurons, and even artificial tissues will now be possible with the novel approach to materials research that I-FIM will take,” said Professor Lim Chwee Teck, I-FIM Principal Investigator.

Investments and collaborations have already been pledged from external industry leaders.

“We are excited to see I-FIM being launched, and for Acronis to be able to collaborate within this initiative. The idea of synthesising materials for smart applications is both cutting-edge and aligns with our vision. Combining the expertise in advanced materials from the National University of Singapore with the strong, diverse machine intelligence (MI) background of Acronis, one can expect breakthrough discoveries in the area – discoveries that will, without a doubt, shake the global IT industry,” said Serguei Beloussov, Acronis founder and Chief Research Officer, Founder of Schaffhausen Institute of Technology (SIT).

Benefits for Singapore and beyond

Given the wide range of applications of FIMs, the researchers aim to first investigate those which are the most impactful and relevant to Singapore, maintaining a healthy balance between being ambitious and realistic.

Smart solutions are at the heart of Singapore’s innovation economy, and materials science has always been one of Singapore’s strongest research areas. I-FIM will merge these two exciting directions of science and technology and lead to the creation of a whole new class of FIMs suitable for a wide range of unique smart applications.

The I-FIM team also anticipates the creation of spin-off companies in the areas of big data, machine learning, AI and robotics, both for materials design and for specific applications. I-FIM will create the core expertise and facilities for the development of machine learning and AI solutions for smart technologies and material science in Singapore and worldwide.

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