Banking on Materials R&D to Give Singapore Added Edge

Building up a vibrant research and development (R&D) culture is one cornerstone in Singapore's strategy to stay ahead of other competing economies. And although much of the recent emphasis has been in the biomedical arena, R&D capabilities in materials science are also crucial in repositioning the country to create products and services with high added value. To this end, in 1996 Singapore established the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), an institute that has quickly put the country on the world map as a hotbed for materials R&D.

The institute's mission is straightforward: it is to build up Singapore's long-term R&D capabilities as well as to foster workforce development. Because materials science is vital to a range of industries, this is no easy task, and the diversity posed great challenges to the fledging research institution. Nevertheless, IMRE has quickly carved a niche for itself in fundamental materials science and engineering R&D, adding to the foundation of Singapore's knowledge-based economy.

Within the past 5 years, the institute has gained many patents, with 15 patents for newly developed processes and inventions filed during the period covered by its 2000/2001 annual report. These activities speak to the institute's innovative culture and demonstrate one potent way in which the institute is enhancing Singapore's intellectual capital

Strategy for Success

One reason IMRE has been able to achieve so much in so short a time is its commitment to forge alliances with partners in industry and in academia. These partnerships, which numbered 23 for the year 2000/2001, include industrial leaders, research organizations, as well as well-known tertiary institutions in the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and the United States.

Another factor in IMRE's growth is its willingness to invest in state-of-the-art technologies. Its sophisticated R&D facilities, which are housed in a 15,000-square-meter complex, include two Class 100 and three Class 1000 clean rooms as well as state-of-the-art laboratories.

There are plenty of scientists and engineers to accommodate. More than half of IMRE's 150-strong team of researchers and scientists hold materials-related doctorate degrees, and the institute offers an aggressive workforce development programme that includes postgraduate scholarships.

Research Clusters

IMRE's proactive approach is reflected in the institute's transition last year from a programme-based to a core competencies-based structure for its research activities. These activities are now organized into six clusters representing chemical, opto, and electronics systems, molecular and biomaterials, materials science and characterization, materials theory and modeling, and micro- and nanosystems.

Touching on this move, IMRE's director, Professor Albert Yee, said: "With a fluid, dynamic structure that allows researchers to be drawn from the different core competencies for any project, we can have cross-disciplinary teams working on each project and an ensuing healthy exchange of ideas across disciplines.

"In short, we have a leaner, meaner yet more flexible organization."

Last year saw the institute joining the ranks of the elites in some domains of the materials world. From the development of the blue laser to high-efficiency, high-brightness, light-emitting devices and new age tailor-made polymers capable of a host of applications in biomedical, chemical, electronics, and opto-electronics, IMRE's research into next-generation materials is likely to catalyze new industries in Singapore

Biomedical Achievements

In the biomedical arena, IMRE is capitalizing on nanotechnology to develop sensors that will reduce the time, sample size, and cost in health care and veterinary diagnosis as well as to facilitate mass sample screening.

One noteworthy success is IMRE's research on controlled drug-release technology. It has succeeded in synthesizing polymeric microparticles, multilayer tablets, and transdermal patches for use in sustaining human performance.

In related work for drug-release systems built from biocompatible and biodegradable polymers, IMRE has developed injectable hydrogels to deliver drugs. Being malleable, hydrogels can be tailored with other specially design copolymers. This makes possible a wide range of biomedical applications such as tissue engineering as well as drug and gene delivery.

Opto-electronics: See the Blue Light

Testifying to its world-class capability, IMRE has successfully fabricated a prototype blue semiconductor laser. The shorter wavelength blue laser offers the potential to increase by four times the capacity of CD players and CD-ROM devices that are currently using infrared lasers.

IMRE is now at a mature stage of blue laser device development. IMRE researchers are capitalizing on newly acquired knowledge to develop an electrically driven blue laser--a move that could lead, rather quickly, to commercial applications.

The possible applications of the blue laser are extensive. Among other possibilities, it is poised to become the core technology for video products, as well as in multimedia applications. Using blue laser diodes, the DVD may be made rewriteable. It can also be deployed in laser printers, medicine, and ultra-efficient light bulbs.

New Age Gas Separation Membrane

Researchers in IMRE's chemical cluster have developed a prototype of a membrane that overcomes existing limitations in gas separation that result in impurities in the gases harvested. The pioneering membrane technology will help industries in purifying natural gases and recovering valuable chemicals.

IMRE's double-walled, hollow-tube membrane delivers one of the best performances on flux and selectivity. A key breakthrough, the membrane is expected to benefit Singapore in a number of ways. The technology can be applied to upstream production of gas as well as in petrochemical plants and for medical uses to harvest oxygen from other gases.

Next-Generation Displays

Existing cathode ray and liquid crystal displays are likely to be replaced by a new generation of organic light emitting devices (OLED). Currently, most OLEDs are formed on a rigid glass substrate.

IMRE is among the first worldwide to successfully formulate OLED on flexible substrates. Its groundbreaking achievement in flexible OLEDs extends from the synthesis of the material to the manufacture of the device.

With full viewing angle, fast response times, cheaper fabrication costs, low operating voltage, low power consumption, and full color potential, flexible OLEDs are expected to dominate LED displays.

The next stage is the development of durable and efficient flexible OLED displays. This involves studying the engineering interfacial properties between the electrode and polymer layers to achieve the display and performance standards that consumers expect.

Other Research Projects

The projects highlighted above have outlined achievements that place IMRE in the forefront of technology and that open new horizons for Singaporean industries. They are representative of the diverse leading-edge research projects carried out by the institute.

Some of the other projects involve the development of proton exchange membrane for fuel cell application, a gyroscope based on micro-electromechanical technology and research on innovative engineering materials to fabricate ceramic membranes that can partially oxidize methane to syngas used as feedstock in commercial methanol production.

The institute foresees that materials science will increasingly include the combining of biotechnology and nanotechnology and the creation of hybrid materials that are neither organic nor inorganic.

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