The future of nanoelectronics and sensing technology


Professor Sharath Sriram has dedicated his career to creating and delivering breakthrough technologies in nanoelectronics, sensors, and medical technologies. He jointly leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University. He was Scientific Coordinator and Founding Deputy Director of RMIT University’s Micro Nano Research Facility, a $60 million multi-user, inter-disciplinary research facility. He is an active contributor to science policy with a focus on innovation, long-term strategy, and diversity and inclusion. In this Expert Opinion, we talk to Professor Sriram about his career in nano technologies and what he thinks the future holds for nanoelectronics and sensor devices.

Can you tell us about your research and why you decided to focus on nano technologies?

I grew up in an environment where everyone was learning programming, which made me want to transform the way computers worked. That led me down the path where every electronic chip in a device could be improved. You could say I kept zooming in until I reached the atoms, and wanted to change the properties of devices from ground up. I feel properties at the nanoscale are quite magical, and can revolutionise the way we live. Unlocking functionality at the nanoscale can create energy-efficient electronics, hardware for artificial intelligence, advanced sensors for healthcare, and novel optical devices.

You have been named one of Australia’s most innovative engineers. What is the most exciting technology that you are working on right now?

Most recognitions in science are outcomes of teamwork. I am very proud of the fact team members were named amongst Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers five years running. My team and I have one core objective – to make science fiction reality. This might sound strange or corny, but science fiction is just bold imagination of what could be possible and what people would engage with. While we make electronics that mimic brain function, skin-like electronics that can sense and even feel pain, wearable and ‘nearable’ devices to improve aged-care support, the one that excites me most is a rapid biosensing technology that can be used on-demand for sensing biomolecules, viruses, and cancer.

How do you choose which technologies to focus your efforts on?

That is a very challenging choice always, more so in an academic environment where people might have to make choices based on funding available. In my team’s case, we have had the privilege of working with many end-users who have set us challenges they wanted to solve with technology. This has helped drive our focus, coupled with the desired to transform discoveries into technology. In short, we respond to demand (pull) rather than try to pursue favourites. The final use case needs to engage us too, which is where any healthcare and aged-care solution heightens the sense of purpose.

What is your experience working with molecularly imprinted polymers?

To me, molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) are a gamechanger to creating practical biosensors suitable for clinical and retail markets. I do not say this because I am discussing this with MIP Diagnostics, as I actively pursued MIP Diagnostics as an option for many of our industry partners seeking to create practical biosensors. The bane of biosensor development and use is the surface functionalisation and target sizes, which are often active chemical compounds or proteins that degrade. MIPs solve this fundamental problem, meaning sensors can be functionalised, packaged, stored, and used in standard room temperature conditions. We have now worked with close to ten types of MIPs, and the sensing response with each is precise, sensitive, and highly selective – everything a biosensing research and development team can dream of.

MIPs are becoming more commonly used in sensors, what advantages have you found these bring in comparison to traditional affinity reagents such as antibodies?

The key differentiator of MIPs is their storage and handling – more importantly, the fact they do not need any special storage and handling. The fact it can be shipped without fuss and biohazard concerns, stored easily, pipetted directly or with dilution, and tailored with linkers suited to binding sites of on substrates are all key reasons we actively promote MIPs to our industry partners. The other advantage one might not immediately appreciate is that the MIPs are designed from ground up based on the target – so, as long as a target’s structure or chemistry is known, MIPs that can selectively bind to the target and can be created. The ability to make MIPs for SARS-CoV-2 is one such example.

Based on your experience with industry collaborations, do you find commercial organizations are becoming more willing to try new products and technologies such as MIPs and novel sensing technologies?

My experience tells me that any new product or technology needs to have a clear value proposition. If that value is clear and it offers product differentiation too, it just makes sense. The challenge to be overcome though is commercial organisations understanding that value in the context of their product. This is a role I actively play, as when I want to see my industry partners succeed in taking a healthcare product to market successfully and quickly, I can break through the technical jargon and explain the use cases and long-term value. I feel most organisations are very open to innovation, but presenting the science in the context of value to the business is key.

Where do you see the future of nanoelectronics and sensor devices?

I see nanoelectronics enabling new forms of computing that dramatically reduce our energy needs, especially by taking cues from how the brain processes information. Sensors are going to be everywhere and in every aspect of our lives, as they already are. Many would make life easier but ones that monitor health parameters can make life better. Real power will lie in using sensors coupled with data analytics to enable preventive and personalised healthcare. Think of a wearable that alerts you to changes in your heart function, a nearable that realises your aged parent’s sleeping posture is placing them at risk of falls, or a smart toothbrush with a biosensor that samples saliva everyday to let you know if any of your biomarkers are showing abnormality.

What direction do you plan to take your research in the future?

We are very keen to take many innovations in biosensing that we have and place them in the hand of end-users through industry partnerships. Constantly driving conversation to take university innovations through commercial partners is the goal. There is a practical barrier to this, where partners need to be supporting with a sufficient volume of prototypes to validate concepts, complete trials, and attract investors to be able to scale-up. My vision is my team and I will create an environment and facilities that enable our partners do this successfully.

Where can our readers find more information about your work?

We use Twitter to showcase our research, our partners, and team members. We work with functional materials and like to have fun while doing so, and use the Twitter handle @fun_materials.