A brand new world-class research facility, the National Thin-Film Cluster Facility (NTCF) for Advanced Functional Materials, was officially launched in November, 2022. Hosted by the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, this facility will provide cutting-edge capabilities to support the development of next-generation advanced functional materials to help address crucial real industrial, societal and environmental challenges.
The NTCF addresses a key research need by being one of the first facilities in the UK to provide a range of different vacuum deposition chambers, all interconnected via a vacuum transfer system. This enables samples to undergo different (often previously incompatible) processing steps and material combinations, while maintaining vacuum conditions throughout, giving highly precise control over the finished product. The facility therefore opens up almost limitless possibilities to combine materials into new types of multi-layered structures, far beyond what can be achieved in a single vacuum chamber.
These new capabilities in research could lead to a step-change in key application areas such as solar energy and display technologies. As a national facility, the NTCF will be available to researchers across the country as well as the more than 50-strong community at the University of Oxford who work on advanced functional materials. The breadth of research that will be supported by the facility includes materials with optoelectronic properties for advanced electronic circuits; metal oxides to develop new transistors to drive the next generation of display technologies; and organic semiconductors, with a wide range of future applications from solar energy to health.
The facility, co-directed by Professor Henry Snaith and Professor Moritz Riede, is hosted in a newly refurbished laboratory in the Department of Physics’ Robert Hooke Building. The official opening ceremony on Tuesday 15 November was attended by a range of key industry and academic representatives, as well as Professor Dame Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford (pictured, left).
Speaking at the event, Professor Richardson said: ‘Advanced functional materials are quite simply the next revolution, with their properties opening up large-scale cost-effective solutions for areas ranging from energy to healthcare and on to electronics. This facility fills a strategic gap in the UK’s research and development capabilities and will support our researchers in their work to develop the next generation of solar cells, light emitting diodes, catalysts, sensors, and much more. It will also play a pivotal role in training the next generation of researchers in these spheres.’
The research that is enabled by this facility is becoming more important than ever for combating climate change and helping with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals like enabling access to affordable and clean energy worldwide.
With materials science a fast-moving field, the NTCF has been designed to be modular and adaptable so that it can be expanded to meet future research needs. It can add further chambers for different deposition and characterisation techniques. The first expansion, a surface-sensitive characterisation technique for the facility, has already been awarded funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will be commissioned next year.
Moritz Riede, NTCF co-director and Professor of Soft Functional Nanomaterials, said: ‘This new facility augments and is synergistic to the UK’s world-leading capabilities in solution-processed advanced functional materials and will help to place us at the centre of R&D in the field for commercially viable vacuum deposition techniques. I see it as an enabling platform for a plethora of exciting research, not only in Oxford, but throughout the UK and beyond.’
‘One area in particular where the NTCF could have a transformational impact is energy; new materials, from perovskites to organic semiconductors, have the potential to rival and then exceed conventional inorganic semiconductors opening new doors for photovoltaic, light emission, and photonic technologies’ said Henry Snaith, NTCF co-director and Binks Professor of Renewable Energy.
As an example, the facility will help advance Professor Snaith’s work to develop high-efficiency multi-layer solar photovoltaic panels. This technology involves applying silicon solar cell panels with a thin layer of perovskite, a crystalline material with excellent semiconductor properties. Already, this can boost the conversion efficiency of solar panels from 20-22% to around 30%, but the new facility will enable potentially more efficient designs and combinations to be explored.
The facility will equally support Professor Riede’s research into solar cells made from vacuum-deposited organic semiconductors. Given their mechanical flexibility and light weight, the applications for such organic solar cells have great transformative potential. Furthermore, they are made from earth-abundant materials and already now require only ~30% of the material and energy input of silicon solar panels, leading to a much lower environmental footprint.
Another challenge the NTCF will help address is to explore solutions to materials with problematic supply chains. Indium, for instance is a geologically scarce metal which plays a critical role in clean energy technologies and modern consumer electronics, including solar cells and liquid crystal displays. The University of Oxford’s materials research community aims to use the new facilities to explore indium-free, sustainable transparent conductive oxides for electronic applications.
‘Sustainability will be a key focus of the work done at the NTCF and will encompass a whole-lifecycle approach to develop materials that have a minimal environmental footprint across their entire lifetime, from sourcing the materials to their eventual end-of-use’ said Professor Snaith.
Professor Riede concluded: ‘The facility enables fundamental blue sky research as well as applied research in advanced functional materials end devices for solving some of the grand challenges of society, like energy and health. Furthermore, it offers a bridge from academia to industry to translate research into societal impact and we are looking forward to all the exciting research this facility will enable.’
The NTCF is a national collaboration which has been established with co-investigators from the Universities of Cambridge and Loughborough and Imperial College London. The facility has been funded by the UK’s EPSRC, the University of Oxford, and the Wolfson Foundation.