“We want to make biomimetic materials, which combine strength, resilience and lightness, but also create materials that have properties of an entirely new kind,” Ikkala says and underlines that the inter-disciplinary approach in vogue in academia comes naturally for biomimetics – drawing the line between biochemistry, chemistry and physics is unnecessary, even impossible.
Unnecessary boundaries should be avoided elsewhere, too.
“I don't believe in a strict separation of fundamental and applied research. Good fundamental research requires a profound understanding of the laws of nature, and fundamental research and commercial aims are not mutually exclusive. Theoretical physicist Alan Heeger, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, commercialises solar cells, while another theoretical physicist, Ludvik Leibler, is modernising the methods of surgery.
I've had the pleasure to deal with both of these men. We, too, want to both publish our research in the finest journals and launch new business activities,” Ikkala stresses.
We'll have to wait for biomimetic materials for industrial production to emerge, but promising candidates already exist. One such is a nacre-like material developed by Ikkala's research group. Its manufacturing process is largely based on self-assembly. It consists of nanometre-thick clay sheets that are covered by a nanometre-thick polymer layer that form an extremely strong layered structure.
“We're exploring new application possibilities for this material in cooperation with the School of Arts, Design and Architecture.”
Light and renewable
So what are new materials needed for? At least for the development of a more energy-efficient society: lightness would be very beneficial for transport, for example. Making an ordinary passenger air plane that flies 3,000 hours per year just 100 kg lighter would save 9 tonnes of kerosene and cut carbon dioxide emissions by almost 29 tonnes per year.
The need to replace non-renewable natural resources with renewables is also spurring development. Finland has plenty of forests, but your basic pine tree cannot serve as the high tech material of the future as is.
“This, for example, isn't very strong,” Ikkala says and knocks on the table.
“If, however, I splice it into smaller and smaller parts, I'll eventually get cellulose fibres that are five nanometres thick and have absolutely phenomenal properties, and one can start to compile a new kind of material from them. But a profound understanding of self-assembly and the interactions between molecules is needed for the creation of entirely new types of properties.”
It is believed that nanocellulose will have a wealth of applications in, for example, the forest, furniture, construction and pharmaceuticals industries. It's no surprise that nanocellulose and its applications are being studied actively by Ikkala's group and elsewhere at Aalto University.
“We have to discover alternatives to the paper industry. Our forests contain lots of renewable natural materials – why not develop them into something entirely new and fantastic?”
The interview was first published in Aalto University Magazine May 2015.
Read also: Olli Ikkala appointed Aalto Distinguished Professor