Professor Olli Ikkala receives Finnish Science Award

Ministry of Education and Culture grants Olli Ikkala, Aalto Distinguished Professor of applied physics, significant national acknowledgement for his interdisciplinary career in materials research
Olli Ikkala
Olli Ikkala. Kuva: Jaakko Kahilaniemi / Aalto-yliopisto

Aalto Distinguished Professor Olli Ikkala has received the renowned Finnish Science Award. The award was presented to him by the Minister of Science and Culture Petri Honkonen as part of the Science Forum 2023.

Ikkala’s research brings together chemistry, physics, biology, and materials science. The ministry of education and culture that gives out the award describes Ikkala’s career as internationally highly esteemed, combining deep cross-disciplinary know-how, networking skills and a talent for educating new researchers. 

‘Feels good to receive the award, of course. During my career I’ve suggested different awards for various researchers; this time it went the other way around – I thank the Ministry and also those that have nominated me for this, whoever they are,’ Ikkala says.

The Finnish Science Award is given out every other year for researchers or research groups working in Finland, and it is worth 100 000 euros. The Award is granted by the Ministry of Education and Culture based on the proposal of the Board of the Research Council of Finland.

A career that might not be possible today

Ikkala began his career with low temperature physics. After finishing his PhD at the Low Temperature Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) in 1983, he worked for 10 years in the chemical industry, at Neste Ltd. There, he developed so called conjugated polymers that either conduct electricity or are semiconductors. The researchers’ originally visioned applications were in, e.g., antistatic materials and anticorrosion coatings, but over the years they have entered the market and can now be found - developed by others - for example, in popular flat screen technology.

’We researchers are often asked too early on what the groundbreaking applications of our work will be. In the basic research phase, realistic applications are often impossible to guess at,’ Ikkala says.

The research on polymers lead Ikkala from physics to chemistry. Gradually he started to feel that the techniques he was developing might have a broad range of possibilities he could not strive towards in the industry. So, in his forties, Ikkala took a leap of faith and left his steady job, returning to TKK.

‘Nowadays this probably could no longer be done, as academic career paths are so standardized,’ he says.

Moving on from his polymer research, Ikkala steered towards nanotechnology and then biological materials. He and his group first started to explore how materials spontaneously form nanostructures, that is, how they self-assemble.

‘We then realized that these mechanisms are closely related to what we see in biology. We started to ponder how we could develop materials that work in similar ways as biological materials. This research brought us to close collaboration with biologists.’

Ikkala mentions as example nature’s biological materials that are simultaneously hard and tough – a characteristic that synthetic materials rarely have. Ikkala’s group started to develop artificial nacre and nano cellulose materials that imitated principles that could be seen in nature.

Towards programmable materials that are inspired by learning

Over the years, Ikkala and the research community around him has expanded their materials research in different directions. Lately, Ikkala has proceeded from the development of static materials – ones whose characteristics stay the same – to materials that attempt to imitate the simplest dynamic functions of living systems.

’Most recently, I got interested in whether we could produce materials that react to stimuli as if they were capable of learning. They of course don’t really learn, but are instead chemically programmed to behave in a particular, logical way. This corresponds to the way that in artificial intelligence, a computer code is used to program complicated algorithmic reasoning – what we do is chemically program materials to carry out simple functions,’ Ikkala explains.

Final applications can only be guessed at, though soft, independently acting micro robots loom in the back of Ikkala and his group’s mind. Uncertainly about the future is not a problem.

’Once, our instincts told us that electroactive polymers were going to be important – just as they turned out to be – but we guessed the applications wrong. In the same way our instincts now say that life-inspired materials will be important in the future, even though I have only a hazy idea about their realistic applications.’

ERC Grants and Centers of Excellence

Ikkala’s research has proceeded along several major projects: He has had two Advanced Grants from the European Research Council, and his research on biomimetics and life inspired materials has so far been conducted in two Centers of Excellence, currently the LIBER Center of Excellence, of the Research Council of Finland. He has also twice been appointed as an Academy Professor.

Ikkala has published over 300 peer-reviewed research articles, many of which in the most renowned journals of his field. He also has about 20 patents. In 2018 he was given the title of Aalto Professor, which is given out to professors of exceptional academic merit. He has also been elected to the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters and the Technology Academy of Finland. In 2019 he received the renowned Humboldt Research Award.

Olli Ikkala

Aalto Distinguished Professor
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