Professor Drew Evans is Associate Professor at the Future Industries Institute, a high-tech research and development group at the University of South Australia. He received his PhD in physical chemistry at the Australian National University in 2006 and since then has been involved with research ranging from new liquid toner for printers to plastic mirrors for cars. In 2013 he was awarded the SA ‘Tall Poppy of the Year’ for his outstanding work in research, and in 2014, Drew was part of a team which began Heliostat-SA; a South Australian company working with UniSA to make concentrated solar panels an integral part of the world’s energy market.
Apart from research, Prof. Evans also works closely with schools in South Australia to promote STEM education and is an active member of the South Australian Science Council. We asked Drew about his team’s recent breakthrough on wearable contact lenses with electronic displays, and what this innovation may lead to in the future.
Can you give us an elevator pitch of your breakthrough?
For many of us, we would struggle to function in our daily lives without the humble contact lens. It provides the corrective vision we need to see. But what if it could do more? Maybe tell us when we need to take our medicine, or possibly bring personal computing directly to our eyes. The first step in realising this is marrying electronics with the contact lens. Our breakthrough has been the success of bringing conducting polymers (plastics that conduct electricity) and contact lens materials together.
How far away is this technology from being a commercial product, and what are the next steps required in achieving that?
While not ranking as the sexiest science on the planet, our next step in the project is to ensure the conducting polymer sticks to the contact lens. It may sound trivial, but consider a very thin coating that is 500 times thinner than your hair that is placed on a flexible, wet contact lens. Add to this the fact that a contact lens is held in your fingers first, then placed on your eye. During the day the wearer blinks many times per minute. This ends up being a very hostile environment. There is still much work to do. But it is not unreasonable to imagine products within a 5 to 10 year time frame. What those products will actually be is the bigger question.
How do you see this technology being used in daily life?
Imagine this scenario: you wake in the morning and after your shower you put in your contact lens. Instantly the morning news starts streaming across your eye. This personalised news is interrupted by the day’s calendar and to-do list, that thankfully reminds you to put the rubbish out to the street for collection. As you sit down to breakfast the contact lens begins to notice your blood glucose levels are low, and indicates you might need some sugar. All this from a contact lens, all before you even get out the door to work.
Any price tag or ballpark estimate for when this is finally available to the public?
How do you place a price tag on such a technology? The price will very much be driven by what end application we end up pursuing, in partnership with Contamac (our UK partner and world leader in polymers/materials for the contact lens industry) and their clients.
What was the research process like? Did you start out with the end goal in mind?
When undertaking research in partnership with industry, you always have the end goal in mind. This helps shape the way we undertake the research. That said, what we initially set out to achieve with Contamac was a little different from what we are considering now. The key to the success thus far has been constant communication with Contamac, underpinned by good fundamental science and an appreciation of how it can be applied. This is the basis of all our research in the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia.
What were the big challenges you had to overcome to make this technology work?
Traditionally conducting polymers are made in large volumes or covering large areas. Scaling this down to very thin films on small flexible contact lenses is very hard to do. It required a new way of thinking on how to make the polymer coatings.
Does your team have any other cool plans to research and explore in the near future?
Our plans are to take these conducting polymers and modify them to do different things. For example, we are working towards combining the conducting polymers with 3D printing. Our aim here is to make really complicated shapes that have very high surface area. We will then deploy these in water sensing and water purification. This area looks promising with industry keen to see what we can achieve.
Could you elaborate on the link between conducting polymers and water purification?
As part of our scientific research we are exploring how the conducting polymers interact with their surrounding environment. For example, with a coated contact lens we are exploring how the conducting polymer interacts with your tears. What we have discovered is our conducting polymers have a selective attraction for particular salts in water. Turns out these salts are some of the problematic types you find in contaminated water. We are exploring how to use this selectivity to extract the salt from a water supply. Being a conducting polymer, we can use an external voltage to then ’empty’ the polymer ready for collecting more salt.
Are there any other amazing Australian science and tech breakthroughs in the works that you think people should be aware of?
Colleagues at the Australian National University are doing great things with graphene. Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon atoms, which possess a host of great properties. Associate Professor Shannon Notley and his team are advancing a fabrication process to make high concentration graphene solutions in large volumes. This step towards commercial scale product is a major step forward for the field.