Living in the materials world
INNOVATION PROFILE:Materials and Surface Science Institute, University of Limerick
MORE EFFICIENT and cheaper solar cells, early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, new more easily visible stents, lighter aircraft bodies, and ensuring a drug is manufactured in precisely the right form to have its desired effect in the body. This seemingly highly disparate activities share at least two things in common – the first is that they are all related in some way to materials science, and the second is that they are all areas of research currently being pursued at the University of Limerick’s Materials and Surface Science Institute (MSSI).
Established in 1998, the MSSI now involves a group of some 200 researchers in the examination of the design of materials used in various ways in areas such as the pharmaceutical, airline and transport, medical and healthcare, energy, and ICT industries from the atomic to the macroscopic scale, providing new materials, processes and applications, which are guided by a fundamental understanding of material properties and design requirements.
Since its inception, MSSI has enjoyed a strong track record in collaborating with industry on materials research and development projects with researchers actively engaging with 35 companies ranging from Irish SMEs to global multinationals. It is also host to the Enterprise Ireland competence centre in composite materials with seven industry partners and the Solid State Pharmaceutical Cluster with 10 industry partners.
“Everything has materials in it, so our research has quite a wide range of applications”, MSSI director Prof Noel O’Dowd points out. “We specialise in a number of strategic areas including pharmaceutical materials, composite materials, biomedical applications, and the energy and environmental spheres.”
The pharmaceutical research is carried out by the Solid State Pharmaceutical Cluster. “We don’t get involved in the drug discovery process”, O’Dowd explains. “We look at the formulation of the tablet itself and how best the drug can be crystallised from its liquid form to a sold drug.”
Most of the drugs we take are in powder or crystalline form. Crystals can vary, and although this might only be apparent under a microscope, the differences can influence how a drug is taken up by the body. Although drugs may be chemically the same, how they are presented usually determines when, where, and how they will be absorbed.
“The chemical composition of the active ingredient may be exactly the same but its form can have a significant impact on the way it acts in the body. We work with the pharmaceutical to solve the problem of getting drugs into the right form,” says O’Dowd.
A large field of research for the institute is in composite materials. “These are typically fibre reinforced composites which have a wide range of applications across a variety of industries include the automotive and aerospace sectors”, he explains.