Project aims to increase use of atomic layer deposition

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Researchers at Liverpool University are investigating the use of ultra-violet light to create thin films that can be used on solar panels, and to keep food and medical instruments sterile.

Funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will enable the researchers to develop new methods for atomic layer deposition – a technique used in the manufacture of computer chips, flat panel displays and other electronic devices – using light rather than heat to create the layers.

Currently, chemicals are placed on a flat surface and heated from below. As they react, the chemicals produce layers which are one nanometre per cycle thick and highly uniform.

The Liverpool project will replace the use of heat from below with light from above in order to create the reaction. According to the university, this is more energy efficient and will allow industry to use atomic layer deposition in many more applications that require larger surfaces to be covered.

One possible application for the new method is the creation of specialised packaging which can be used to keep medical equipment or food sterile. It will also be possible to cover large areas, such as coating solar power arrays with higher performing materials without increasing costs.

Prof Paul Chalker from Liverpool University’s School of Engineering is leading the project alongside colleagues Dr Richard Potter and Dr Chris Sutcliffe.

In a statement he said: ‘This is a new and exciting concept for high-tech manufacturing. There are many advantages to using ultra-thin layers, but until now they have been largely confined to the electronics industry.’

The award totals £251,000 and will enable an 18 month feasibility study, complementing existing EPSRC funding of £1.4m at Liverpool to develop atomic layer deposition technologies.

The latest funding was announced on January 9, 2014 by Vince Cable, secretary of state for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of a £3.6m initiative that supports 14 manufacturing research projects using light.

Projects include investigations into laser-guided positioning of living cells to aid pharmaceutical testing; and using lasers as a growth technique to create high-power laser devices that can be adopted by the UK manufacturing sector.