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The Delicate Power of Soft Materials


The Delicate Power of Soft Materials


The Delicate Power of Soft Materials

Technology that emerged from university research played a sizable role at this year’s Euro Cup, yet it is impossible to detect with the naked eye. 

When Burnaby-based Nanotech Security Corp. was chosen to produce a ticket that incorporated their anti-counterfeiting technology for the 2016 Euro Cup, they turned to SFU’s Centre for Soft Materials (CSM) to help execute the task. A part of the University’s 4D LABS research facility, CSM provides regional companies with the cutting-edge nanofabrication, nanoimaging, and photonics equipment and expertise they need to explore frontiers in new materials. By employing the centre’s assets, the firm created a virtually impossible to counterfeit hologram of “Super Victor", the Union of European Football Association’s mascot, which was then used in the manufacturing of the over six million tickets needed for the games.

Stunningly, each high-resolution image is the overall effect of two billion holes punched with exacting precision onto a stamp-sized area of plastic film, a task made possible by technology housed at the centre. The hologram effect is created as wavelengths of visible light enter and then refract via the nano-sized holes.

“For industrial users like us, 4D LABS and the Centre for Soft Materials is the best nanofabrication and characterization facility in North America,” says Clint Landrock, chief technology officer at Nanotech Security and primary inventor of the company’s patented nano-optics technology. “Their model for mixed access with academia and industry works seamlessly and is a model labs the world over should adopt. Our company could never have achieved what we have in such a short time frame without 4D LABS.”

Heading up the CSM is SFU associate professor of chemistry and former Canada Research Chair in Surface Chemistry, Byron Gates. “The research and development efforts of many students and several local companies have been greatly supported by access to CSM’s facilities,” he says. “It’s another example of SFU’s commitment to training future innovators and enabling innovation in our community.”

Such companies are using the “soft materials” that increasingly constitute the everyday materials of our lives. Used in sectors such as lighting, IT, medicine, electronics, and clean energy, soft materials include polymers, gels, foams, emulsions, composites, and biological materials, which are used to create products and applications ranging from contact lenses and biodegradable containers, to wearable electronic displays and sensors. However, their delicate nature means they can easily be damaged by traditional electron microscopy equipment.

And so, the CSM was created at SFU’s Burnaby campus in 2013 to feature a suite of the latest technologies which allow the analyzing, processing and characterizing of soft materials while preserving their nano-scale features. The $12.4-million facility is a partnership between SFU, the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation and Western Economic Diversification, and is focused on accelerating the design and development of advanced functional materials and nanotechnology products.

Highly-trained staff are on hand to guide innovators wishing to test advanced soft materials under real-world conditions and the centre regularly hosts workshops in partnership with equipment manufacturers. It has furthered the success of local companies, academic users, and student entrepreneurs, resulting in at least 10 patents and numerous publications relating to new processes in the field. CSM trains undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to become independent users of the equipment, which has positively impacted the research capacity of over 150 students at SFU since 2013.

An example of a successful partnership between government, industry and academia, CSM is a manifestation of SFU’s strategic vision to be Canada’s leading engaged university. It’s capabilities and user base continues to grow, promising to facilitate further product innovation and economic development in Western Canada. 


Dr. Byron Gates is associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, head of the Centre for Soft Materials, and was a Tier II Canada Research Chair for ten years. He currently serves to advise Nano One Materials Corp., a Canadian technology company working on scalable processes for high performance battery materials, on new chemical processes. His own research efforts include developing new pathways to prepare nanomaterials, as well as performing analytical studies on the surface chemistries of nanostructured materials. Gates has also demonstrated new platforms to evaluate the efficiency of materials for clean energy technologies that are being used to guide further improvements in the design of these materials. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University with professor George Whitesides and received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington with professor Younan Xia. The Gates Research Group.

Q & A with Byron Gates

How is your research making an impact on lives?

The most immediate impact of our research efforts on lives are the impacts being made in the lives and careers of our students. It is through our collective efforts that we also strive to impact society as a whole. Our specific efforts focus on harnessing the properties of nanomaterials to create new platforms for drug delivery, and to improve the efficiency of clean energy systems, whether they be for energy conversion or storage. 

What motivates you as a researcher?

It is a simple pleasure to see the positive impact that research makes on the way we view the world and the way we tackle challenges before us, as well as its longer term impact of the generation of new knowledge and innovation. I enjoy seeing students learn, grow, and innovate through their own research efforts. 

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

Collaboration is a key element of our own research efforts. It is through the engagement of others that we can further challenge ourselves and pursue science that is truly beyond the boundaries of any one discipline. It is also through collaboration that we can focus our efforts on the aspects that we understand and can control the best, while engaging other researchers for their own areas of expertise. An example of the later is our engagement of partners at local companies who can evaluate the performance of new materials that we are creating in the laboratory. The outcome of these efforts are truly much greater than a simple summation of the parts.  

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university reserach over the next 50 years?

The research into materials science at Simon Fraser University is truly world leading. We have colleagues from many disciplines who are world class leaders in clean energy, functional materials, diagnostic assays, and much more. It is widely accepted that materials science will continue to have a significant impact in many sectors of technology innovation, such as in energy, health and the environment. It is an exciting time and I look forward the future directions that SFU is taking to lead the world through materials innovations.