How do we explore the potential of newly discovered materials with extraordinary properties and turn them into innovations? Dr Vaishakh Kedambaimoole is hard at work as a research associate at Cambridge Graphene Centre, where he is finding solutions to real-world challenges with the development of nanomaterials.
Born and raised in a village in Kerala, India, Vaishakh studied a BE in Electronics & Instrumentation Engineering and then an Integrated Masters and PhD in the Department of Instrumentation and Applied Physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
His PhD thesis explored the development of wearable sensors using two-dimensional materials such as graphene, discovered in the UK in 2004. Graphene is a single atom-thick layer of carbon with extraordinary properties – it is highly conductive, flexible, and extremely strong, more than 100 times stronger than steel. Additionally, it serves as an excellent thermal and electrical conductor. Easily integrated into various materials, including textiles, paper, and batteries, it can also be utilized in 3D printing. Graphene is already playing a pivotal role in numerous technological advances.
Vaishakh said, “I came across this incredible material with brilliant properties that could aid in the development of sensing technology. During my PhD, I successfully produced graphene and designed flexible sensors that can be attached to the body to sense physiological signals such as pulse rate and temperature.
“I began to follow research from the Cambridge Graphene Centre (CGC), which is the world-leading institute in graphene research. I realized that I wanted to come here to further my work, and when I got the opportunity, I was incredibly excited!”
The CGC was established to investigate and develop promising new materials like graphene, as well as to foster collaborative partnerships between industry and academia to expedite the transformation of innovation from research into reality.
Vaishakh’s research at CGC is dedicated to three main areas:
- Electrothermal De-Icing for Aircraft
Ice accumulation on wings, windshields, engines, and landing gears poses a serious safety hazard in the aviation industry. As part of the European Union’s Graphene Flagship project, which recently ended, Vaishakh has been helping in developing a thermoelectric system in collaboration with industrial partner Airbus for the creation of graphene-based de-icing technology.
Being a nanomaterial, graphene is extremely light, experiences minimal mechanical stress during heating, is energy-efficient, and does not rust, undergoing no chemical degradation over time. It is the perfect material for use in demanding environments such as high-altitude flight.
Vaishakh explained, “We tailor-made devices to fit around aircraft windshields, rotor blades, and wings. Conventional thermoelectric de-icing systems have employed metal wires, which are heavy, relatively inefficient, and prone to degradation over time.
“The focus of this industry-led initiative is to bring graphene-enabled products into the commercial market. Investment is encouraging the collaboration between academia and industry. This technology has the potential to be a giant step forward.”
- Flexible Electronics
The suppleness of graphene allows for its seamless integration into flexible electronics. Graphene is also a sustainable alternative to many of the scarce materials used in much of our electronic equipment.
Vaishakh conducts eco-conscious low emissions-research by using graphene in the form of an ink which can be applied to fabrics, paving the way for more comfortable and planet-friendly electronics.
He said, “If you have sensor modules attached to fabric, it offers a far more comfortable and less constricting way to gather live data, avoiding the complicated wires and electrodes currently used in some types of fitness testing.”
“The sensors can measure temperature and heart rate. They can even detect biochemical information from sweat and urine, but my focus is on physiological signals such as muscle movement, heart rate, pulse rate, and body temperature.”
- Batteries and Supercapacitors
Graphene has the potential to transform the capabilities of energy storage devices such as batteries and supercapacitors by improving charge density and storage capacity.
Research in this area could lead to flexible batteries and supercapacitors capable of enduring deformation and rough handling. These attributes make them particularly suitable for wearable technology, as textile-based sensors require a power source seamlessly integrated into the devices themselves.
In such applications, graphene serves as an electrode material. Vaishakh explains, “Lithium-ion batteries are widely used for energy storage. Graphene can be incorporated as an electrode to improve its performance. With the advent of new battery types like lithium-sulfur and various metal-ion batteries, we are exploring the role graphene could play in enhancing their performance as well.”
“Graphene is becoming an intrinsic part of new technologies for clean and sustainable energy generation.”
In many applications graphene provides the most sustainable method of fabricating devices for the mass market. This, coupled with the fact that it is a sustainable resource means that it has an important role to play in shaping the greener world of tomorrow.
Graphene-enabled solar panels can reduce the need for expensive noble metals such as gold, thus lowering manufacturing costs. The CGC has been established in a way that offers researchers like Vaishakh a unique opportunity to work closely with the industry.
“It’s not like a typical academic research project, which isn’t necessarily concerned with issues such as the cost of production,” noted Vaishakh. “We need this technology to operate on an industrial scale, so we are assuming from the outset that it will have a real-world application”.
“Numerous emerging start-ups are exploring the potential of graphene and related materials, and we closely partner with many. We see the growth of the start-up from the very beginning and remain engaged with it as it goes large scale. Personally, I have found that this aspect of my postdoc is providing me with invaluable experience of how to bring a product into the market. For me this has been such an amazing opportunity because this is what I would like to do in the future.
“I aim to bring one of my innovations to the commercial market.”
Working in Cambridge
Vaishakh regularly visits the University of Cambridge Sports Centre, which provides him with opportunities for physical activity and social interaction.
“It is a university town and people from all over the world are living and working here, so it allows everyone the chance to learn more about different cultures.
“Cambridge is such a beautiful city and coming out of lockdown provided me with the perfect opportunity to explore the city and calm my mind. It is lush and green, easy to access by bicycle, and much more tranquil compared with other academic towns.”
He also appreciates being around creative people who have the potential to change the world with their work: “In a start-up, the crucial aspect is to assemble a team and connect with individuals who share similar goals. In this regard, Cambridge proves to be an ideal environment.
“You are surrounded by bright, dynamic researchers, and you can find someone willing to join hands with you on a collaborative journey.”
Living in Eddington
Vaishakh learned about Eddington from the University of Cambridge’s website. It is very close to the West Cambridge site where many of the University of Cambridge’s research buildings are, and where he works.
For many of the research associates and postdocs who go abroad, finding suitable accommodation can be a challenge. He said, “The way I found a home at Eddington was straightforward – I applied online and within a week accommodation was offered.
“It was so hassle-free. I moved into a fully furnished apartment, and I didn’t struggle with anything. Everything was plug-and-play. This experience took the stress out of moving from a different country. The energy efficiency of my apartment is incredible – you don’t need to keep the heating on all the time.”
“Eddington provides a stimulating environment. Even outside of office hours, you have the opportunity to share ideas and interact with brilliant people from diverse academic fields.”
Whatever the future holds, it will be brighter and more sustainable thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of researchers like Vaishakh, who are working with new materials to transform the world with innovation.