Entrepreneurial scientist who loves saving energy

April 20, 2007

Profile: Ravi Silva, Director, Advanced Technology Institute, Surrey University

"I might have to interrupt our interview this morning to sign some papers on a deal. The lawyers are waiting," says Ravi Silva, director of Surrey University's Advanced Technology Institute (ATI).

The comment is typical of a man who is part-scientist, part-entrepreneur.

The papers he mentions will set up a company to exploit technology related to field emission displays (FED).

Professor Silva's department is competing with the likes of Samsung to invent an FED capable of being mass produced. An FED is a type of flat-panel display that is more efficient than the liquid crystal or plasma display used in the latest generation of televisions.

The Sri Lanka-born academic's credentials for the job could hardly be better. He has won a clutch of national and international awards, including two Unesco prizes - the Albert Einstein Silver Medal and the Javed Husain Prize. At 31, he became Surrey's youngest professor.

If it were not for advice from his head of department at Cambridge University, where Professor Silva took his undergraduate degree and doctorate, his career might have taken a different direction.

Sir Alec Broers, who went on to become vice-chancellor of Cambridge, persuaded him to concentrate his research on carbon-based electronics, when he had been leaning towards more traditional areas. Since then, carbon nanotubes have been recognised as the world's most versatile material; they can be 20 times tougher than steel and conduct electric current a thousand times better than copper.

There is huge academic interest in them, with scores of research papers written about the subject each year. With his keen entrepreneur's eye, Professor Silva was one of a limited number of researchers who recognised that commercial applications of nanotubes could not be fully explored until production costs were considerably reduced.

"We developed a machine to standardise production of nanotubes at low temperatures that could be used by industry. Then we teamed up with venture capitalists and set up a company, Surrey Nanosystems Ltd, to make them," he says.

Several household names are in talks with the company about the "Nanogrowth Machine". Professor Silva refuses to give details, but says: "We'll keep production in the UK."

This country's inability to manufacture products based on British universities' technological innovations is one of Professor Silva's bugbears. Time and again, he points out, other countries have been allowed to buy UK inventions and exploit them commercially because Britain lacked the infrastructure to do so.

The Chinese Government, he says, invested $1 billion (£500 million) in setting up infrastructure to manufacture flatscreen TVs in Shanghai. "In the UK, the service industry has always been able to deliver profits - the risks are smaller than in technology production and the payback is slower," Professor Silva acknowledges.

But he adds: "If the Government had the patience, the rewards would be there."

He wants the Department of Trade and Industry and research bodies to work closely together to form a strategy that will bridge the gap between technology and the commercial world. Professor Silva also believes academics should choose their research areas with practical goals in mind.

He says that research councils now try to ascertain a project's applicability before making funding decisions.

"Of course, a balance must be struck: we need people working in high-risk areas. But there's an obligation to the taxpayer to produce something useful," he says. "Not immediately - in five or 20 years - but that should be the long-term aim."

This business-minded approach has characterised Professor Silva's directorship of the ATI, which he took over two years ago and which aims to foster better relationships between industry and academe.

"We needed to create a critical mass with flexibility to tackle large challenges," he says. "We now have 160 researchers who are rapidly deployable: if industry asks us to look into a problem we can pull people out and get them to focus on solving it."

One such a project was for the Carbon Trust, which is sponsoring the ATI to investigate low-energy, high-brightness, inexpensive lighting using carbon nanotube composite materials.

The project is close to Professor Silva's heart, as his "passion and hobby" is renewable energy. He says that working out a way to capture more solar energy will solve many of the world's problems.

"With unlimited energy sources there would be no problems with water, for example - it could be purified," he explains.

Solar cells are currently too expensive: they have to be used for a relatively long period before the initial investment is recouped in energy savings. The professor is looking into cells using plastics, which are less efficient than current solar cells but much cheaper.

While Professor Silva is working on solving world poverty, other ATI researchers are looking at cures for cancer, using nanotubes to deliver drugs to tumours.

Elsewhere at the centre, a researcher on secondment from the National Physics Laboratory is developing a universal standard for temperature using nanotubes. Under Professor Silva's guidance, changing the world almost seems possible.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk


I GRADUATED FROM
Cambridge University

MY FIRST JOB WAS
Research associate at the engineering department of Cambridge University.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS
Ensuring my team and I are able to make a difference to society with the science and technology we do.

WHAT I HATE MOST
Wasting time, sloppiness and laziness.

IN TEN YEARS I
Hope to be doing something I am happy with. Without being self-motivated you can never give 100 per cent to any job.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
What did the fish say when he swam into the wall? 'Dam!'

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