Our insatiable appetite for sleeker, faster, stronger and more efficient technology is driving micro nano research further than ever before.
Unlocking secrets at the microscopic scale has equipped societies around the world with tools now taken for granted.
Smartphones, laptops and the latest in biomedical devices are just a sample of what researching life in the minutiae has delivered.
Dr Sharath Sriram, the co-director of RMIT's Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group, says the potential outcomes stemming from micro nano research are endless.
"With micro nano research, we are dealing with sizes thousands to a million times smaller than we can see, and there's so much that is not known, so a lot of research is driven by the search for new things," he says.
"Most of these new things are exciting because they have such practical implications."
Today, micro nano developments are associated with the latest in high-tech gadgets, but the Romans first exploited the technology centuries ago. Glass vessels, made around 400 AD, were designed to change colour in direct light.
Contemporary innovations are much more sophisticated and often involve years of research.
Sriram, who is also the deputy director of RMIT's new MicroNano Research Facility, says micro nano experts are pioneering work across three major fields: electronic, biomedical and photonics.
"We work on materials with unique functionality so we can explore different applications," he says.
"One of the most common examples is actually a micro needle array. These micro needles are extremely small spikes put on the surface of the skin, but you don't actually feel it because it's much, much smaller than a pinprick.
"Behind the micro needle are the drugs that are being injected, so it's painless drug delivery."
Crucial micro nano expertise will be needed to help build the bionic brain - a development scientists around the world are hoping will treat common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
"It will obviously involve a lot of medicine, but it still needs electronics if you are going to realise it," Sriram says.
RMIT researchers are at the forefront of ground-breaking micro nano advances, including clothing that can potentially incorporate smart devices.
Through bendable electronics, innovations such as rollable tablets and rubber-like phones are set to become everyday commodities.
Sriram and his team are investigating new ways of transferring electronics with versatile functions from rigid silicon to flexible surfaces.
They are developing the technology using transparent nanolayers of oxide materials.
These microscopic nanolayers are thinner than 1/100th of a human hair and control a micro and nano-electronic device's ability to sense, insulate or generate energy.
The group's work on bendable electronics goes hand-in-hand with the development of self-powering portable electronics. This kind of technology could make it possible to recharge a tablet or phone just by typing a tweet.
In a major development, RMIT researchers were able to characterise the ability of piezoelectric thin films to turn mechanical pressure into electricity.
Dr Madhu Bhaskaran, co-director of the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group, says this was done by combining the potential of piezoelectrics - materials capable of converting pressure into electrical energy - and the cornerstone of microchip manufacturing, thin film technology.
"The power of piezoelectrics could be integrated into running shoes to charge mobile phones, enable laptops to be powered through typing or even used to convert blood pressure into a power source for pacemakers - essentially creating an everlasting battery," Bhaskaran says.
"The concept of energy harvesting using piezoelectric nanomaterials has been demonstrated but the realisation of these structures can be complex and they are poorly suited to mass fabrication."
Bhaskaran says the next key challenge will be amplifying the electrical energy generated by the piezoelectric materials so they can be integrated into low-cost, compact structures.
Each exciting discovery made by micro nano researchers takes years, even decades, to become a commercial product. But Sriram says this motivates, not disheartens, his team.
"As a researcher you are realistic that most of these ideas will take 15 to 20 years before they actually become a real product," he says.
"But someone has to make the discovery to enable this product in a decade, and so the sooner we discover new functionality, the sooner it becomes a reality."
Story: Kate Jones
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.