The power of new technologies to advance human progress and improve lives are driving motivations for Dr Sumeet Walia's research.
Dr Sumeet Walia is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the School of Engineering.
He has received numerous awards and prizes - including being named one of the region's top tech innovators - for his research, which involves working with functional materials for small scale electronics.
Walia was presented with the Victoria University Research Impact Award at the 2017 Victorian Young Achiever Awards.
RMIT News spoke to him about his the award, his research and his motivations.
Tell us about receiving the Victoria University Research Impact Award.
We received the award for research in the area of nanoelectronics.
Our work involves the creation of artificial electronic memories, wearable sensors and high-speed transistors.
You may notice that I have used the word “we” in this context.
Our work is not possible without the effort of a lot of people, ranging from PhD candidates to technical staff, mentors and colleagues.
This recognition of the impact our research has and is capable of having in the future is a strong motivating factor for the whole team.
What is nanoelectronics?
Nanoelectronics is electronics at dimensions that are one billion times smaller than a meter.
At such small sizes, materials show unique and exciting properties that are not present at larger scales.
These properties can change technological paradigms.
For example, they allow us to make small systems that are more energy efficient and at the same time have remarkable performance.
So, the saying “big things come in small packages” is true for nanoelectronics.
What is your current research focus?
My research is based on making ultra-thin layers of metal oxide materials thousands of times thinner than a human hair and tailoring them for a range of applications.
Our work on artificial electronic memories is a precursor to an on-chip bionic brain.
This is an envisaged electronic system that will one day be capable of mimicking the functionality of a human brain.
In the near term these artificial electronic memories can be used to create smarter computers, USB sticks with larger memories and enable self-driving vehicles to learn from experience.
We are also working on creating wearable sensors capable of alerting users to harmful levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and harmful gases found in pollution generated by vehicles and industries such as mining.
Given the risk of melanoma in Australia due to high exposure to UV, these wearable patches will have important applications for healthcare monitoring and the prevention of skin cancer.
The other main application of nanoelectronics we are working on is extremely thin materials that can operate at speeds faster than current silicon based electronic technology.
These will allow us to produce energy efficient, ultra-fast electronic devices such as smartphones and smart TVs.
What drew you to this area and what is it that continues to excite you about it?
What drew me to this area is the tremendous breadth of possibilities.
Electronics are ubiquitous nowadays so anything we do to make devices and systems smaller and more powerful has an effect on a broad range of areas from healthcare to the environment.
Research always throws up unexpected things. If it doesn’t, that means you are not doing something that is unique enough.
There have been several instances where I have gone into the lab with a set of expectations and what I observed was far from the expected.
For example, when developing microscale energy sources we expected that a particular material would be best to maximise power output from them.
However, what we found was even more intriguing.
The material not only generated high amounts of power, but also resulted in alternating currents which had never been seen before making it extremely useful for a number of applications.
This exciting aspect of our work helps us grow as researchers, keeping the thinking process going on and paving the way for generating new ideas.
Where do you see your research heading in the future?
Research in today’s world must span across disciplines if one is to maximise its full potential.
This makes the area of research I work in quite dynamic and fast paced, which keeps us on our toes.
To see our work being translated or implemented in a commercial product is something that I would love to see in the near future.
I am also looking forward to seeing the artificial electronic memories we have developed actually mimic some of the functionalities of the neurons and demonstrate self-learning capabilities.
What do you enjoy about research at RMIT?
Being at RMIT provides me with an ideal platform to try out risky ideas without the fear of failing, which is very important to conduct cutting-edge research.
It is always pleasing to see people doing well and I’m keen to share my experiences with upcoming researchers.
When our PhD students get employed in leading universities around the world that gives me an immense amount of pride.
Story: Lawrence Martin