Focus on research: Prof Michael Morris, Amber
Prof Michael Morris was appointed director of Amber, the SFI centre for advanced materials and bioengineering research, in 2015. In this interview he talks about the centre’s ongoing success, changing trends in research, and why it’s essential to have standards.
How has Amber changed since you’ve been appointed centre director?
Amber has exceeded expectations and we’ve become much more flexible in the way we deal with issues – this was in a background heavily influenced by the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last five years the move to a ‘net zero emmissions’ economy has really flavoured what we’ve done and I’ve been very pleased in the way the centre has moved to embrace it.
Are you finding more projects in the area of net zero than you would have expected?
Five years ago we may have had one or two people working with us in that space but now nearly every project from industry has to have an element of meeting sustainability and climate targets. An awful lot of companies are affected by changes in regulation but also by the need to drive sustainability in their own organisations through their own internal policies, as well.
On that point about industry, have you seen researchers becoming more industry-savvy?
Collaboration has always been embedded in Amber but over the past few years we’re seeing students and young researchers really being aware of their relationship with industry. Even in the most basic or fundamental type of research they can understand and rationalise in terms of where their work might end up. That might not be in industry, it might be societal, but they do understand that much better than they did five or 10 years ago.
As the centre grows its headcount have you been impressed by the breadth of projects?
The breadth of projects we’re seeing has really exploded. Once upon a time our work would have been focussed on a new medical device or a new medical technology or addressing a specific problem within the electronics industry. We’re now seeing people address really core problems such as ‘what is the future of the electronics industry?’, ‘what are the emerging technologies in medical devices?’.
We’re also seeing companies looking at projects that will broaden their resarch base to expand their device or product offerings.
Companies are recognising that things will change. We’re seeing a lot more going on in the emerging technology space than we would have seen a few years ago.
Part of your own work is looking at ISO and NSAI standards. How do you find standards are evolving?
People are always wary of standards in industry because sometimes they force changes to the way businesses operate and report things. There’s always a nervousness. There’s now a stronger belief in industry that if there is going to be change it must be supported by standards.
The most responsible companies are aware that there can be an awful lot of ‘greenwashing’. You see many examples of that, but the problem is that without standards what you report and the way that you report it can be influenced by the message you want to send.
Standards are absolutely necessary to make sure the people understand the message and that the companies who embrace change have products that are attractive because they, and what it being said about them, can be trusted.
You’ve touched upon devices as an area of research. What broad trends are you seeing?
The silicon chip is at the heart of everything we do and their use is exploding so much that in the last few years people have become aware of the amount of energy used in information and communications technology (ICT). By 2030 ICT will probably consume 30% of all the energy used on the Earth – an enormous amount. People have started to think about how to reduce that energy from massive data centres all the way to mobile phones and computers. That’s a space we’ve evolved into. Where five years ago we looked at ‘how do we improve devices and making them faster’ now we’re thinking ‘how do we make them faster and consume less energy’. What we’re going to see in the next few years are mobile phone battteries that will last for days – we’ve got a while to go to get to that but it’s on the horizon. We’re seeing amazing changes in the way devices are focussed and because of that, the way we do research, as well.