A laboratory full of bright ideas

New ideas are always popping up and being tested in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics. Several of them have led to world-leading scientific breakthroughs. The research here focusses on storing energy in paper, the coupling of biology and electronics, and electronic plants.

Magnus Berggren and Eric Glowacki in Printed Electronics Arena. Thor Balkhed

The world’s first printed electrochemical transistor, the world’s first chemical chip, an ion pump that can stop pain signals in living beings, batteries based on paper, highly sensitive sensors, the world’s first transistor that mimics the brain’s function, and – not least – electronic plants.

These are just some of the research breakthroughs presented in recent years by the Laboratory of Organic Electronics (LOE) at Linköping University, Campus Norrköping.
Publications in prestigious scientific journals come as frequently as spring showers from the research group, which has grown from around 30 people in 2012 to its current size of 120.

An inspiring leader

Professor Magnus Berggren Magnus Berggren Photo credit Thor BalkhedThe head of the laboratory, Professor Magnus Berggren, is a visionary, an ideas man and a hands-on leader, which may be part of the explanation of the laboratory’s success. He has gathered the inspiration for his leadership from two sources: his period as doctoral student with LiU professor and grand old man Ingemar Lundström, and his period as postdoc at legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA.

“Ingemar Lundström was interested in all of us and spread well-being and security. The organisation at Bell Labs was free of all prestige, and it was a community where ideas were born and thrived. Everything was possible. It was a magical feeling”, he remembers.

He brought home with him to his own research group the joy, the visions, the openness and a desire to collaborate, and now his basic research is located in an open office landscape together with the RISE research institute. This is unique in the Swedish research world.

“There’s a lot of talk about utilisation at the moment, and I’m so naïve that I believe that we can change the world. Our results should benefit society, and it’s not a requirement that we make money”, says Magnus Berggren.

Research results that have the potential to become applications are passed on to RISE, which applies for patents, develops products and services, and creates spin-off companies.

“We have a good arrangement with them”, he says.

Well-structured research

Daniel Simon and Amanda Jonsson with the ion-pump Photo credit Thor BalkhedThe research group now has 120 members, 11 of them senior researchers. They are organised into various constellations and together have around 50 projects in progress.

“The way we work is extremely well-structured and based on projects, just like a consultancy”, says Magnus Berggren.

But ideas are always the principal focus.

A good idea can stimulate a meeting at short notice, where both Magnus Berggren and Göran Gustafsson, head of RISE, are ready to cancel other engagements. In such cases, both travel and meetings at the department can be cancelled.

“We had such a situation recently. We brought together some senior researchers and doctoral students in the morning and discussed the idea thoroughly. After lunch, the students went down to the lab and set up the experiment. And it worked! Of course, we had to repeat the experiment a few times, but it took in principle only one day from idea to execution”, he says.

Then, of course, there’s a delay before publication, possibly as long as two years.
“The doctoral students probably get a bit impatient sometimes, but we tend not to publish in a hurry. We want to ensure that all the results are fully reliable.”

Too weird ideas

This is probably a good idea, because some people regard their ideas as rather too weird. When the article about electronic plants was published in Science Advances, it was placed next to a recent rejection notice for a research grant: “a great idea, an excellent research group, an important field, but completely unrealistic” was the judgement.

“It’s probable that I would also have said that it was impossible, in their place”, says Magnus Berggren generously.

It must be mentioned that the research, despite its enormous impact, was for a long time completely without its own financing. The first experiments were carried out whenever there was extra time available, and the research was subsequently made possible when Magnus Berggren received free research funds from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. At the time he promised to use the grant for astounding research, and he had kept his promise, to the satisfaction of both himself and the foundation.

Iwona Bernacka-Wojcik, Eleni Stavrinidou and Miriam Huerta. Photo credit Thor BalkhedAt the end of May 2018, Eleni Stavrinodou, head of research within electronic plants, was awarded funds for a project within Horizon 2020. She received EUR 3.3 million within the Future and Emerging Technologies (Open), programme, which has an approval rate of 2%.
Her research group now has eight members.

The next wild idea that received financing at an early stage concerns methods to produce supercapacitors for energy storage in an ordinary paper machine. The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research put out a call for applications relating to production methods of the future. Xavier Crispin and Isak Engqvist, both group leaders in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, are working on supercapacitors of cellulose-based materials and they sat down together and started to think.

“The need to store electricity is so great that the supercapacitors must be manufactured in a paper machine. We wrote an application and were a bit worried about how it would be received. But we received the grant, and we are now in contact with a paper mill and close to a solution”, says Magnus Berggren.

Forest materials

More than 200 attended Treesearch Progress 2019. Photo credit THOR BALKHEDAt the turn of the year 2018-2019, the Laboratory of Organic Electronics came into contact with the large Wallenberg Wood Science Center initiative, and the researchers are also active within the Treesearch collaboration platform. New research expertise is to be brought in, and a further floor of the Kåkenhus Building on Campus Norrköping is being filled with talented young researchers.

“We start with a need where we see that we can contribute, we apply for money for large steps, and celebrate small successes along the way. It is our goal to contribute to a better world. We can create ideas and look after them in a complex manner: the challenge now is to nurture them, get them to grow, and develop them further. We must also create a long-term economic base. Building up an excellent research environment takes time, and there’s a risk that it can be rapidly broken down”, Magnus Berggren concludes.

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