A hot area of research is that of functional electronic materials. The goal is to find new materials that can be used in new devices, ranging from solar cells to biosensors to catalysts to transistors.
Let me first concede some positive points.
Overall this is an important and exciting area of research which involves some interesting science and significant potential technological benefits.
There are some excellent people working in this challenging field and doing careful and valuable work.
History shows that going from a university lab to mass produced technology can take a long time. Who would have ever thought you could go from the first transistor to computer chips? Or from the first giant magnetoresistance materials to current computer memories?
Good science is hard.
However, I wonder if I am the only one who is underwhelmed by the average work in this field.
In a "typical" experiment someone might do something like the following. They get some large complicated organic molecules and they somehow get it to stick on the surface of some highly exotic material. The experiment is often done under extreme conditions such as low temperatures or ultrahigh vacuum. They then probe the system with some highly specialised probe such as STM (scanning tunnelling microscope) or a femtosecond laser. Maybe they make an actual device such as a photovoltaic cell. It may have terrible performance characteristics. They then produce some pretty coloured graphs. They might do some DFT (density functional theory) based calculations to produce some more pretty coloured graphs. The results are published in a baby Nature and claims are made about the technological promise. The authors then move on to a new system for their next paper...
First, the exotic factor worries me.
Is there any realistic hope of an economically competitive technology coming out of this, even on the time scale of 20-30 years?
The lack of reproducibility and control, the extreme conditions, the highly specialised and expensive materials raise concerns.
For solid state devices and solar cells it is going to be so hard to beat the well developed technologies, fabrication and cheap materials associated with silicon based devices.
We should certainly be trying but there is big difference between realistic optimism and scientific fantasy. This is my view on quantum computing with Majorana fermions.
For photovoltaics there has been a rigorous cost analysis of different competing materials, highlighting challenges of competing with plain old silicon. Note, those materials are nothing like the exotic ones I see in many studies.
Second, the lack of control and reproducibility worries me.
This relates more to the science than the technology.
There is great value in studying in detail some exotic material under extreme conditions if one can control the different variables in order to gain a good understanding of the fundamental science involved, e.g. of photo induced charge transfer between an organic molecule and a substrate. However, very rarely do I see this happening in these studies. There is just a bunch of data and some hand waving about what is going on....
I think all of this is compounded by the luxury journals and the pressures on people to justify funding and to claim dramatic economic benefits for their research.
But, to me much of what is going on isn't science and it isn't technology.
So, am I too harsh? too pessimistic? what do you think?