Professor Canham’s research explores how the semiconductor silicon behind the electronics in your mobile phone, computer, car and so on can be modified to have new and useful properties. Two examples are silicon emitting light efficiently and being medically biodegradable. The group do this by creating really tiny nanocrystals (under five nanometres wide) out of the big crystals (15 centimetre wide “silicon wafers”) used in electronics. They then etch billions of tiny closely-spaced holes (pores) into solid silicon to leave silicon nanowires and nanocrystals. Highly porous networks of these nanocrystals have huge surface areas (like a football pitch in one gram), so surface chemistry has a huge influence on their behaviour, in addition to their size and shape.
Silicon is a very abundant element in the environment. Certain plants, called “silicon accumulators” by botanists, take silicon-based molecules from soil and make silica nanostructures in their stems, leaves or husks. Examples are bamboo, sugarcane and rice. Professor Canham is very interested in utilising these natural systems to generate large quantities of silicon nanostuctures, that not only have novel properties, but are also inexpensive and can be used in developing countries to tackle problems that affect huge numbers of people. Examples of such problems are drinking water of poor quality, vector-borne diseases like malaria, inexpensive solar cells and antimicrobial resistance.
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Leigh Canham is Professor of Nanomaterials for Biomedicine and Photonics at the University of Birmingham, UK. He studied physics at University College London then completed his PhD in solid state physics at King's College London in 1983. Professor Canham now has over 35 years’ experience conducting multidisciplinary R&D on widely differing aspects of silicon technology. He is devoted to finding novel properties and uses for the semiconductor that has already transformed our everyday lives. Two key personal research discoveries – that silicon can emit visible light efficiently (1990) and be rendered medically biodegradable (1995) have had significant academic and commercial impact.
Professor Canham has 15 years’ experience of start-up company management, right through from co-founding with seed VC finance, to NASDAQ listing. He has served as Chief Scientist on the board of two companies based in England, one in Singapore and one in Australia. From 1999 to 2016 he held an Honorary Professorship at the University of Birmingham for his research on luminescent silicon.
Prior awards include shortlisted finalist in 2011 for the “SME European Inventor of the Year” Award from the European Patent Office, 2012 Thomson Reuter Citation Laureate and the 2015 Materials Innovation Medal from the Federation of European Materials Societies.