As you will know if you have been following my Twitter feed or blog, I attended the SSI conference in Warsaw last week. This post will describe the conference in more detail.
I was invited to attend the conference to contribute to the workshop for young scientists, which was aimed at introducing some of the techniques used in the solid state ionics field. This was held on the Sunday, before the main conference started. My contribution was in computational solid state chemistry – modelling structures and their properties, and then going on to consider their defect structures, ion migration, and doping with foreign ions in order to achieve specific properties. If you are interested, you can read my presentations on my web site, here. The workshop seemed to be a success; it was attended by some 120 delegates (out of a total of 600 for the main conference itself), and I got some positive comments at the end.
The field of Solid State Ionics (SSI) is primarily about the development of materials for applications in batteries and fuel cells. It’s not a new field; as long as I have been in the business of modelling materials (30 years!) there has been research in this area, and it goes back further than that. We can thank research in SSI for the development of the lithium ion batteries that power our cellphones and laptops, and the future development of really successful electric cars will depend on research in this area. But it is a slowly moving field, and I heard talks at the conference that were very similar to ones I heard 15 or even 20 years ago. For that reason, it seemed to me that the conference (which is held every 2 years), is more of a meeting place for researchers in the field, rather than one at which new ground breaking research is regularly presented! That’s fair enough provided it is understood by potential delegates, and it was because I didn’t fully appreciate this that I was disappointed. I will try to explain more about this now.
Because I was attending the conference workshop, I registered for the full conference, and submitted a paper on my recent collaborative work on modelling finite concentrations of dopants in materials. This was because, although our applications so far have been to optical materials, the method is sufficiently general as to be useful for any material where dopants are added for specific applications, and this includes the SSI field. My paper was accepted as a talk, and I had high hopes that it would generate interest and questions. But in the event, there was only one question, and no follow up enquiries. This was disappointing as it was only the second time that this work had been presented at an international conference, and it is only just about to be published.
Before arriving at the conference I had already scanned the programme, and identified interesting talks and posters, and I duly attended/looked at these. As a result I got some ideas for new work, which is always an aim when attending any conference. But there was one further factor that contributed to my negative feelings about the conference in general. This was that it seemed that this community has woken up to the usefulness of modelling, which is good in itself, but that they have gone straight to DFT (Density Functional Theory), including using this for applications where potentials-based modelling can do as good a job (and in some cases a better job). Essentially, this is ‘using a sledge hammer to crack a nut’, as the saying goes, and it is very disheartening and disappointing. But unless you are in the modelling area, this won’t mean much, so I won’t go on about it any more!
In the end I returned from the conference frustrated at the indifferent reception that my work had received, and concerned about the direction of research in Solid State Ionics. For a field with such important applications, its slow progress is worrying, and I do wonder about the direction provided by the major players in the field. Much more could have been achieved using modelling, for example (and I don’t mean DFT). The one positive part of the conference was the workshop, which I thought was an excellent idea, and one which could be copied elsewhere.
I should end by saying that the conference organisation was generally good, and the location (the Warsaw Marriott Hotel) was excellent. It’s a pity the weather was so bad, but there wasn’t much that could be done about that!