Interview: C. Barbe, President of ISGS

Christophe Barbé co-founded of the International Sol-Gel Society in 2003 and has been elected last summer as the new ISGS President. Chris did fall in the sol-gel cauldron a long time ago as he was taught Chemistry 101 by Jacques Livage in Paris in the mid 80’s. He then discovered the beauties of colloidal chemistry in the Swiss Alps with Terry Ring before moving in the US, to work at Dupont Central Research, with the former sol-gel guru, George Scherer. After a very formative experience in Switzerland with the solar-stellar Michael Graetzel, Chris moved down-under where for the last 12 years he has been spreading the sol-gel gospel. He now leads the Ceramisphere R&D team, a “nano-company” with a big attitude. Chris spends is free time practicing the art of Kendo (Japanese Fencing), hosting a community radio show and taking pictures of anything and everything.

What are the main axes of research in the sol-gel field ?

Sol-gel science and technology has evolved from its origins within traditional materials science (mainly glass and ceramics) to become an extraordinarily multidisciplinary area of research, spanning chemistry, physics, biology, materials science and nanotechnology. Currently, we are seeing a maturation of several areas of sol-gel research, such as hybrid materials and mesoporous solids. We are currently moving to the incorporation of hybrid chemistry in a wide range of industrial products and the functionalisation of mesoporous solids or films for use as sensors or delivery devices. The last international sol-gel conference in Brazil also highlighted the fascination of many researchers with the ability of sol-gel chemistry to use self-assembly mechanisms and thus to produce very complex structure using a bottom-up approach. The sol-gel chemists are gradually becoming nano-architects, with an increasing range of elementary brick that they can combine and use, to build functional materials.

What are the fundamental contributions of sol-gel technology in our society ?

Sol-gel technology is widely used in industry for a range of applications. Sol-gel coatings have been deposited for quite some time on glass to provide conduction (e.g. TCO), hydrophylicity or hydrophobicity (to prevent water beading or increase water repellence, respectively). They are also used on plastics to increase scratch resistance or rigidity. Active coatings made by sol-gel are part of a range of active devices from nanocrystalline solar cells to wave-guides or various chemical sensors. The ever-increasing interest in nanotech products has also generated some renewed interest in using sol-gel chemistry for producing nanoparticles. In contrast to physical methods, sol-gel chemistry is cheap and eminently scalable. Aerogels, also recently christen “nano-foams”, are marketed for insulation. Sol-gel chemistry is still use to make customised optical fibers for telecommunication. Finally, we are seeing an increasing interest in using sol-gel matrices in the medical area, primarily for drug delivery application but potentially for the design of artificial organs by encapsulation of whole cells in hybrid protective matrices.

What are the objectives of ISGS and what is the role that ISGS has played and will play ?

The goals of the ISGS are to educate, federate and disseminate. Educate scientists and technologists from all around the world, from both academia and industry, through conferences like the international sol-gel conference organised this year in Brazil, topical workshop organised in conjunction with various conferences or at the demand of specific interest groups, and summer schools, like the one organise in Alghero last year, which provides comprehensive teaching for both students and experience researchers in a relaxed atmosphere. The ISGS also provides travel scholarship to students to attend these conferences. This year three PhD students from Japan, France and Mexico, received a travel grant of US$1600.00 to attend the Meeting in Porto Galinhas. Federate scientists from all around the planet by organising events (conference, schools, etc..) where they can meet and discuss everything sol-gel. The ISGS also acts as a point of contact for a wide range of people, from sculptors interested in shaping aerogels, to Chinese industrial consortium interested in learning about hard coatings or researchers from emerging economies who are looking for specific technical information. In collaboration with our partner the sol-gel gateway, we also aim at providing a virtual meeting place for everyone interested in sol-gel. The imminent revamping of the ISGS website should provide us with a more interactive structure where members are going to be able to partake more importantly in the life of the ISGS. This newsletter will also encourage people to contribute stories and opinions and help us build a stronger sense of community in sol-gel science. Disseminate information about sol-gel science, technology and products through the publication of the Journal of Sol-gel Science and Technology, official Journal of the ISGS. The journal rate as one of the top 5 ceramics journals (out of 24) with a very decent impact factor of 1.43 A new series of book on various sol-gel topics such as sol-gel characterisation, hybrids, nanocomposites, sol-gel coating for energy, membranes, etc…, edited by top scientist in the field are planned to be published by Springer in the coming years. Our strong partnership with the Sol-Gel Gateway ( also enables us to spread the sol-gel gospel on the net. Finally, the revamping of the ISGS website and the publication of a regular newsletter, every quarter, should increase significantly our communication capabilities.

What is your idea of your role as President and what are the directions you wish to give ?

I view my role of the president of the ISGS as the conductor of a nine pieces jazz orchestra. My job is to make sure that all my fellow board members are playing together the same music without suppressing creativity and improvisation. On the board of the ISGS, we are all volunteers, we do that on top of a usually very full work schedule and sometime it is quite easy to put aside the business of the ISGS. My role it too make sure that all of us stay on top of our respective agenda, whether it is link with the next organising committee, arranging selection committee for Ulrich Prizes, or linking with industry. We have regular board meeting which with the time difference between Australia, Japan, Europe and the west coast of the US means some of us are raising up very early or staying up quite late to keep the ISGS ball rolling. A lot of what we do remains below the surface, invisible to our members or the wider sol-gel community and somehow that is the way it should be. Nobody is interested to know the details of the legal contract on the next conference in China; what everyone wants is a successful, enjoyable conference with plenty of new ideas and quality presentations. The task that I have set for myself in the coming two years is to transform the ISGS from a grouping of scientists who are interested in sol-gel science and technology into a professional, fully functional, scientific society more like (although smaller and different) the Material Research Society or the American Chemical Society. It sounds very ambitious, but most of the key ingredients are already here. We have a structure, which has been incorporated since 2003, a Scientific Journal: the JSST published by Springer, a biennial conference: the next one being in China in 2011, summer schools happening the other year: the next one being in France in July 2010, a dedicated board with representative from all around the world, some regular sponsors and last but not least, our administrator who joined us 6 months ago and bring a wealth of knowledge on how to run scientific organisations. But more important than all this, we have YOU, the sol-gel community, who have been very supportive since the inception of the society in Sydney in 2003. We really rely on YOU to make ISGS a success. A scientific society only exists for and by its members. So feel free to GET INVOLVED: propose new ideas, new activities, criticism and compliments, questions, querries, suggestions,… anything.