This weekend marked the fourth annual Imperial Festival, and was a great example of that saying ‘practise makes perfect’. From fancy Farmer’s Market style food stands to IC Festival branded merch (which sold out before I could buy any!), the now two-day event worked brilliantly. The Centre for Plastic Electronics stand was again in the ‘Light Zone’, which had been promoted from a marquee on the Queen’s Lawn to the Great Hall. 2015 is the International Year of Light, so there were heaps of exciting things going on- TIR and ballon popping with lasers, drawing stellar nebulae, constructing lego spectrometers.
I started my festival experience on Friday, helping out in the Activity Zone (or Reach Out Lab to seasoned Outreach ambassadors). The Activity Zone was open on Friday to welcome local primary schools, who got to trial the festival before the public. The Outreach team had done amazing preparation to get all the experiments and demos up-and-running, so I really just turned up and hid some pyrex in oil and dropped a few alka-seltzer in a mixture of oil and water. It’s incredible watching children ‘wow’ in wonder as you make a kitchen cupboard lava lamp or talk about bending light in prisms. There were other distractions in the lab, with the resident geckos and grasshopers making a few appearances over lunch. The kids also extracted DNA from strawberries and made jelly worms and mobius strips. The experiments were all super simple and can be done at home without all the comforts of Sir Robert Winston’s Reach Out Lab.
On Saturday we set up our table in the light zone and began to tell the story of Plastic Electronics to the public. The festival was opened 12:00 – 18:00 and 12:00 – 17:00 on Sunday, and there wasn’t a spare minute without someone asking us about how polymers could conduct electricity or how efficient we could make our flexible solar cells. The families all loved Dr. Xuhua Wang‘s perfect polymer drawings of London that glowed under UV light (when the polymers got excited by absorbing the lights energy) and our large area OLED lighting. I had some pretty awesome conversations, my favourites being with the visitors from Science Rocks UK and a chinese woman who had just started an online GCSE in chemistry (we had some great times discussing the shapes of orbitals).
What’s quite magical about the IC festival is it coincides with Imperial’s alumni weekend, which means you get a lot of very interested audiences who left Imperial before plastic electronics really began. To them polymers are insulators and insulators cannot conduct electricity. Some had even been trying to make thin film inorganic transistors flexible, but hadn’t really got anywhere. Plastic eletronics is a great subject not only because of the mass appeal (apparently everyone wants bendy mobile phones and roll-up TVs) but also because of how good we are at it in the UK- we can print our own sheets of plastic solar cells in Swansea, make world-beating polymers in Cambridge and crazy new devices here in SW7. The kids loved shining UV lamps on all the colourful polymers and the parents loved hearing about how they could reduce their bills with transparent solar panels that wrapped around their houses! After the final 4 hours on-the-trot on Sunday I was pretty shakey, but having so many excited questions and such a captivated audience means you have the motivation to keep going. There were a few who weren’t quite convinced by our 3 % efficient plastic solar cell, but everyone loved the idea of printing plastic electronic circuits with their own ink-jet printers. I can’t begin to explain in words quite how amazing the centre for plastic electronics is, but I think our enthusiasm over the two day event managed to convince everyone (ex, current and potential IC students, IC staff, grandparents, children and their parents) of how much it is going to change their futures.