Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Chemistry, Capoeira and Coffee at the Copacabana

📥  Internships & visits, Seminars & Conferences

Little did I know when saying goodbye to Brazil back in May, I would be returning to its sunny lands sooner than I thought – in fact six months later. I was thrilled when I heard I would have the opportunity to return and I could not wait to go back there. Three weeks in Brazil during its summer months… count me in!


However, upon arriving in São Paulo airport I was greeted by a torrential rain storm (think back to the conditions of the Brazilian Grand Prix if you saw it) which lasted for a few days. Not the glorious sunshine I had gleefully expected and what the BBC weather “app” had promised me. So with my excitement slightly dampened and sun cream undisturbed I made my return to the University of Campinas (Unicamp), where I had worked for two months back in spring.

This time my visit saw me out of the laboratory, replacing safety specs for a scientific poster, as I was to attend and talk at the Four Continents University (U4C) Colloquium, along with Jon Chouler and Leighton Holyfield of the CSCT. The event focused on ‘Sustainable Systems and Societies: Energy, Environment and Policy Frameworks’. By bringing together academics and students from around the world it aimed to build a network of research collaborations to help tackle current global challenges in sustainability. The institutions involved in this network are Stellenbosch University (South Africa), Zhejiang University (China), Unicamp (Brazil) and University of Bath (UK). Experts from the sciences, engineering and policy research had been gathered in Brazil to share knowledge and identify synergies between institutions to confront these global issues.  As someone who’d previously only attended a traditional “bread and butter” scientific conference, this was a new and exciting experience for me.

A major part of the workshop was its panel discussions, in which members from all institutions presented their views and debated key topics such as bioenergy, sustainability & polices. These sessions were very informative as they gave a real insight as to how other countries perceive and approach overcoming environmental challenges very similar to those we are facing. For example, this was apparent when talking about biofuels, which are sometimes criticised due to their competition with the food supply, i.e. farmers using land to grow crops for biofuels not food. It was interesting to learn researchers from Brazil, which currently only uses <2% of its land for growing crops, did not view biofuels as food competitive whereas China was more conservative in how much land they could devote to biofuels to balance between feeding and fuelling their country.

A recurring theme amongst the discussions were the challenges involved in the implementation of new and more environmentally friendly products or systems into society. We may “have the technology” but how can it be successfully adopted by society? Does it first require people to change their behaviours? If so, this is often much easier said than done, with cultural differences and “irrational behaviour” sometimes being the biggest barrier to change. On this theme I took a moment to digress and presented the conference with an example of our own irrational behaviour from my own neck of the woods in the UK. There was much amusement from the audience to see contestants hurling themselves headlong down a precipitous slope in the hope of winning very little other than a few broken bones. (I recommend watching a clip of the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling event on YouTube to see what I mean). And so, maybe suitably inspired, 2017 will see the first winning cheese roller from Brazil, China or South Africa. The notion of such eccentric behaviour and headlong disregard for what is sensible may not be a literal response to innovation but at times it must seem to those who wish to introduce change what they are up against.

The next leg of my journey saw me hop on a plane to the neighbouring state of Rio de Janeiro. Now I know Brazil is big but Rio felt like a completely different country to São Paulo. It has a dramatic landscape of long white sandy beaches juxtaposed by giant granite peaks.

Alas the purpose of my visit was not to soak up the warm rays of sunshine at the Copa (CO!) Copacabana or meet The girl from Ipanema (I had forgotten to pack my silver sparkling carnival jacket anyway). Instead, I was there to work with Professor Aurora Pérez Gramatges at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio. As part of the collaboration we investigated how biodegradable and renewable materials could be included in everyday formulated products, such as sun cream and insect repellent, to improve their properties.

It was a great experience working with Aurora’s research group. They were very welcoming and eager to show me the culture of Rio and what it means to be a Carioca. This included trying my hand at Capoeira and even a little bit of merengue (more of an Eton mess when I tried it).

Having been glued to the TV watching the Olympics over the summer I was keen to fit in some sight-seeing of the various venues in Rio at the weekends during my short stay. The most impressive of these has to be the ascent of the Corcovado hill where atop its peak stands the world famous statue of Jesus known as “Christ the Redeemer”, watching over the city. This 38m high stone statue is very imposing –  a remarkable miracle of engineering managed over 80 years ago!  Once at the feet of the statue of Jesus you get a fantastic view of the Lagoa and beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

Another great way to take in the view is a helicopter ride over the city. Alas with the current state of the pound my budget did not quite stretch that far, so instead I took two cable cars to the top of Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain. Whoever thought it was sensible to put a viewing platform on top of a mountain surrounded by shear drops to the sea below must have overdone it on the Caipirinhas.  However, I have to admit the views from the top were breath-taking and I managed to keep my vertigo under check for long enough to smile for a photo.


I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Brazil.  I found it a real privilege to have the opportunity spend time in Rio meeting new people and learning about their culture - it really expands your own world view.

As I finish writing this blog in my hotel room, reflecting on my visit and enjoying the last of the sunny weather, I take a quick look to compare the weather back home – what, -5 degrees Celsius?! Perhaps I should have packed that jacket after all!


Meet our Cohort 2016


📥  Case Studies, Comment

19 students, all passionate about sustainable chemical technologies, joined the CSCT in September this year. The following post is designed by Alison Ryder and Megan Stalker to sum up who they are, their different backgrounds and reasons for joining the Centre. 

Interested in joining us next year?
Applications are now open: www.bath.ac.uk/csct/cdt


Castles and Science: A Trip to the Czech Republic

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

Joe Thompson and I arrived in Pardubice with a slight sense of trepidation at the tri-annual Germanium, Tin and Lead conference. It has a strong pedigree for molecular chemistry with world leading inorganic chemists, such as Cameron Jones ,presenting.

We had both chosen to focus on the materials side of our research and hoped it would be included in the scientific discussion. We were pleasantly surprised to find many researchers who would normally be considered to be pure synthetic chemists presenting forays into applied materials chemistry, combining aspects of engineering and chemistry. Due to these cross disciplinary discussions, the conference was very well received with a lot of industry backing. This financial input allowed for some great conference event venues such as the castle pictured.


Kunětice Mountain Castle

There was medieval demonstrations, a tour around the historic Kutná Hora city and plenty of free Pilsner! The focus on the application of molecular chemistry to solving materials challenges led to many fruitful discussions, with the posters Joe and I presented receiving a lot of attention. This led to new collaborations with groups in Russia, Czech Republic and New Zealand.

Andrew is working towards his PhD on "The Development of Graphene Based Materials" with Professor Paul Raithby, Professor Simon Bending and Dr Andrew Johnson.


Green Chemistry conference in Venice

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

The 6th International IUPAC Conference on Green Chemistry was held in Venice between the 4th and 8th of September. The venue itself, the Centro Culturale Candiani, was actually located in Mestre; a town on the mainland located half an hour on the tram from Venice. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to present my work on Interfused Cellulose-Chitosan Hydrogels for Tissue Engineering as a 20-minute talk which was well received.

Two talks in particular caught my attention: The first – by Professor Sato at the National Institute of Technology, Tsuruoka College, Japan – covered the development of a double network ionic gel for low friction material. Double-network gels – which consist of a rigid skeleton polymer network within a ductile polymer substance, enabling high mechanical strength and toughness – are well known. However, the idea of replacing the water present in the gel (often 90 wt% or more) with an ionic liquid interested me as it stabilises the material (evaporation of the water affects the physical properties of the gel; ionic liquids have negligible vapour pressure) and results in a low friction material, even under vacuum and at high temperatures. The second – by Dr Stevens, Professor Emeritus at University of North Carolina at Asheville, USA – presented 12 principles on New Chemistry, intended as “a guide to allow society and chemists to prosper and grow sustainably”. One message that caught my attention was the advocation of interdisciplinary science. The CSCT already encourages co-operation between chemistry and chemical engineering. Although I’m more interested in how we could develop work with social scientists, which surely will be required if we are to effectively address societal demands.

The conference gala dinner was held at the Casinò Di Venezia in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, where Wagner spent his last days. Entertainment was provided by a local string quartets and a couple of opera singers, with the opportunity to have a free flutter at the tables afterwards. The Wednesday afternoon was spent on a boat trip around the islands of Venice, including Burano (home of the colourful houses) and Torcello Abbey. Whilst it was great to see the surrounding area, I did begin to feel like a trapped animal after a while as excursions on the islands were limited to half an hour. Venice is a particularly beautiful city, although I do recommend either getting up early to meander through the streets before the tourists descend, or being prepared to stay up late. A word of warning though: always keep your bearing as the narrow streets often results in GPS becoming confused as to exactly where you are – trying to find St. Mark’s Square at 1 am proved a particular challenge! Overall, the experience was positive – both from the conference and cultural perspectives – and I look forward to attending the next one.

Venice sans tourists

Venice sans tourists

Conference dinners: the tried and tested method for making new contacts and/or friends

Conference dinner: the tried and tested method for making new contacts and/or friends

Marcus is in his final year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on “Biomaterials for the Cardiac Environment” with Dr Ram Sharma, Dr Janet Scott and Dr Sameer Rahatekar.


Fuelling the future at the world’s 3rd largest automaker

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📥  Internships & visits

As a brilliant way to get some industrial experience under my belt, shatter my second year blues and to see more of the world, I secured an internship within the research arm of General Motors, one of the great American engineering companies, who in January 2016 were announced as the world’s third largest automaker. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Dr Anne Dailly, an experienced researcher in the field of energy storage materials, who was immensely helpful in setting up and performing the internship. Shortly after securing my place in the organisation and getting an exchange visa from the U.S. government, I arrived in Warren, MI (just outside of Detroit) in June 2016 eager to kick off my internship.

A Chevrolet Colorado turns statue on the South-West corner of the GM Technical Center campus in Warren, MI

A Chevrolet Colorado turns statue on the South-West corner of the GM Technical Center campus in Warren, MI

I was based on GM’s Technical Centre campus in Warren, a large area of land owned by the company that houses many of its design and research employees. I was working in a relatively modest building on the north end of the campus, but some structures there, such as the vehicle engineering centre, were huge structures housing as many as 10,000 design engineers! The physical size of the land was also imposing, taking 10 minutes to cycle from one end to the other, but served as an excellent illustration of the resource available to the company, and I was excited to learn how that would manifest in the research lab environment.

The Research and Development Chemical Engineering Lab (RCEL), where all the magic happened.

The Research and Development Chemical Engineering Lab (RCEL), where all the magic happened.

I was primarily working with Dr Dailly, looking at boosting the energy content of natural gas fuel storage systems. This was an interesting experience, as we were testing non-conventional equipment for this process, and my role was to try and determine whether a) this experimental protocol was valid and b) what the benefits were. The experiments took a long time to complete and I unfortunately had to return home early, so we weren’t able to complete what we had set out to do, but I still had a very worthwhile experience of life in an industrial research setting, and how the challenges of that environment could be very different to those of university-based research.

I also had the pleasure of attending a couple of meetings to listen to what kind of research was being done by the wider research team at GM. While this information is commercially confidential (and therefore cannot be discussed here), there were some fascinating presentations dealing with a wide range of issues, ranging from fundamental exploratory science to dealing with problems reported by GM customers.

Chevrolet Corvettes new and old on display at the Technical Center

Chevrolet Corvettes new and old on display at the Technical Center

Whilst I was staying in Warren, which is largely a suburban city without a huge number of touristy-type attractions (at least within walking/cycling reach), I did have the opportunity to go into Detroit itself on a couple of occasions. The city has a bad reputation based on the economic struggles of the area and the levels of crime in the inner suburbs, but downtown Detroit is actually a bustling metropolis with lots going on, and I felt it was as safe as any other American downtown. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a concert on the waterfront (next to the Detroit river, and with Canada just across the water!) and to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game, which was really exciting. I had a great time in Detroit, and would definitely suggest that you shake off the stereotypes and visit the downtown.

All in all, I had a great experience working with GM, one that I was very grateful to both Dr Dailly and the team at GM for making happen and to the CSCT for the generous funding. I met and worked with some great people in a new environment, learnt about the benefits and challenges of industrial research, and came back to Bath refreshed and motivated heading into the final year of my PhD.

Leighton is in the 2013 Cohort of the CSCT and is now in the final year of his PhD: "Design of Safe Hybrid Hydrogen Storage Tanks" with Professor Tim Mays and Dr Andrew Burrows.


Spot the Physicist: The Secret Life of a Physicist in Chemistry

📥  Comment, Secret Life Blogs

Our anonymous Physicist shares snippets of their life in the Chemistry labs.

What do you think of when you hear the word Physicist? What do you think of when you hear the word Chemist? Do you think of two very different people? Do you think of men (…hang on I won’t go there).

In many areas of research there is such an overlap between different areas of science that, often, the boundary between different disciplines becomes blurred. In fact, huge leaps in scientific understanding can be made by taking advantage of cross disciplinary work, but what does this mean for the lowly PhD student? Apart from getting that all important step count up on the iPhone by running between departments, it also means venturing where few physicists have dared venture before, the chemistry labs. On first inspection I found myself surprised by the number of things in one room that could kill me. “Don’t breath that in it’ll suffocate you, don’t spill that it’ll burn off your hand, don’t put that in that it’ll explode,” were just some of the first snippets of advice on entering the lab. So, with my nerves calmed, I promptly started work.

Through my time working I became acutely aware of the ‘learning curve’ I was on (shown Figure 1). The period of time where you learn so much about your new lab that your confidence level takes a little while to catch up.  The same period of time where I would probably be surprised that I’d actually managed to make sodium chloride by reacting together sodium and chloride. The same period where, when I was told I would be working with seven molar acid I thought “seven, that’s a small number”.

Figure 1: A journey into the unknown

Of course there’s the language, physics speaks the language of maths.  Does a page full of equations scare you? Well a page full of words scares a physicist. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world of mechanisms, and schlenks, and rotavaps, not to even start on all the solvent acronyms; people might as well have been speaking Russian (why are there arrows everywhere?!). I never thought I’d find myself longing to solve a good time dependent Schrodinger equation, but sometimes a full page of complex mathematics does wonders for the soul.

Despite the lab’s best efforts, I find myself still alive to tell this tale, not only that, but advocating the importance of more scientists leaving the comfort of their familiar lab for an unfamiliar one, learning new skills and becoming rounded researchers able to tackle almost any problem. If you can’t tackle it, working across departments will almost certainly mean you know someone that can.

For now I have to remember not to put water into acid, or was it acid into water……


Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference, Swansea, 2016

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📥  Comment, Seminars & Conferences

This post was contributed by Oli Weber following his attendance at the Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference (28 June - 1 July 2016).

Recently Dom Ferdani (cohort ’14) and I took a trip to the south coast of Wales to attend the 2016 Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference (HOPV 16). The venue was Swansea’s brand new Bay Campus, a huge new development of university buildings sited right by the beach of Swansea Bay. On the first conference day we were met by serious weather blowing in from the sea, leaving delegates from warmer climes wondering what manner of people could be mad enough to inhabit such a cold, damp land. Bay Campus is also the new home to SPECIFIC, the conference hosts, whose mandate is to span the space between academia and industry to develop materials that turn buildings into power stations using functional coatings. Building integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) are one of the families of technologies developed at SPECIFIC. These rely on thin, lightweight, flexible designs and manufacturing methods, such as printing, that scale up well. Organic semiconductors, dye sensitised solar cells, CIGS and CZTS are all under research and development, however the technology that has come to dominate the research focus for this conference is hybrid perovskite solar cells.

Dom and Oli in Swansea

Dom and Oli in Swansea

Hybrid perovskites combine the properties of some of the highest quality known semiconductors, such as GaAs, with the solution processability of organic materials. This means that the solar cells could be manufactured at low cost, while still displaying the high efficiency of the best inorganic thin films. Unfortunately the hybrid perovskites are not very chemically stable and are easily attacked and degraded by water. Some of the typical device layers used in perovskite cells may also be contributing to the degradation, so it is still difficult to assess whether these materials will be intrinsically stable, over a 25 year lifetime, if they are properly encapsulated as protection from the environment. It was encouraging to see stability data discussed during the research presentations, particularly in the talk by Professor Mike McGehee of Stanford, whose group is developing semi-transparent perovskite top cells to include directly above standard silicon modules to make a more efficient tandem stack.

Other highlights for me personally were the advanced printing techniques run by SPECIFIC researchers on the day before the conference commenced, when we learnt about the pitfalls that await between laboratory scale work and development of cells suitable for bulk manufacturing at large scale. Professor Laura Herz of Oxford Physics gave an excellent presentation on the amount that can be learnt about charge carrier dynamics within perovskite semiconductors using terahertz photoconductivity and photoluminescence measurements. From the University of Bath, Professor Aron Walsh and Dr Petra Cameron both presented recent research results.

Overshadowing the whole conference was the spectre of Brexit. Many people had learnt the referendum result just before setting out to Swansea. Swansea is one of the areas of the UK that voted to leave despite receiving extensive regeneration funding from the EU; SPECIFIC itself is part EU funded. The research groups present were drawn from diverse international backgrounds and many of the research collaborations, already in progress or spawned during the conference, span the EU and further afield. One thing for certain is that the scientific community will continue to find ways to maintain their international networks and friendships whatever the political landscape. From my point of view (and that of many I spoke to) it’s frankly embarrassing that the referendum campaign was fought, won and lost on the basis of fear, lies and bigotry, drowning out all vestiges of the rational debate scientists thrive on. For a country priding itself on freedom and enterprise, we cannot claim to have a healthy political or media culture.

Sitting on the terrace of the conference hall, the beach ahead of me, it is impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of frenetic scientific activity behind me, as brilliant people from every part of the world work to develop clean energy sources for the future, with the EU and Welsh flags taut in the sea breeze just in front and, visible further along the coast, Port Talbot steelworks, in the news as 4,000 people wait on tenterhooks to hear if their livelihoods will disappear. Swansea is an area already hard hit by disappearing traditional industries, on the sharp end of globalised trade. The referendum vote has already delayed and could wreck buyout bids to retain the steelworks, with 69% of Welsh steel exported to the EU. Projects like SPECIFIC serve a dual purpose, for research and as attempts to sow new seeds of industrial activity for clean technologies for the twenty first century. If and when the UK regains political leadership, it will be up to UK government to prove it can support these activities as well as the EU did, or risk watching top researchers and research, as on display at HOPV, move elsewhere.

Oli is Cohort '13 of the CSCT, studying towards his PhD on "Optimizing energy harvesting processes in metal halide photovoltaics" with Professor Mark Weller and Professor Chris Bowen.