Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Posts By: Helena Quilter

Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference, Swansea, 2016

  , , , , , ,

📥  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.


Beyond the Lab: Developing your Industrial Biotechnology Career

  , ,

📥  Comment, Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Tristan Smith.

CSCT students Felix (Cohort 2015), Sonia (Cohort 14), Tristan (Cohort 13) and alumnus Anyela (Cohort 10) attended a two day training workshop run by the BBSRC NIBB Networks. It was an opportunity for current students, post-doc and early career researchers to learn about the jobs and careers that are available in Industrial Biotechnology (IB). But also, that many companies that use IB aren’t immediately obvious and there is a large drive to create connections with these unknown stakeholders and academia for future collaborations. Instead of reviewing all that was discussed over the two days, I will try and distil it down to a few key messages:

  • Industrial Biotechnology is one of the oldest technologies in human activity and as such has been applied in a wide range of fields from food production to the manufacture of explosives. The take home message of many talks was that IB is not an industrial sector but an enabling technology that is allowing the development of new sustainable technologies, and therefore when looking for careers as a biotechnologist you are unlikely to find yourself working for an enzyme production company (although those jobs exist), but as a member of a small team in a much larger setting helping to apply IB to their processes. Many of these companies do not advertise the fact that they use IB, and that connections made through networks like the NIBs, KTN-UK are vital to finding jobs.
  • Communication! A successful industrial biotechnologist needs to be a master linguist, able to speak the languages of engineering through to corporate finance. Even if your role is developing novel organism at a purely molecular biology lab, you might be the only such individual or part of a very small team in that company. Therefore, you will have to understand every stage of your product's scale-up at the engineering level. Engineers and technical staff will need to be able to understand your process so that it can be up-scaled and developed further. The sales team need to be able to understand and sell the benefits of your technology to the customer. The finance team need to understand the cost savings or profit potential of every material or piece of equipment before the company purchase it. Whilst an industrial biotechnologist must be key team player, all these challenges creates new opportunities for specialist process bioengineers, technical sales staff and other jobs that are improved by having a scientist in these roles.
  • Data! Data! Data! Modern DNA sequencing and computer technologies means that the creation of new data is occurring at an unmanageable rate, and that there is shortage of individuals with data driven research capabilities. Bioinformaticians or computational scientist, with the ability to process and use this every expanding pool of information are going to be more sought after in the future. The demand is so high that it has been fed back into the funding bodies who are now starting specific degrees, but that means anyone who has the skills now, before all these new training degrees bear fruit will be in high demand.

I hope that this was useful, I think we all left feeling much more hopeful about the range of potential jobs on offer outside of academia. One great aspect was a range of talks from companies ranging in the size from small start-ups such as Oxford Biotrans to large multinational corporations such as Croda, who all rely on IB but because of the size and scope of these companies, the working environments and cultures are as different between themselves as industry is to academia. The point being that if you want to work in industry there is likely an environment that will suit your skills and personality.

Tristan is in his third year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on 'Sustainable production of 2-phenylethanol from Metschnikowia pulcherrima' with Dr Daniel Henk and Dr Chris Chuck.

Durham Rietveld Refinement & Powder Diffraction School 2016

  , ,

📥  Internships & visits

This post was contributed by Oli Weber

This week I left the relatively safe confines of Bath behind to traverse the country diagonally up to Durham, a well-travelled route since Medieval times, when pilgrims would visit the shrine of St. Cuthbert hoping to find cures for gout, leprosy or demonic possession. My purpose was to attend the biennial powder diffraction school held at the University of Durham, along with scientists and engineers from all over the world.

Crystallography, the study of atomic structure using diffracted waves of X-rays, neutrons or electrons, underpins a vast amount of science and technology, including my own research into solar cell materials. Collection and analysis of the data can be far from straightforward, and we took part in a series of lectures, tutorials and computer workshops designed to help us grapple with problems from the routine to the diabolical.

The sights of Durham - somewhere in the fog there’s a cathedral.

The sights of Durham - somewhere in the fog there’s a cathedral.

The opportunity to travel to absorb new ideas and meet new people with shared research interests is without doubt one of the best parts of life in the CSCT. The evenings after the formal course were packed with social events centred on Grey College bar, or a treasure hunt around the city with crystallographically themed cryptic clues.

All in all, this was an excellent course for reinforcing theory and technical knowledge in structure refinement techniques. I’d like to thank the course organisers, particularly Professor John and Dr Ivana Evans, as well as the CSCT for funding my participation.

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




Presenting my research at the Organoboron Chemistry session at Pacifichem in Hawaii

  , ,

📥  Seminars & Conferences

This post is contributed by Emma Lampard.

In December I was lucky enough to travel to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu to present my work at Pacifichem 2015, a large international conference held in Honolulu every five years. Approximately 15,000 chemists attended the conference, including myself and fellow CSCT students Rob Chapman (read his blog), Bill Cunningham and Caroline Jones (read her blog). The technical program contained contributions from 71 countries, emphasizing the collaborative nature of chemistry as a multidisciplinary science. More than 17,000 papers were presented in either oral or poster formats, in 334 symposia focusing on 11 different topical areas of chemistry.

Presenting my work in the Organoboron Chemistry session

Presenting my work in the Organoboron Chemistry session

I presented my research in the Organoboron Chemistry: Applications in Organic Synthesis, Biology and Materials session. My research focuses on the synthesis and use of benzoxaboroles for membrane separation. Benzoxaboroles are compounds of increasing interest due to their diverse range of potential applications. My project focuses on the synthesis of benzoxaborole monomers, which can then be incorporated into polymer membrane systems. Benzoxaboroles have been shown to have high affinity for both diols and fluoride, so the polymers produced will be screened for their ability to selectively extract catechol natural products from aqueous extracts of waste grape biomass and also their ability to remove fluoride from water.

My project aims to alleviate the adverse environmental impact of the wine industry by providing new routes to convert the waste biomass into economically viable chemical product streams and provide a cheap and simple method for the detection and removal of fluoride from drinking water. It was a fantastic experience to give an oral presentation of my work in front of many world-class researchers working in the field of organoboron chemistry. Although I was one of only very few students to present as a part of this session, my talk was very well received. I gained a lot from the experience and will definitely feel a lot more confident delivering presentations in the future.

Other talks of interest in my session included a presentation by Dennis Hall on boronic acid catalysis for the direct activation of alcohols in Friedel-Crafts alkylations using a new ferrocenium boronic acid salt catalyst, yielding only water as a byproduct and avoiding the use of other activating groups, making the reactions much greener compared to traditional methods. Also of note was Michinori Suginome who spoke about masked boronyl groups as directing groups for transition metal-catalyzed C-H functionalization.

Whilst in Hawaii we managed to spend a few days exploring the island on either side of the conference. Highlights included a hike up the Diamond Head crater, a visit to Pearl Harbour and snorkelling with Hawaiian green sea turtles. I am very grateful to the conference organisers for accepting me to present my work and for the funding from the CSCT and the RSC Organic Division Travel Grant Scheme which allowed me to attend this conference.

Sunset over Waikiki Beach

Sunset over Waikiki Beach

Emma is working towards her PhD on "Benzoxaboroles for Membrane Separation" with Professor Tony James, Dr Darrell Patterson and Dr Steven Bull.


Trip to Russia: 7th European Congress on Catalysis

  , ,

📥  Seminars & Conferences

This post is contributed by Tamsin Bell who has now moved to continue her PhD at the University of Cambridge.

At the end of August 2015, I attended the 7th European congress on catalysis, Europacat in Kazan, Russia. The conference started with a very formal opening ceremony and two plenary lectures and concluded with a welcome reception where I was able to catch up with a collaborator from the University of Glasgow.

The session I spoke in was “Energy-related catalysis” but I also attended many interesting talks in the other four sections. The research I presented makes use of cobalt as a sustainable alternative to more expensive metals to catalyse ammonia decomposition for in situ production of hydrogen for use in a fuel cell. On the final day of the conference I gave my presentation in a 600 seater ball room. It was an amazing (and slightly terrifying) experience talking about my research to such a large and knowledgeable audience.

Tour of Kazan and Tami in St Petersburg

Tour of Kazan and Tami in St Petersburg

One evening there was an excursion to visit the historical, 1000 year old city of Kazan, which notably included a visit to the impressive Kazan Kremlin. The word Kremlin means "fortress" and there are only four remaining in Russia. At the end of the week, there was a conference banquet with performances from local Russian dancers and we were able to try some Russian vodka, after which many of the academics and delegates were also showing off their dancing skills.

I had a fantastic week in Russia, I met lots of interesting people, I learnt how to say thank you in Russian, Спасибо, which is pronounced "spa-see-ba", I bought a Russian fur hat and I got lots of ideas for my research. I was even lucky enough to visit the beautiful cities of Moscow and St Petersburg on the way back home.

Sightseeing in Moscow

Sightseeing in Moscow

I am very grateful to the conference organisers for accepting me to present my work and for the travel funding I received from the Royal Society of Chemistry, Santander and the Armours & Brasiers.


Beer and Batteries in Bremen: 11th ECHEMS Meeting


📥  Seminars & Conferences

Second year student Emma Sackville recently attended the 11th ECHEMS meeting in Bad Zwischenahn, near Bremen. Here's how she got on:

What does a statue of a chicken-on-a-cat-on-a-dog-on-a-donkey have in common with electrochemistry? Admittedly not much, but I was able to experience both of them when I visited Bremen in mid-June for the 11th EChems meeting. As the conference was on a Monday I made the most of the weekend to explore the town. A beautiful little city in North West Germany, with a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site for a town centre, Bremen was hosting a festival called ‘La Strada’ during my stay. Inexplicably this included people driving round the town square on spikey quad bikes and dancing with suitcases. Whilst I still can’t tell you what the festival was for/about it did lend a certain party atmosphere to the town; who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?!

From left to right: One of the performers at the La Strada festival riding his quad bike, The famous statue of the Town Musicians in Bremen, Dancing with Suitcases!

From left to right: one of the performers at the La Strada festival riding his quad bike, the famous statue of the Town Musicians in Bremen, dancing with Suitcases!

After a very enjoyable weekend soaking up the German atmosphere, I made the short train journey over to Bad Zwischenahn where the conference was being held.

First started in 2006, the EChems Meeting is held annually to bring together researchers working in electrochemistry and its application to topical scientific problems. The theme for this year was molecular electrochemistry for application in renewable energy; an area which was of direct relevance to my own PhD research looking at molecular electrocatalysts for energy conversion. We enjoyed excellent talks in a wide range of areas, from batteries to biofuel cells and everything in between. Amongst many excellent presentations, Tsukasa Yoshida gave a particularly memorable talk about solar cells where he compared them to artificial intelligence robots that could have children and grandchildren; I’ll never think of them in the same way…!

All the conference attendees in front of the Bad Zwischenahn Lake, Plenary speaker Francesco Paolucci. Photo credits to the EChems team

All the conference attendees in front of the Bad Zwischenahn Lake, Plenary speaker Francesco Paolucci. Photo credits to the EChems team

On the last day I caught up with one of the plenary speakers, Professor Francesco Paolucci, from the University of Bologna. Given my own work in water oxidation catalysts I particularly enjoyed his talk about nano-composites for use in the Artificial Leaf, and I chatted to him about his beer preferences and what he thinks the challenges are for electrochemistry.

What did you enjoy most about the conference?

Not the weather! No seriously it was very well organised and there were lots of speakers from areas that were very different to mine. I particularly enjoyed hearing from speakers related to applications and engineering as I don’t often hear about that area so it made for a very varied programme. In general I think one of the main points of the EChems meeting is to push research in the area of molecular electrochemistry; an area which seemed to be disappearing. This is really bad because the new generation just don’t know what has been done 30-40 years ago and so you are losing some of the know-how about procedures, protocols and theoretical interpretation of data. I think this is one of the things that the EChems meetings have been so successful with over the years.

What do you think the most important challenge for electrochemistry is?

Exactly what we’ve been talking about this week; for me energy related work is the most important challenge. So managing to split water and reduce CO2 is something that should be the main focus for most of the financial schemes in the next 10 years. In fact this is what’s starting to happen. On national levels we have projects that have been funded by the national government on CO2 reduction and water splitting – they’re big, important projects and I hope they continue.

And lastly, German or Italian beer?!

(laughs) What do you think?! If it were wine it’d be different but it’s got to be German beer!

Despite not being an electrochemist by training I really enjoyed the conference. I feel that it has broadened my knowledge of areas where electrochemistry is important, and for me really highlighted its relevance and application. I would like to thank the RSC again for its generous support for my attendance.

Emma's is working towards her PhD on "Molecularly defined electro-catalysts for energy conversion and biomass valorisation" with Uli Hintermair and Frank Marken.