Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Posts By: Rob Hicks

European Materials Research Society Spring Meeting - Two years on!

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Suzy Wallace.


 

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the European Materials Research Society (E-MRS) Spring Meeting twice now during my PhD. The first time I presented at this meeting was during my first year (after completing our first MRes project) and the second time was between May 22 and 26 this year, which is the third year of my PhD. So, what’s changed between now and then besides the orientation of the sign?

Well it turns out that quite a lot has happened in my field of solar cell research, in terms of the understanding of solar cell materials I was already familiar with (and their current shortcomings preventing them from being on top of all our roofs already!) and new materials altogether that are emerging as contenders for new, efficient solar cell technologies. There was even a talk on using atomicly thin solar cells in outer space, beaming the electricity back to Earth via microwaves, which overcomes the issue of storing energy generated from sunlight when it’s dark on Earth. I assume the devices would be thin enough to be semi-transparent since I personally would feel a bit grumpy being in the shade for weeks or months if I lived directly below! The big plenary session in the middle of the conference highlighted various hot topics in the broader field of materials research including developing sensors for ‘electronic noses’ and thin layers of materials that are so sensitive to changes in humidity that they could potentially be used for ‘touchless’ as opposed to ‘touchscreen’ phones due to the humidity in our fingers. Some of the research into electronic noses is inspired by this guy below and his massive antennae:

 

So clearly the science has changed in two years, which isn’t altogether surprising given how rapidly changing a field science is in general; but what else has changed? The venue was different this year, with the conference being held in Strasbourg from now on (as opposed to Lille). Strasbourg was a lovely city, I’d go so far as to say unnecessarily pretty, it was showing off really. It’s also a nice city for a conference since it was pretty small so you could easily see most of it in a short space of time. The conference social was quite like the one in Lille, although this time the dancing also involved a giant horn, presumably this is something associated with Strasbourg but not Lille, unless it’s just another recent trend, like electronic noses?

 

Then I suppose the last thing to comment on that has changed between EMRS 2015 and 2017 is myself! I’m not shorter (despite appearances in the two photos with the EMRS signs), but I found the experience of the conference different this time around. Firstly, I felt less nervous presenting this time, as 2015 was the first time I’d presented at a conference. EMRS 2015 had been my favourite conference so far in terms of the scientific content and 2017 did not disappoint. However, I think what I gained from attending the various talks was different this time around. I found that a lot more of the concepts were more familiar, but the main difference I noticed (as someone whose research is based on a computer with simulations as opposed to in a lab), was that I felt a lot more familiar with presentations on various experimental studies this time around. I largely attribute this to the ‘wild card’ second MRes project you get to do during your first year (which I hadn’t done before I attended the EMRS in 2015), where I got to get some hands-on experimental experience and very much benefited from working with fellow CDT solar cell researchers Oli Weber, Mako Ng as well as Professors Mark Weller and Chris Bowen at the University of Bath. So, overall, I’d have to say attending the EMRS Spring Meeting again has left me feeling very grateful for the diverse experience I got during the first year of my PhD. At the time, I must admit I felt like a bit of a fish out of water in the labs, but I’m very glad for that experience now!


Suzy is working towards her PhD on 'Overcoming the efficiency bottleneck of metal sulfide solar cells' with Professor Aron Walsh, Professor Chris Bowen and Professor Mark Weller.

 

Brazilian Diaries: Visit to University of Campinas

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📥  Internships & visits

The following blog is contributed by Jamie Courtenay of the '14 Cohort. 


Today marks the start of the last week of my two month visit to Brazil. I head out early in the morning to the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), where I have been staying for the majority of my time here. I know I have to write my blog today so I only have the short 10 minute walk to construct a whimsical story for you all to enjoy. I arrive at UNICAMP just as it is beginning to wake up; there is reassuring stillness about the place, students beginning to arrive and start their day. I walk across the green campus to a small café near the Chemistry Department. The sun is already high in the sky but hasn’t reached its full power yet, so the temperature is very pleasant.

“Café por favor” I say to the café owner, one of the few Portuguese phrases I have tried to learn, and eagerly await enjoying my cup of strong Brazilian coffee to help wake myself up (it’s really good, I’m actually a bit concerned I might not make it through customs with the amount of coffee beans I’ve got in my suitcase). I take a long draw on the crema of my coffee, and with the hubbub of the Uni growing start to reflect on my time here in Brazil (if you’re still with me this far you’re doing well).

Two months earlier I set off from the UK to start my placement in Brazil as part of the Global Innovation Initiative (GII) collaboration. This transatlantic collaboration brings together Ohio State University (USA), the University of Sao Paulo and UNICAMP (Brazil) and University of Bath (UK). The purpose of my placement was threefold: to take part in the 3rd GII workshop, to spend some time with Professor Munir Skaf at UNICAMP learning how to use computational modelling techniques and to use facilities at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LNNano).

Jamie + Coco

Arriving at Maresias for our workshop after a long journey, time for coconut based refreshment

To kick things off was the 3rd GII workshop which took place in the picturesque beach town of Maresias. Here I was also joined by some fellow PhD students and academics from the CSCT at Bath. The aim of this workshop was for students and academics to present their current research within the project and discuss the future of the collaboration which included planning potential follow-on grants. On the first day of the workshop I presented my research on “modified cellulose scaffolds for tissue engineering” to the attendees. This was a new experience for me as I hadn’t presented my research or given a talk outside the University of Bath before, let alone to such prominent academics in the audience. I felt very nervous; my palms were sweaty, knees weak and arms were heavy, could this feeling be the ill effects of yesterday’s squid spaghetti? However, my nerves were settled and I felt calm and ready when it soon became evident that everyone was really engaged with each other’s research. This created a really nice and friendly atmosphere to work in. It was a great experience working with and getting to know academics and students from across the pond. I particularly enjoyed taking part in the grant planning sessions; I found these an interesting insight into the world of academia.

Jamie + presentation

Presenting my research at the GII workshop and a group photo

After the week’s workshop, Marcus Johns and I ventured off for the weekend to the nearby island of Ilhebela – literally meaning a “Beautiful island”. Lured by the prospect of sunning ourselves on golden sand we set off to find the famous Bonete beach. However, standing between us was a “challenging” 10 mile trek through dense tropical jungle with only an overgrown dirt path to guide us.

Jamie + Walk

At the beginning of our journey through the jungle of Ilhabela, before the rain came

Now of course hindsight is a wonderful thing… but setting off on a 6 hour walk at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with only one head torch between you and no map is probably not the best idea (I dread to think what my old scout leader would think of me). Within the hour the heavens had opened releasing a torrent of blood warm rain from the skies and the light was fading fast – this was clearly going to be one of those experiences “good for the character”. Despite slipping over numerous numbers of times and managing to cross rickety rope bridges over rivers and the odd waterfall we finally made it to the beach. By this time, it was completely dark apart from fireflies luminescing in the trees.  We would have to wait until morning for its true identify to reveal itself to us.

Jamie + beach

Waking up to the beautiful view of Bonete beach

Morning came and the sun shone high and the view was truly fantastic. Luckily, Marcus brought his camera with him so we could capture what we saw. Emerging from the dense green jungle forest we could see the pristine golden sands of Bonete beach before us. Not bad, I thought to myself, not bad at all. However, before long it soon become apparent we were not the only ones enjoying breakfast on the beach. “Borrachudos”, which I think translates as nasty little bloodsuckers had also woken up from the sands and were going to town on our legs. One better versed in Borrachudos-ian would probably have heard them roar “looks like meat’s back on the menu boys!” in anticipation upon sighting our exposed legs. Fortunately for us this was the one thing we were prepared for and armed with enough DEET to drop a cave troll we were able to enjoy our short stay in paradise in relative peace.

For the second part of my placement I was based at UNICAMP in Professor Munir Skaf’s research group. Here I was to learn how to use computational modelling to help understand certain interesting properties of cellulose structures, such as how water molecules interact with the cellulose surface. Cellulose is a natural polymer derived from plant biomass and I am currently developing new tissue scaffold materials from it to use in biomedical engineering. To do this I chemically modify the cellulose surface in order to promote the attachment of cells onto it. As an experimental chemist, using computational modelling was a new technique for me to learn. Munir and his group were very welcoming and helpful in guiding me through the work. Despite in no way being able to call myself an expert it was still very insightful to see the potential this different approach could offer my research.

The final part of my stay was at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LNNano). Here I was to characterise my cellulose scaffolds using their electric force microscopy and x-ray tomography instruments. Again, these were two new techniques for me to learn but I really enjoyed getting to grips with them. This was a great facility and I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to use it. The instrument scientists I worked with were always more than happy to discuss my findings and help me answer some key questions in my PhD.

Jamie + instruments

Using electric force microscopy to characterise cellulose films at LNNano

I take the last sip of my coffee, my time in Brazil is ending. I have truly enjoyed my stay in this wonderful country and would like to thank the GII grant and EPSRC for giving me the opportunity to do so. If an opportunity like this arises in the future for anyone I would strongly recommend seizing it. I now look forward to seeing my family and friends back in the UK and enjoying a nice cup of English tea.


Jamie is currently working on his PhD project: 'Decorated cellulose surfaces – opportunities for novel, sustainable ingredients for formulated products and tissue engineering scaffolds' with Dr Janet Scott, Professor Karen Edler and Dr Ram Sharma.

Teaching and learning experience at Yonsei University

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📥  Internships & visits

The following blog is contributed by Dan Davies of the '14 cohort.


At Easter time this year, in order to finally break out of the annual habit of stuffing my face with inadvisably large quantities of chocolate, I travelled to Seoul in Korea where Easter is altogether less of a big deal. I was kept on the straight and narrow as far as this goal was concerned by my supervisor, Aron, and a PDRA from the group, Jonathan, who also came along. As well as this purpose, there was of course other academic motivation for the trip.

Firstly, Aron was giving an intensive 12-lecture series to Masters students on materials for solar energy at Yonsei University and Jonathan and I delivered a lecture and practical workshop each on using the programming language Python as part of this course. I have always had a great deal of respect for lecturers and educators in general, but this respect increased enormously after going through the time-intensive and energy-zapping process of preparing and delivering just one (albeit quite long) lecture and one workshop. It was certainly a really valuable exercise for me from a skills perspective and I was really pleased with how it went. I think this was helped to some extent by how motivated and diligent the students were though- outstanding attitudes to learning all round!

Dan + Class

Class photo at Yonsei University

Secondly, a small workshop had been organised by Professor Seungwu Han at Seoul National University (SNU) on Electronic Structure of Materials. This was a fantastic opportunity for the three of us to present some of our work in a fairly relaxed setting. Having said that, it is slightly daunting when the person speaking after you is an associate dean at Korea’s largest public university. SNU is a seriously large university too- with over 200 buildings, if you get the bus there and get off at the wrong stop, you could be in for a trek across the mountain that would put you in mind of the final scenes of the film ‘Touching the Void’.

Dan + Workshop

Workshop on electronic structure of materials: L-R: Minseok Choi (Inha University), Seungwu Han (SNU), Jaejun Yu (SNU), Aron Walsh, Jonathan Skelton, Dan Davies

Lastly, my international supervisor is Professor Aloysius Soon from Yonsei University so I was also able to meet him in person and fill him in on what I’d been up to so far as well as have some exciting discussions about the direction of my project. The only evidence I have for this last meeting is a photo of Aolysius, some of his group members and I, eating some incredible pizza. This is a remarkably unflattering photo, so instead I’ll leave you with a picture of a lovely fountain-mountain combo on the Yonsei University campus.

Yonsei

 

As well as the above activities, we were able to explore many of the other delights that Seoul had to offer, including an excellent café culture with the best coffee I have ever tasted; some of the most unusual but delicious food I have ever come across; what must be the cheapest, most efficient and easy to use subway system on the planet and truly flabbergasting views of the city from the top of Namsan tower. Seoul, I will be back!


Dan is currently working on his PhD project: 'Interface engineering for indium-free transparent electronics' with Professor Aron Walsh, Dr Duncan Allsopp and Dr Ben Morgan.

 

IUMRS-ICAM 2015 - Culture, Climbing and Conferences.

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is contributed by Suzy Wallace from the 2014 Cohort.


On the 26th of October I presented my research on the potential earth abundant and non-toxic solar cell absorber material CZTS (Cu2ZnSnS4) at the IUMRS-ICAM 2015 conference for materials research on Jeju Island in South Korea. We attended three days of the conference where research was focused on a wide variety of different advanced, nanostructured and novel materials for various applications.

Wearable thermoelectric devices seemed to be quite a popular topic! A thermoelectric material is able to use a temperature difference to generate electricity, so the idea would be to use your own body heat to, for example, charge your phone! Research therefore was focused not only on making the devices more efficient and cheap but also to be flexible and durable. Conveniently, Jeju also happens to be a tourist hot-spot at the southernmost part of South Korea and a great place for hiking! So I managed to squeeze in a quick half day of hiking up Hallasan Mountain on our last day on the Island before we headed back to the mainland to visit universities in the capital city, Seoul.

Suzy1

 

What a city Seoul is! I could write a whole blog just on Seoul alone but I’ll try to refrain.

Whilst in Seoul we visited two research groups, that of Professor Aloysius Soon at Yonsei University and that of Professor William Jo at Ewha Women’s University. Professor Soon’s group are focusing on computational research on nanomaterials and Professor Jo’s group synthesise and characterise the solar cell materials that we model computationally in my research group. Both groups made us feel incredibly welcome and all the discussions provided lots of opportunities to ask questions both about the Science and Korean history and culture. I particularly liked when one of Professor Soon’s students (John) was explaining to me how to pronounce bibimbap (a very tasty Korean rice dish that can be served in a hot or cold pot bowl with all sorts of additions such as egg, vegetables, meat, seafood, kimchi and hot sauce), he told me to say the middle syllable as ‘bim like electron beam’.

I also thought that Professor Soon’s description of Seoul summed it up pretty well  – convenient. There’s so much to see and do and everything is easy to get to using the subway, the food was great and you could get food pretty much anywhere and anytime. The people were really friendly and there was a really interesting fusion of old and new with remainders of the old city walls (referred to as the gates) dotted around the city next to big sky scrapers (the Dongdaemun gate is shown in a photo below).

Another great aspect of Seoul for me was the close proximity of yet more mountains! So I was able to go to Bukhansan National Park for rock climbing at the weekend… and as it was Halloween some fancy dress was also involved. When I was out-and-about climbing and sightseeing at the weekend, I spoke to quite a few different people and was struck by just how interested people are in scientific research, especially when it relates to the environment. I chatted to some American tourists while I was looking for a particular tourist attraction in Seoul (Namsan Tower), and it turned out that they were members of an environmental organisation back in the states. Then, when I was out with the climbers and the topic of ‘what do you do’ came up in conversation, we got to have some really interesting discussions on the way up to our climbing route (and also whilst drinking some Korean beer and soju after!). I even heard about a new energy technology for the first time from a couple of the climbers – supercapacitors – so I scurried off to google them to learn more the next day!

So I’d say you learn a lot from listening to talks at conferences and engaging in discussions there as well as during university visits, but there’s also no need to limit yourself to only talking about Science there! Even during the 12 hour flight back from Seoul I had an interesting conversation whilst queuing for the loo with someone from IBM on how Watson (the question answering computer system designed to answer questions posed in natural language) could be really useful for helping scientists to keep up to date on rapidly developing areas of research (perovskite solar cells sprung to my mind immediately!).

It’s surprising just how many people are interested in scientific research and how much you can learn in rather unusual settings!

Suzy2

Suzy is working towards her PhD on 'Overcoming the efficiency bottleneck of metal sulfide solar cells' with Professor Aron Walsh, Professor Chris Bowen and Professor Mark Weller

Small Molecule NMR – a SMASHing time

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

The following blog comes from Andrew Hall, who between the 20th-24th September, attended the Small Molecule NMR Conference within the beautiful setting of Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.


SMASH NMR is not something you do when your Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer is playing up and you’ve had enough, but is in fact the international NMR conference dedicated to the study of small molecules. This year one of the underlying themes was the use of NMR for reaction monitoring to enable the study of how chemicals change during the course of a reaction.

As my first international conference, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, particularly since this is a field that I am relatively new to. I quickly realised that the field of NMR spectroscopy extends far beyond the conventional image of the synthetic chemist scraping their meagre offering of prized compound into a glass tube and carefully dissolving in deuterated solvent that I was used to from previous encounters with NMR.

Talks at the conference ranged from highly sophisticated, multi-dimensional studies of complex mixtures of chemicals, performed using very large magnetic fields, all the way down to cutting edge, lab-on-a-chip NMR technologies. I found these new developments in miniaturisation particularly interesting, with the potential to shrink machines the size of a room down to an instrument that can fit onto a lab bench, or even be inserted into chemical reactors or oil wells to carry out in situ analysis.

Andy + poster

Andy in situ with his poster.

With reaction monitoring as one of the key themes in the conference, as well as a focus of my own research, it was very interesting to see how different groups had approached the problem of studying samples which are continually changing. In particular I found it very interesting to hear about how different methods could be combined to give information that is not possible using any one technique alone.

Aside from the structured talks and workshops, I found that I learnt a lot simply by talking to other attendees at the conference, both at the poster sessions and informally during breaks. In particular I found it very interesting to talk to some of the other students present at the conference, and to discuss how the field is developing with the shrinking size of instruments and the introduction of new methods for reaction monitoring.

Overall I enjoyed the conference greatly and feel I learnt a lot - it has given me lots of ideas for new techniques to try in my research. I was also able to make lots of useful contacts and had many interesting discussions with other attendees - in many ways these conversations were at least as important to in furthering my understanding of the subject as the talks themselves.

And the venue? The banks of the beautiful Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy; because NMR spectroscopy is all about the relaxation!

Lake

The beautiful Lake Maggiore.

Andrew is working towards his PhD on "Biogenic Alcohols and Sugars as Sustainable Reductants: A Combined Spectroscopic and Theoretical Approach to the Development of New Homogeneous Catalysts for Dehydrogenation, Hydrogen Transfer and Reverse Water-Gas-Shift Chemistry" with Dr Ulrich Hintermair, Dr Antoine Buchard and Dr John Lowe.

 

Renewable Resources and Biorefineries Conference

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📥  Prizes & awards, Seminars & Conferences

On 3–5 June, CSCT student Sonia Raikova attended the 11th annual conference on Renewable Resources and Biorefineries which was held in the beautiful city of York. Out of 112 participants at the conference, Sonia won the prize for the best poster! The conference was attended by delegates from academia, government and industry, as well as fellow representatives of the CSCT:  Joe Donnelly, Reggie Wirrawan and Dr. Chris Chuck

Over the course of three days, I was able to attend two excellent plenary talks, two keynote lectures, two poster tours, and frantically run around between three parallel sessions to sample as many of the 79 presentations and 17 invited lectures as I could! The talks covered a wide range of topics, from the chemical principles behind the synthesis of useful products from renewable and biological sources to economic assessments of biorefineries and the importance of policy to encourage R&D and commercialisation of renewable feedstocks and technologies, tied together by the idea of moving to an entirely “bio-based economy”. After a first day jam-packed with great talks, we were rewarded for our hard grift by a very ‘Horrible Histories’-esque walking tour of York (with constant reference to the lack of sanitation back in the olden days) and a drinks reception in the gorgeous Guildhall.

The second day was the highlight for me, kicked off by an interesting insight into the process of starting a renewable materials business from Preben Krabben of Green Biologics, followed by sessions on nutrient recovery from pleasant things like swine manure and aeroplane bathroom waste. Great scientific ideas are nothing without an awareness of the economics and politics that can enable them to actually be implemented, so it was fascinating to attend the final session of lectures discussing the importance of policy and standards in the drive towards a bio-based economy. Regular caffeine breaks were also a great opportunity to chat to academics and students from around the world. After the Thursday sessions, we were treated to an absolutely magical dinner surrounded by beautiful steam engines at York’s National Railway Museum – an evening made even more memorable by the shocking revelation that, out of 112 participants, I’d won the prize for the best poster!

Sonia avec poster

Sonia and her winning entry.

Conveniently for me, on the final day there was an entire session on microalgal technology, which I have spent my first MRes project working on, as well as Chris Chuck’s a fantastic lecture on a biorefinery based around oleaginous yeasts. I’ve come out at the end of the three days absolutely exhausted but overall, my first experience attending an international conference has been overwhelmingly positive, and finding out about all the great, proactive work being carried out to try and create a sustainable bio-based economy has left me feeling incredibly hopeful for the future.

Sonia is in her first year of the CSCT, working on her second MRes project titled "Sustainable synthesis of high surface-area, highly porous materials using gas-expanded liquids and supercritical fluids" with Dr Asel Sartbaeva and Ulrich Hintermair.

 

Life Cycle Approaches for Understanding Carbon Dioxide Utilisation

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

On the 4th of March, first year CSCT student Michael Joyes attended the UKCCSRC and CO2Chem organised workshop on Integrated Life Cycle Approaches for Understanding Carbon Dioxide Utilisation and Sequestration Pathways at the University of Sheffield.

ukccs

Despite the long and wordy title the event was actually quite short, lasting from 10 am till 4 pm and I attended hoping to learn more about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Carbon Dioxide Utilisation and the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the aforementioned processes.

The presentations were a short 15 minutes, giving a brief explanation of the problems surrounding these issues and where a consensus from the community is needed. A personal favourite of mine was a talk by Professor Peter Styring from the University of Sheffield entitled ‘Carbon Dioxide Utilisation: Myths and Magic.’ This talk focused on debunking some of the common misconceptions about CCS and Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. For example, some people proclaim that CO2 is unreactive, this was quickly shown to be untrue with a video of some room temperature CO2 reactions. Another part of the presentation demonstrated the difficulties of drawing the boundaries needed for a LCA of CCS. Do we draw the end boundary after the storage of CO2 in geological formations? Or take into account that some of the CO2 may leak in time?

After the talks had finished there was a workshop, where we focused on the bottlenecks associated with Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. It was interesting to hear about the interaction with policy makers, i.e. politicians and civil servants, and how important it is to make the government aware of the evidence related to the science in a clear and concise way.

I had a great day in Sheffield, despite the 5:30am start, and really enjoyed seeing how scientists come together to discuss issues and it has given me a greater appreciation for how an idea is taken from inception to the lab, to a pilot plant and then potentially forming government policy.

Mike is in cohort '14 of the CSCT and is currently working on his first MRes project with Dr Davide Mattia (Chemical Engineering) and Dr Matthew Jones (Chemistry).