Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Topic: Comment

Speaking at RSC's 13th International Conference on Materials Chemistry

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📥  Comment, Research updates, Seminars & Conferences

From 10 - 13 July, the Arena and Convention Centre (ACC) Liverpool hosted the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 13th International Conference on Materials Chemistry (MC13). This conference happens every two years and always attracts hundreds of delegates from all over the world with diverse interests relating to materials chemistry.

After the long (and frankly dull) train journey from Bath to Liverpool, I made my way past the famous Albert Dock to the ACC and was immediately struck by its enormity. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the scale of this conference. My nervousness level went up a notch - I had given a talk to an international audience once before at the iPolymorphs conference in San Sebastian, but that was a much smaller meeting. The ACC was massive.

Fortunately, my anxiety was relieved for two reasons. Firstly, this year there were five parallel sessions to choose from and I would only be speaking in one of them, the Materials Design session, so would only be speaking to around a fifth of the 600+ delegates. Given that my PhD project involves developing new ways to computationally screen for new energy materials such as solar absorbers, this was the session of most interest to me and I spent most of my time there as well as in the Energy and Environment session. Secondly, as soon as the conference kicked off I was distracted by the excellent talks that were on offer.

Highlights included work by David Scanlon from UCL on searching for new solar absorbers using lessons learnt from the promising but currently highly unstable material methylammonium lead iodide (MAPI), and a plenary talk by Jeff Long from UC Berkeley on gas separation using metal organic frameworks, and that was just day one. Presentations at large conferences like this are a great way to quickly get up to date on the very latest advances in a research area, but also to get a broad overview of an unfamiliar topic, particularly in plenary talks that are given to the entire delegation.

I was speaking on day two and by the time my slot came around in the afternoon, I was more relaxed than I had expected. I think this was largely because the conference had quite a friendly feel to it. That is not to say that I had experiences of unfriendly conferences, but so far the questions and comments after each talk had been cordial and constructive, sparking excited discussion as opposed to awkward silence or heated debate. I expect I am not alone in my feeling that it is this final portion of a presentation that can be the most nerve-racking; you can be as prepared as you like but you can only guess as to what might be asked.

I was on straight after a keynote talk by David Mitzi from Duke University, who gave a superb overview of his work on searching for Earth-abundant solar absorbers. Top tip: If you are worried about starting a talk, have an ice-breaker ready to ease you and the audience in. My talk was entitled Low-cost High-throughput Screening of All Inorganic Materials; a bold and frankly ridiculous claim which was an ice-breaker in itself. It had the desired effect as the session chair commented that we probably wouldn’t have time for All inorganic materials in 15 minutes.

Top tip number two: There is a lot of information to be gleaned from the questions you are asked after a presentation, and they fall into three main camps:

  1. You get questions that you are not expecting because you thought you’d covered it in your talk or that it was obvious. This gives you an insight into what to explain more carefully or in more detail next time.
  2. You get questions that show an understanding of what you said as well as intrigue or curiosity, maybe asking you to expand on something that you’d mentioned (these questions are often prefaced with “Hi, nice talk…” or words to that effect). This is good - you kept (at least some of) your audience interested.
  3. You get no questions at all. You might have lost the audience somewhere early on or pitched the talk at the wrong level. Note: this logic does not apply if your session is immediately before lunch or a poster session involving refreshments.

Happily, most of the questions I received fell into the second category.

My talk was immediately followed by CSCT alumnus Adam Jackson who now has a post-doctoral position at UCL and gave a great talk on the computational design of a new transparent conducting oxide – another conference highlight for me. The chair closed the session by commenting how it was particularly nice to see some great talks from early-career researchers. It must be the rigorous CSCT training.

The conference concluded with a dinner at Anfield Stadium. Anyone who knows me will attest that I am not a huge fan of football (is it the one where millionaires shepherd a ball into an outside cupboard with their feet?) but it was a great venue nonetheless. A fantastic end to a fantastic conference. I’m looking forward to MC14 already.

Dan is currently working on his PhD project: 'High-throughput Computation of Materials and Interfaces’' with Professor Aron Walsh, Dr Duncan Allsopp and Dr Ben Morgan.


Developing the Next Generation of Solar Cells at Oxford PV

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📥  Case Studies, Comment, Internships & visits

Since January I’ve been working with scientists and engineers at Oxford Photovoltaics, a start-up company spun out from Oxford University research that aims to scale up and commercialise perovskite solar cells (so named for the crystal structure of the absorber material).


Perovskite cells have obtained similar efficiencies to established solar cell technologies like silicon, but are thinner, cheaper and easier to make. They can also be engineered to absorb a different part of the visible solar spectrum than silicon and so be integrated straight on top of silicon cells to make a tandem device that is more efficient than either component on its own.

Instability has been a major problem to solve for perovskite cells, but the research community has made rapid progress on designing more stable devices since they were first reported just a few years ago.

How did I identify this placement?

Basically by speaking to people! I met engineers from Oxford PV at a conference in Swansea and asked if they’d consider hosting a placement student. An interview and a few logistical matters later it was somehow already time to begin.

What were the key differences to working in an academic setting?

The pressures definitely feel different to academia. At University you want to explore research questions in depth and preferably be the first person to publish and tell the world about your science, while in industry everything is kept under wraps. You have to focus on quickly delivering the commercial aspects of the research, even if it means leaving interesting tangential questions unanswered, since the commercial competition is fierce.

What would I recommend for students thinking about an internship?

Absolutely go for one! Be careful that both you and the host organisation know what to expect, bring energy and enthusiasm to the role and it’s a real chance to learn a lot in a different environment, potentially outside your comfort zone. Three months is not a lot of time to execute a project in a new setting, so I had to quickly get up to speed with procedures and equipment. The result is that I’ve had a fantastic time, learnt a huge amount both scientifically and about how things are done in a start-up company and met many people working on making a promising new renewable energy technology into a commercial reality.

Oli is studying towards his PhD on 'Optimizing energy harvesting processes in metal halide photovoltaics' with Professor Mark Weller and Professor Chris Bowen.


7 Reasons to Experiment Abroad


📥  Comment, Internships & visits

My PhD focusses on improving materials for solar cells. One of the ways we can do this is by understanding more about their fundamental structure. So, in the last days of January I headed out to the Institute Laue-Langevin (or ILL) in Grenoble, where we can use neutrons to peer into the crystal structure of solar cell materials.

As it was my first trip to the ILL I spent my time observing and being trained on how to run the experiment. Although, reflecting on my trip afterwards, how to experiment with neutrons wasn’t the only thing I came away learning. Here are my 7 reasons to experiment abroad:

1) You get to work in places like this; The ILL (Institut Laue-Langevin) a world leading neutron scattering facility...


2) … and learn cutting edge experimental techniques first hand.


3) Your coffee breaks look like this.

4) When you set off a 30 hour scattering experiment you have time to go to places with a view like this (the Bastille in Grenoble)….


5) … and get American tourists to take pictures of you in front of mountains.


6) Not forgetting the chance for Instagram photos like this.


7) Then leaving after a week having had a crash course in a new experimental technique, a chance to practice another language and mountains of all important data.


Bethan is working on her PhD project: 'Structure, spectroscopy and photoelectrochemistry of photovoltaic materials' with Professor Mark Weller, Dr Daniel Wolversonand and Dr Laurie Peter.


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


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.