Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Topic: Research updates

Three months of working at Departamento de Fisica-Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil

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📥  Internships & visits, Research updates

First year PhD student Serife Ustuner went on a three-month internship at University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil. We asked her how she got on.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a first year PhD student in the CSCT and I am based in Electrical & Electronic Engineering Department of University of Bath.  My research looks into development of Electrochemical Detection techniques for diagnosis of disease such as cancer.

First of all, what made you go all the way to Brazil for your internship?

Some good networking by the end of my MRes project! I met Marina Batistuti, who had been an exchange PhD student from University of São Paulo (USP) within my supervisor’s lab. I had no idea that there was such a huge electrochemistry community in Brazil. We never lost contact after she left, so I decided to go for a PhD project on electrochemical detection for disease diagnosis after finishing my MRes project. My supervisor, Dr Pedro Estrela has an ongoing partnership with University of Sao Paulo and he recommended me to consider this great opportunity. So one email, a couple of skype meetings and the plan was set to meet Marina and her supervisor in USP, Prof Marcelo Mulato. A couple of months after, I found myself on placement at USP in a beautiful forest land, within heart of Brazil!

Crossing a river with a buggy placed on a boat – Natal, Brazil

What made you pick an academic setting over an industrial one?

To be honest, it’s an offer that comes once in a lifetime, I just couldn’t miss out. The challenge was real! I had six-weeks of time frame and so many tasks to overcome;

  • Moving to a completely different country, where English still remains a massive barrier over communication with locals.
  • Adapting to a completely different research environment.
  • Finding ways of getting my project essentials delivered all the way to Brazil.
  • Being introduced to completely new instruments.
  • Having no time for exploring more about the instruments, but making them work for my own research.
  • I could feel the clock ticking in my head constantly, we had loads in mind that we wanted to try and experiment while I was there but the time limit was quite challenging.

It has been an educational experience, which I believe is completely different from doing solely an academic or industry based internship, especially talking in terms of adaptation and time management skills.

Tijuca Forest National Park – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tell us more about your work during this internship in Brazil?

I worked as a researcher within Sensors Lab, that was located in Physics Department of University of Sao Paulo. I was introduced to a mass sensitive detection platform, QCM-d (Quartz Crystal Microbalance with Dissipation). The device comes with additional and useful features compare to the traditional one we have here at University of Bath. The aim was working on a design that adopts the device for the detection of a pathogenic bacteria. Electrochemistry is an expanding research area in Brazil and I had the opportunity to attend one of the biggest electrochemistry conferences while I was there, 'XXI SIBEE – Simposio Brasileiro de Eletroquimica e Eletroanalitica'. I was amazed by the variety of research presented during this five day-long conference.

SIBEE Conference 2017- Natal, Brazil

Any interesting facts you would like to share about Brazil?

Couple I have in mind;

  • Their winter is pretty much like summer, even warmer than a British summer.
  • I have never been a big fan of fruits, but the variety and the freshness they had in Brazil made me fall in love with them. I still do miss that.
  • Locals loved calling me ‘Americana’. Although I tried explaining couple times that I am Cypriot and never actually been to America.
  • They are the warmest and the friendliest people ever.
  • Brazilian Barbecue – it’s a strong challenge.
  • PhD Vivas last for at least 6 hours in Brazil, where families/friends can enter and watch with snacks/popcorns. I have attended two, it's a very different/fun experience.

If you ever get such an opportunity to do a research internship in Brazil, I do recommend, with my all heart, not to miss it!

Sensors Lab Group - USP, Ribeirao Preto, Brazil


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.


Powering our world of the future: Sustainable transport fuels from microalgae

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📥  Events, Research updates

Final year student Jon Wagner was one of the five shortlisted finalists for The Ede and Ravenscroft Prize

The Ede and Ravenscroft Prize is an annual award for the best postgraduate research student awarded for the first time in 1991 and is generously funded by Ede and Ravenscroft, appointed robemakers to HM The Queen. 

Watch Jon's presentation on sustainable transport fuels from microalgae.


Jon is working on his PhD on "Novel materials for catalytic conversion of bio-oils" with Dr Valeska Ting, Professor Mark Weller and Dr Chris Chuck.


The Secret Life of a Computational Scientist in the Chemistry Department


📥  Research updates, Secret Life Blogs

In this first of our series of Secret Life Blogs, you will get an insight into the life of an anonymous Computational Scientist at the CSCT. 

computer-anonymousIn the depths of every chemistry department lies a lab unlike any other. No fume hoods, no questionable stains, a considerable lack of COSHH forms and any glassware contains a drinkable liquid. This lab belongs to the elusive computational chemists. Obviously, computational chemistry is rather different to the “traditional chemistry” we all dreamed of, but why do these strange individuals choose to live out their PhD lives staring at virtual atoms and molecules on their monitors? Here are some questions that you didn’t ask, answered anyway.

What do you actually do?
In a nutshell: Use powerful computers to (approximately) solve complex equations. The solutions to these equations shed light on the microscopic structure and origins of the macroscopic properties of chemical systems and materials. These days, computational chemistry is not so much a subsection of chemistry, but an exciting area where chemistry, quantum mechanics, physics, materials engineering, materials science and other disciplines all meet.

But I hate maths and physics, so I should avoid a computational project at all costs, right?
Well first things first, as scientists, there is no such thing as being bad at maths. Come on guys, let's just admit, we’re pretty decent at maths (clap yourself on the back). For computational modelling, it’s good to have an interest in maths as well as the “physics-y” end of the chemistry spectrum, for sure, but this should by no means is a deal breaker. Fortunately, there are a plethora of handy programs that can do all of the complicated mathematical legwork for you.

Computational chemistry 1

So you just put a couple of numbers in and press go!? Sounds like the dream!
Woah now, let’s nip this one in the bud. If there’s one thing we know about computers it’s that if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out (or in other words, Computer says no). This is as true for simple addition on a pocket calculator as it is for a density functional theory code run on a national High Performance Computer. With so many variables that can influence the outcome of some of these simulations, getting sensible and meaningful numbers out of your calculations often requires a lot of experimenting. It is not as simple as ticking some boxes, pressing go, watching alternate videos about dancing cats and how to make hummus until the calculation has run and then pressing “publish paper”.

Computational chemistry 2

Hang on, so do you have to know how all the programs work or not?
You don’t need to read and understand all the code that makes up all the programs that you use. That would just be… mental. You can think of the programs, which contain all the whizzy physics and maths, as a car that you are using to traverse the terrain that is the structure landscape of your model system or material: You don’t have to know exactly how every part of the engine works or how the whole thing is bolted together to have a fruitful drive. Having said that, you do need to know how to drive it, where the fuel goes, how to check the oil and any post-docs in your office would probably really appreciate it if you knew how to change a wheel on your own.

Be honest… were you just a liability in the lab?
I was absolutely marvellous in the lab, thanks for asking. But in my experience, sometimes working in a lab was not all is cracked up to be (gasps echo through the corridors of chemistry). Granted, there’s definitely something really cool and highly satisfying about lab work: You start with one set of things, and by coaxing the atoms to do what you want, you finish with something different. However labs can also be maddeningly frustrating places in which your precious compound spills, the solvents run out and the glassware breaks. Believe it or not, that same sense of satisfaction that tickles the geek bone can be achieved within the realms of computational chemistry (no lab coat and goggles necessary!). Being able to shed light on mysterious or unexplained experimental data or tackle questions that you simply could not approach experimentally is a good enough justification for me to undertake a computational project.

None of your chemicals are real though. You know that, right?
Yes, thanks for that. Hopefully no amount of project-induced stress will cause me to start believing otherwise. But enjoy carrying out risk assessments for all of yours.

What’s the point then?
Have you ever checked the weather forecast? I bet you have. Simulations can be really, really useful! Over the past decade or so, computers have become incredibly powerful, which means even more accurate simulations are possible- they even get the weather right most of the time now. It’s the same with computational chemistry: many real-life, experimentally measurable material and chemical properties can be predicted by various methods incredibly accurately. This has immense applications for designing new materials as it gives a good indication as to what to try synthesising and fabricating first. The key, as with any methodology, is to know the limitations of each and which should be applied to what.

What do you like most about computational chemistry?
There is something really cool about moving individual atoms and molecules about in a material and getting results out that show how that has affected tangible, macroscopic properties. It’s also a big bonus to gain extremely transferrable skills along the way, like learning a programming language or two. You’ll soon find yourself writing loads of little programs to make all sorts of tasks so much easier or less repetitive. Also, no washing up.

What are the snags?
In this line of work, often what you’re waiting for is the program to predict the lowest energy configuration of the system, which represents its most stable state or ground state. Sometimes this takes ages and quite often the systems just don’t converge at all and you need to rethink your approach and start all over again. You also don’t get to wear a lab coat..…well, not legitimately.

Would you recommend it to a friend?
My advice would be to absolutely give it a whirl or to seriously consider doing so. Dismiss any notions that you’re “not good at maths” or you’re “not good with computers” as the baseless lies that they are if that’s what’s stopping you and either way push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Yes, it probably will be quite a steep learning curve no matter what your background given the intrinsic interdisciplinary nature of the field, but since when was a steep learning curve a bad thing?

With that our anonymous computational chemist scurried back to their lab. So next time you bump into a computational chemist, don’t be afraid to stop and have a chat. They won’t speak in just 011101 and could have some great ideas how to add some computational chemistry to your work, and if not they’ll have a great hummus recipe for sure.

Fuel Cell Technology & Applications Conference, Naples, Italy.


📥  Research updates, Seminars & Conferences

CSCT student, Jon Chouler attended and gave a talk at the 6th European Fuel Cell Technology & Applications Piero Lunghi Conference (EFC), in Napoli, Italy. As well as being located in a beautiful city beside the Mediterranean Sea and the Vesuzio mountain, the conference focussed on a breadth of Fuel Cell research - such as hydrogen fuel cells, alternative fuel cells, and fuel cell modelling research, but his key interest was on a 2-day side event focussed on Microbial Fuel Cell technologies. Here is Jon's account on his trip:


Jon presenting his research at the conference.

My PhD research is based on the development of Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) to be used as a biosensor for monitoring water quality. I aim to develop miniature MFCs to be used to assess water quality in a simple, inexpensive, rapid and onsite way. In particular I am interested in the effect that toxic compounds, such as organic compounds and pesticides, have on the performance of these MFC sensors, and hence the suitability of this technology for detecting such compounds.

There was a range of topics discussed for MFC technologies at the conference, such as MFCs used for energy generation from wastewater, winery wastewater, solid waste and other novel sources. A series of interesting talks were delivered by the team from Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of West England, who primarily use human urine as a feedstock for their MFCs. Their work aims to develop MFCs to generate energy from urine for use in remote and developing regions, and therefore their technology needs to be cost-effective and simple to use. Seeing their approaches to this challenge, such as using cheap materials and effective stacking configurations, allowed me to reflect on my own work and discuss ideas with them afterwards. We even discussed opportunities to hold Public Engagement events together in the future to showcase MFC technology to schools in the west of England.

A fascinating talk I attended was given by Dr Abraham Núñez from IMDEA Water in Spain, who discussed his work around desalination MFCs - in particular the use of MFCs to treat wastewater for energy generation and for freshwater production. As part of his work he discussed the use of in-field, real-time MFC biosensors that his team was using to detect organic contaminant concentrations at a sewage treatment works. This was fascinating to see and discuss, especially because in-field tests of my MFC devices is something that I would like to accomplish in my PhD. Fortunately, I managed to discuss this research with Abraham Núñez afterwards and there is a promising potential for cross collaboration between our research groups.

Fortunately, and for the very first time, I had the opportunity to present my research in detail during an oral presentation that I gave to attendees of the MFC side event. Although rather nerve-racking, this gave me a great chance to showcase all the work I have been doing in my PhD and discuss it in detail with experts in the field - not only through questions afterwards but also in conversations throughout the conference. As a results of this and networking with others, I had an opportunity to assess my work critically and also develop new ideas with others which will inevitably be helpful throughout my PhD.

As a final note I would strongly recommend others doing their PhD to attend an international conference strongly focussed on their research, and if possible give an oral presentation. This experience provided me with an invaluable opportunity to network, develop and share ideas, and create new collaborations that will help me in the future.

Jon is in his third year of his degree in the CSCT and is working with Dr Mirella di Lorenzo, Dr Petra Cameron and Dr Barbara Kasprzyk-Horden. See more information about Jon's work.


Could hydrogen be the answer?


📥  Events, Prizes & awards, Research updates

Second year CSCT student, Jemma Rowlandson, writes about her research topic of materials for hydrogen storage. Jemma recently won the regional finals of the Institution of Engineering and Technology's Present Around the World Competition and won a prize of £300 and a place at the national finals.

One of the greatest challenges faced by our generation is global warming. As global temperatures continue to rise, this will lead to severe and potentially irreversible climate change. The big question is, how do we stop it?

team-hydrogen1Transport accounts for a quarter of domestic carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. Not only this, but vehicles produce particles which lower the air quality and can be harmful. This is why a lot of research in the CSCT and elsewhere focuses on replacing diesel and petrol cars. One potential technology we could use is hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the most lightweight and abundant element in the universe, and it could be the answer to a lot of our problems. Hydrogen is used as rocket fuel, and with good reason; it has a very high energy density, meaning you need to use a lot less of it in comparison to petrol or diesel. Not only this, but hydrogen has the amazing potential to be completely green. This is because you can make hydrogen by splitting water, use that hydrogen to power your car, and out of the exhaust comes only water!

Although this seems like a perfect solution, there are a couple of very big problems associated with hydrogen technology. One of the most critical is that hydrogen is a gas and so very difficult to store, because it takes up a lot space. To store 4 kg of hydrogen at room temperature and atmospheric pressure (enough to get you from Manchester to London) you would need to attach about 600 party balloons full of flammable hydrogen gas to your car. Not a great idea.

So what can we do instead? Well the best way at the moment is to compress the hydrogen into a gas cylinder, at either 350 or 700 times atmospheric pressure. This in turn comes with its own problems. For a start not everyone is entirely comfortable sitting above a highly pressurised flammable hydrogen gas cylinder. The other is that this is actually very expensive! You’ve not only got the energy cost of compressing the gas, but also the cost of the cylinder itself which has to be able to withstand a car crash. If we ever want to see mass market hydrogen cars we need to drop the price of this fuel tank.

There are many different approaches to hydrogen storage; the one focused on at Bath is to use a nanoporous material. There are lots of materials to choose from but they all work in pretty much the same way, using a process called adsorption. Now this is different to absorption, which is the process of taking something in (like a sponge absorbs water). Adsorption by contrast is when something sticks or ‘adsorbs’ onto a surface. For hydrogen storage this means the hydrogen gas molecules stick to the surface of the material, packing closely together and increasing your hydrogen storage capacity. If you put this material inside a gas cylinder you could store the same amount of hydrogen but at a lower pressure, making it both safer and cheaper.


Related Post:
Jemma Rowlandson wins the local round of the IET PATW


Research update: Responsive nanocapsules

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📥  Research updates

Responsive nanocapsules for detection and treatment of infection

Responsive nanocapsules for detection and treatment of infection

This research fits under the "pharmaceutical and wellbeing" theme in the CSCT.  In paediatric patients, the immune response to burn trauma is similar to that observed in infection, making infections in burns difficult to diagnose. Burns have the potential to kill the patient, through infection with a toxin producing strain of staphylococcus aureus resulting in toxic shock syndrome. Importantly, this outcome is unrelated to the size of the burn. To prevent scarring and promote healing, a ‘Biobrane’ silicone-collagen dressing must be left on for 12 days. Removal prior to this results in scarring for life. However, if infection is present the patient could die in less than 24 hours.

This project focuses on the development and stabilisation of responsive nanocapsules for detection and treatment of bacterial infections in paediatric burns. As shown in the image, a stable nanocapsule containing an antimicrobial and/or dye is attached to a scaffold;  in the presence of non-pathogenic ‘friendly’ bacteria the nanocapsule does not respond, however, in the presence of pathogenic ‘unfriendly’ bacteria the nanocapsule is broken open and the antimicrobial and/or dye is released.  This response will allow the released antimicrobial to attack the bacteria, and the dye signal the changes in the wound environment, allowing appropriate intervention, before infection takes hold.

Serena Marshall is in the first year of her PhD, studying "Responsive vesicles in an aqueous cream emulsion for dermatological applications". She is supervised by Dr Toby Jenkins in the Department of Chemistry.


Research update: Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors

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📥  Research updates

Biodiesel has the potential to be an environmentally sustainable alternative fuel source for diesel engines.  It is made by the transesterification of triglycerides, which are the main components in fats and oils.  Transesterification is a chemical reaction which, in the case of biodiesel, leads to the long fatty acid chain being removed from the glycerol backbone of a triglyceride (fat) molecule and being replaced by an alkyl group from a short chain alcohol, such as methanol, as shown in Figure 1.  This has historically been done with the aid of a dissolved or liquid catalyst, either an acid or a base.  Unfortunately, this leads to increased wastewater production, as the catalyst must be washed out of the fuel before being neutralised.  Additionally, the faster basic catalysts are extremely sensitive to both water and free fatty acids (FFA), resulting in the formation of soap from the latter.  If these catalysts can be replaced with a solid, water and FFA tolerant catalyst, the production of biodiesel can be made much cleaner and more economical.

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

My project is focused on developing a solid catalyst anchored on a support structure, which will allow the catalyst to be fixed inside a reactor while the oil and methanol are pumped through it. The main aims for the catalyst are that it:

  • Does not dissolve (leach) into the reaction mixture
  • Stays active for a prolonged period of time
  • Is tolerant of FFA and water

Previous work at the University had focused on a zinc-amino acid complex, but this was ultimately shown to leach. Thus, focus has shifted to catalysts that can be physically incorporated into a coating layer, such as a sol-gel. Currently, strontium oxide is being examined as a candidate, as it is a very effective catalyst when used as a powder.

About the author

Ben Firth is in the first year of his PhD, studying "Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors". He is supervised by Prof Stan Kolaczkowski in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Further reading

KNOTHE, G., VAN GERPEN, J. & KRAHL, J. 2005. The biodiesel handbook, Urbana, Ill., AOCS Press.