Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

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.

 

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).

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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.

 

Voice of the Future 2017: A day out in Parliament

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📥  Events

On the 15th of March, I headed to Parliament for an event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, called “Voice of the Future”. This event allows for the tables to be turned on MPs and select committees, with young scientists and researchers asking the questions that matter to them.

It was held in Portcullis house, the sci-fi looking building next to Big Ben, which acts as another wing of parliament. The building has an air of chaos surrounding it, with people running around and screens in every room with constant updates from the House of Commons. We required pretty heavy security to enter, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos or go into the café area (I think MPs are all a bit jumpy about unflattering-career-ending photos).

I was representing the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), and successfully applied with this question:

“In the 2015 manifestos, water quality received significantly less attention than other key environmental issues, despite increasing evidence of water's key role in antibiotic resistance, climate change and wildlife damage. Why is water quality so overlooked? And how can this be changed?”

However, when I arrived I found out they had completely changed a lot of our questions, so my question about why water quality isn’t on the agenda was taken off the agenda…  My question was changed to “With less than 15% of MPs with backgrounds in STEM, how should the government ensure that policy-making remains firmly based on evidence?” (A question I was hesitant over, as it implied that only scientists can understand evidence. As scientists and experts, we have a responsibility to effectively communicate our message to the wider audience).

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Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee replied:

“I don’t think that there has to be a direct link between having a science background and being able to base your decision-making process upon evidence. If you believe in evidence you all have to stand up for it.” He went on to state that there are times when government takes a different path and doesn’t follow the evidence, due to other considerations. However, this should never be because the evidence doesn’t suit a particular agenda and evidence should remain at the heart of everything government does.

Dr Tania Mathias MP added:

“We do have some engineers in Parliament and I’m sure we could always do with some more. The fact is evidence is scrutinised ever day in Parliamentary debates. You will get pulled up if your argument and your evidence isn’t strong.”

Tania went on to explain that the UK parliament is the only one in the world with opposing benches. She stated that this means you will be heavily scrutinised, and will be pulled up if your evidence or argument isn’t strong enough (reminds you of a viva, no?).

The MPs never missed an opportunity to take a dig at the other parties' policy, leaders, handling of EU, handling of Trump but of course, the session was dominated (like the rest of British culture) by the ever looming Brexit (first mention of “Brexit means Brexit” recorded at a mere 22 minutes). Jo Johnson MP (of the same relation and the same blonde floppy hair) seemed to have a particularly high volume of Brexit questions including:

“With the Brexit negotiations up and coming, how will the Government ensure that vital collaboration and communication can continue with our European colleagues?

His response:

“Firstly, we have to remember we are for the moment, still a member of the EU with all the rights and obligation that go with being a member.

We’ve been very clear as a government that we value our European research partnerships, and we value collaborative structures with countries in Europe and broadly around the world and we will want to ensure those collaborative relationships continue to be productive in years to come”

In response to concern surrounding gaps in research funding, he stated:

“In the budget we have allocated £270 million within the industrial strategy challenge fund, for research activity.”

(Disclaimer: This figure has not made it to the side of a bus just yet)

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Chi Onwurah MP, the shadow minister for industrial; strategy, science and innovation, who said she went into politics for the same reason she went into science, “because they make the world a better place, they are the engines of progress… I think you’ll all agree on that for S&E, maybe not for politics”.

On the topic of the lack of women in STEMM, Chi, an electrical engineer herself, stated that the number of female engineering students at her old university, Imperial, has remained constant at 12% since she attended in 1984. She continued that there have been a number of initiatives that have been unsuccessful in increasing the number of females across STEMM, and the importance of understanding why that is:

“There is a reason more women haven’t been going into science and engineering for decades, we need to do something about that. We need not to blame historical facts, which are a consequence of science and engineering not welcoming women over centuries. The proportion of women who are fellows of the Royal Society is just 7%, so we need to encourage initiatives like Athena Swan, more transparency, and support different universities, institutions, programs which are successful".

Whilst on the topic of Donald Trump, she stated: “My big concern obviously is the Trump Administration science policy doesn’t seem to be a science policy.”

She emphasised with continuing strong ties with American scientists and institutes, which she points out haven’t “all become trump supporters overnight”. She also stated “we need to be clear, we’re not going to change the meaning of science for one man”.

Overall, it was a fantastic opportunity to see the complex but vital relationship between science and government, as well as a snapshot into how government works. I would highly recommend anyone to apply for it next year!

Personal Highlight: Hilary Benn MP running in, to find the Brexit committee had moved. If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of the missing Brexit committee, could you let Westminster know.

 

7 Reasons to Experiment Abroad

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📥  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...

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

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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)….

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

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

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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.

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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.