Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Working towards Food Security with Syngenta

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📥  Internships & visits

This post was contributed by George Gregory.

gregory_syngenta01Keen to gain industrial experience, I spent three months at Syngenta in Jeolotts Hill, Bracknell. Seeds such as corn and soya are coated with active ingredients (AIs) namely pesticides and herbicides to ensure a good crop yield. To reduce “rub-off” of the coating and the generation of dust, which is hazardous to farmers, polymers play an important role in binding AIs to the seed surface.

gregory_syngenta02Working within the formulation technologies team, I undertook a systematic investigation using a Design of Experiments (DoE) approach to investigate how typical polymer properties impact on the coating quality. Amongst many other techniques, a neat image analysis tool was used to quantify the seed coverage.

In total, I was involved in four different projects gaining experience with a range of innovative technologies and coated over 75 kg of seeds bright red (as well as my lab coat) - a dye used in the coating formulation to indicate the AIs present. Working towards the common goal of food security, the theme underpinning everything I observed seemed to be a strong collaboration between people of different expertise (someone had PhD in nozzles!).

George is in her final year in the CSCT working towards her PhD on “Cyclic carbonates from sugars and CO2: synthesis, polymerisation and biomedical applications” with Dr Antoine Buchard, Professor Matthew Davidson and Dr Ram Sharma.


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


📥  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.



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.


CSCT team wins 'Engineering YES' Bristol Heat


📥  Events, Prizes & awards

This post was contributed by James Coombs OBrien.

“Explain it to me like I’m a clever 12-year-old” was blurted at me as I tried to explain my PhD, and potential business, to a straight faced venture capitalist. “Quite frankly I couldn’t give a monkeys about the technology, sell me the benefits!” he exclaimed during my second attempt. Selling benefits over features was the first of many things I learnt during the Engineering YES 2016 Bristol Heats.

Engineering YES is a competitive three-day course directed at researchers. It aims to help bridge the gap between academic research and a viable business, a journey often christened “the valley of death”.

Our company, Calcaneus (named after the strongest bone in the body…..probably), aimed to solve the worlds persistent microbead issues with the use of biodegradable cellulose beads made via a unique technology.

“Explain it to me like I’m a clever 12-year-old”

“Explain it to me like I’m a clever 12-year-old”

For us, and probably most other researchers from the CSCT, it is easy to sell an idea to someone on sustainability grounds, “this process is more sustainable therefore give us money”. However, we quickly learnt that at best this is the third thing a potential investor is looking for after “how much money will I make and how quickly” and “who are the people I’m investing in”.

Team Calcaneus - From left to right – James Coombs OBrien (Founder and Chief scientist), Tristan Smith (Marketing Director), Kasia Smug (Finance Director) and Jon Chouler (Managing Director).

Team Calcaneus - From left to right – James Coombs OBrien (Founder and Chief scientist), Tristan Smith (Marketing Director), Kasia Smug (Finance Director) and Jon Chouler (Managing Director).

The event was composed of a mixture of seminars, professional networking sessions and one to one mentoring on every aspect business from financial planning to marketing and, crucially for us, intellectual property (IP). The mentoring session were by far the greatest help to our business leading to its development from a manufacturing company to one which, through clever use of IP, licensed out its technology to larger companies. This development required a lot of hard work and many a late night.

11:15 pm is spreadsheet time

11:15 pm is spreadsheet time

However, it all paid off! I’m happy to report that we, Calcaneus, won both the judges and peer review prizes (voted for by the other contestants). It’s a shame that no one told Tristan (see below).

We only went and won the heats!

We only went and won the heats!

The whole experience was eye opening. You quickly get used to the way business minded people think and talk, which is very different from a scientist. For me, a chemist by background, working at the interface of chemistry and chemical engineering who has had no exposure to how a business works, this was an intense and thought provoking experience.

That leaves me to thank all the organisers and mentors that help during the Engineering YES 2016 Bristol heat, in particular Kate Beresford, John Boyes and David Scott. I’d also like to thank the CSCT for funding myself and my team mates to attend this fantastic course. Anyway, back to some more spread sheets for the final in Birmingham, watch this space.

See more info about engineering YES.

Durham Rietveld Refinement & Powder Diffraction School 2016

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📥  Internships & visits

This post was contributed by Oli Weber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Science by the Sea: APS Meeting 2016 and Visiting Duke University

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📥  Internships & visits, Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Suzy Wallace.

This year the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting was held in Baltimore, Maryland, USA from the 14th to 18th of March. I was fortunate enough to attend a tutorial day before the conference and to present my research on the potential new solar absorber material for solar cells, CZTS (Copper zinc tin sulphide).

This particular conference is amongst the largest physics conferences held each year with almost 10,000 attendees and around 50 or 60 symposia occurring at any given time with most talks only lasting ten minutes– so there was always potentially a lot to learn and you certainly were not short of things to do! The conference organisers even design a phone app for the conference to help you keep track of your schedule so that you don’t miss anything!  In addition to that there were a number of other events going on during the conference (such as the ‘rock n roll physics sing-a-long’ one evening) and also a lunch time special where you sign up to have a packed lunch with an expert in a particular field and a small number of other interested students. This was a great opportunity to discuss and get some advice on your research and career. It was also a great opportunity to ask questions to further your own understanding without having the slightly daunting situation of asking a potentially silly question in front of a very big audience!


Baltimore was certainly an interesting city with lots of character to it! There seemed to be an interesting mixture of very artsy places and then much more urban areas. Then of course the harbour was beautiful and the seafood there was very good. I tried oysters for the first time there, conveniently during ‘oyster happy hour’ when they were $1 each!

After the conference in Baltimore I hopped over a state to head to Duke University in North Carolina to spend two weeks starting a new project with my international supervisor, Dr Volker Blum from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and his group, the "Ab initio materials simulations" group. The students and postdoctoral researchers in the group develop an atomistic simulation code (FHI-aims), which can be used to predict the properties of materials for various applications. In my case, it is the properties of a material that could indicate the potential to make a good solar cell that I’m looking for. Interacting with people who develop the methods you use is such a great learning experience, it also happened that there were a number of interesting guest speakers visiting the university while I was there so I got to attend even more talks!

As well as discussing simulating materials on computers, we also visited the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina at the weekend as a research group. This was such a beautiful coastal area with some amazing sand dunes, lots of light houses and this was also where the Wright brother’s first flight in a controlled, powered vehicle took place (presumably due to the soft landing space provided by the sand dunes!). There was certainly a lot to see at the Outer Banks for such a small strip of land and of course where better to discuss calculating a material’s properties using the many-electron wavefunction than at the beach after all!


Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA (left) and the Outer Banks, North Carolina, USA (centre and right, although it wasn’t quite as sunny for us as it is in the far right photo!).

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.


A Chemical Engineer on a Project Management internship at Wessex Water

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📥  Internships & visits

PhD student, Jon Chouler, went on a three-month internship with Wessex Water in Bath. We asked him how he got on.

First of all, how did you find this internship?
One word: Persistence! In the process of finding a placement, I made sure to leave no stone unturned and everyone that I knew for advice and leads. For example, asking my supervisors, colleagues, and approaching individuals at events and meetings I attended. In the end, my co-supervisor suggested I contact an individual at Wessex Water regarding a project they were soon to be starting. One email, one meeting and two weeks later I was on placement!

What was your role?
My job was essentially project management. Wessex Water, along with some other key partners, wanted to run a project looking to deliver green and social prescriptions in order to reduce pharmaceutical use and their eventual presence in wastewater. My role was to take this project from an idea into a coherent project plan with an anticipated budget, and present this to all key stakeholders in this project. This involved collaborating and communicating between a wide range of groups including health professionals, nature trusts, university researchers and more.

What did a typical day look like?
Typical day? There was no such thing! Every day brought new challenges, new developments and new tasks. Working between so many different groups and people meant that every day was massively varied: one day I would have to understand sewage networks and flows (involving lifting manholes), the next I would be visiting providers of green prescription activities, and the day after talking to professionals at a local GP practice.

So what's next for the project and Wessex Water?
It's great to say that Wessex Water and other organisations warmed well to the project and details within, and it was subsequently presented to their board of directors and approved for funding to go ahead for the next 4 years!

How will this benefit your future?
The internship was a great chance to build upon essential skills that I will need for my future career in Chemical Engineering: collaboration, time management, budgeting, communication and project management.

It was also a great experience in terms of refining the kinds of jobs that I would like in the future. To be more specific, the internship made me realise that I would like to pursue jobs that bring big benefits to society and the environment at the same time.

What would be your one tip to someone who's thinking of an internship?
Enjoy it! It’s a chance to do something completely different and fully immerse yourself in it. Bring the enthusiasm and energy that a company looks for, and you can not only get a lot done (and feel really proud of yourself), but also create some incredibly useful connections and job prospects afterwards!

Jon is in his third year of PhD 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 research group.