Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

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.

 

Novel coatings at NSG Group

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📥  Internships & visits

This post was contributed by Joe Thompson.


I recently spent a month long placement at NSG Group in Lathom, Lancashire. NSG Group is a world leading manufacturer of automotive, architectural and technical grade glass. The majority of glass products manufactured by the company are coated to provide a variety of additional properties such as scratch resistance, self-cleaning, UV reflectance and electrical conductivity.

My time was spent working in the coatings department looking at a variety of new coatings with quite different applications. Whilst on placement I had the opportunity to try out new coating techniques and access analytical methods not available at the University.

The opportunity to spend some time in an industrial lab was invaluable, it showed me both the similarities and differences between academic and industrial environments. Overall I really enjoyed the experience of trying out some new chemistry in a new location and working with a great group of people.


Joe is in his final year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on 'New precursors for application in thin film chalcogenide materials' with Dr Andrew Johnson and Dr Daniel Wolverson.

 

Beyond the Lab: Developing your Industrial Biotechnology Career

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📥  Comment, Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Tristan Smith.


CSCT students Felix (Cohort 2015), Sonia (Cohort 14), Tristan (Cohort 13) and alumnus Anyela (Cohort 10) attended a two day training workshop run by the BBSRC NIBB Networks. It was an opportunity for current students, post-doc and early career researchers to learn about the jobs and careers that are available in Industrial Biotechnology (IB). But also, that many companies that use IB aren’t immediately obvious and there is a large drive to create connections with these unknown stakeholders and academia for future collaborations. Instead of reviewing all that was discussed over the two days, I will try and distil it down to a few key messages:

  • Industrial Biotechnology is one of the oldest technologies in human activity and as such has been applied in a wide range of fields from food production to the manufacture of explosives. The take home message of many talks was that IB is not an industrial sector but an enabling technology that is allowing the development of new sustainable technologies, and therefore when looking for careers as a biotechnologist you are unlikely to find yourself working for an enzyme production company (although those jobs exist), but as a member of a small team in a much larger setting helping to apply IB to their processes. Many of these companies do not advertise the fact that they use IB, and that connections made through networks like the NIBs, KTN-UK are vital to finding jobs.
  • Communication! A successful industrial biotechnologist needs to be a master linguist, able to speak the languages of engineering through to corporate finance. Even if your role is developing novel organism at a purely molecular biology lab, you might be the only such individual or part of a very small team in that company. Therefore, you will have to understand every stage of your product's scale-up at the engineering level. Engineers and technical staff will need to be able to understand your process so that it can be up-scaled and developed further. The sales team need to be able to understand and sell the benefits of your technology to the customer. The finance team need to understand the cost savings or profit potential of every material or piece of equipment before the company purchase it. Whilst an industrial biotechnologist must be key team player, all these challenges creates new opportunities for specialist process bioengineers, technical sales staff and other jobs that are improved by having a scientist in these roles.
  • Data! Data! Data! Modern DNA sequencing and computer technologies means that the creation of new data is occurring at an unmanageable rate, and that there is shortage of individuals with data driven research capabilities. Bioinformaticians or computational scientist, with the ability to process and use this every expanding pool of information are going to be more sought after in the future. The demand is so high that it has been fed back into the funding bodies who are now starting specific degrees, but that means anyone who has the skills now, before all these new training degrees bear fruit will be in high demand.

I hope that this was useful, I think we all left feeling much more hopeful about the range of potential jobs on offer outside of academia. One great aspect was a range of talks from companies ranging in the size from small start-ups such as Oxford Biotrans to large multinational corporations such as Croda, who all rely on IB but because of the size and scope of these companies, the working environments and cultures are as different between themselves as industry is to academia. The point being that if you want to work in industry there is likely an environment that will suit your skills and personality.


Tristan is in his third year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on 'Sustainable production of 2-phenylethanol from Metschnikowia pulcherrima' with Dr Daniel Henk and Dr Chris Chuck.

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.

Jonwagner-slide

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.

 

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.