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PhD spotlight: Understanding Under Deposit Corrosion: Tackling a Major Challenge in Steam Generator Industries

Parul is a PhD student in the group of Dr Stella Pedrazzini. Her research focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of Under Deposit Corrosion (UDC), a major problem for industries using steam generators. In this blog post, she explains more about her research, what inspired her to study for a PhD and activities that help her unwind in her free time.

 What inspired you to study for a PhD? 

During my school years, I always had a passion for STEM subjects. However, I wasn’t aware of the field of materials science until I started my studies in Chemical Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology. During my bachelor’s studies, I gradually got more involved in materials science and found it fascinating how interdisciplinary it is and how it combines knowledge from different areas such as chemistry, physics and engineering. Materials science also resonated with me because it provides progress to various societal challenges, especially in industries such as mechanical engineering, automotive manufacturing, aerospace, chemistry, medical technology, energy, and environmental protection. 

During my master’s studies, I had the opportunity to do my master’s project as part of an Erasmus program in Dr. Stella Pedrazzini’s research group. I quickly felt at home both in London and within the research group. I particularly enjoyed the chance to work independently on a research project, tackling problems creatively while thinking scientifically and integrating knowledge from various disciplines to contribute towards a better future. Based on this positive experience and the opportunity to be supervised by Dr. Pedrazzini at Imperial College London – such a respected institution, I decided to pursue a PhD. 

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research focuses on investigating the fundamental mechanisms behind Under Deposit Corrosion (UDC), which poses significant challenges for industries relying on steam generators. These tubes are susceptible to UDC which occurs beneath deposits, leading to localized and unpredictable damage. 

Some key characteristics of this corrosion include the presence of porous deposit layers, high concentrations of chloride within these deposits, and the formation of complex laminated corrosion product layers. To recreate real-world conditions, I expose low-alloy steel samples to a solution of NiCl2 in autoclaves at varying parameters. This process aims to replicate the multi-laminate layer characteristic of UDC. Understanding UDC is complex due to its unpredictability and experimental challenges. However, it’s crucial to unravel these mechanisms to ensure the structural integrity of steam generator components. The financial and environmental consequences of corrosion are significant, as it requires costly replacements and impacts energy consumption during steel production. By gaining insights into UDC, we aim to optimize operating conditions and minimize downtime associated with maintenance. 

What does a typical day involve?

My days vary a lot. Some days, I spend most of my time in the lab, conducting experiments and using advanced characterization techniques such as XCT (a way to see inside materials using X-rays) and SEM (a microscope that allows us to see tiny details on surfaces) coupled with EDX (a tool to identify elements in a sample) to analyse corrosion products. On other days, I am primarily at my computer, analysing data, answering emails, attending meetings, updating my industrial collaborator on the latest developments, reading papers to stay up-to-date, or working on writing publications or my thesis. Since a PhD project is truly independent, effective time management and organisation are essential to advancing research. I also work as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and am an active Departmental Student Ambassador. I enjoy engaging in outreach activities to introduce children to the exciting field of materials science. 

Can you tell us more about your research group?

I’m part of two research groups. My main supervisor is Dr Stella Pedrazzini, who leads the Metals Electrochemistry Group. My secondary supervisor is Professor Mary Ryan, for whom I organized the biweekly group meetings during the second year of my PhD. My project is supervised by two successful women and I’m fortunate to work in a diverse and inclusive environment. We have regular meetings within the groups to discuss research progress and address any questions. Recently, some of our research group members, including myself, attended the TMS Conference in Florida. Many members of my research group are not just colleagues with whom I can discuss work-related matters but also friends with whom I spend my free time. 

What do you enjoy outside of your PhD?

Coming from Austria and having grown up in the Alpine foothills, I am passionate about spending time in the mountains. Whether hiking, skiing or mountaineering, being surrounded by nature helps me recharge. Living in London also offers unique experiences, and I enjoy exploring the vibrant city. From visiting museums and galleries to attending theatre performances, there’s always something new and exciting to discover. To unwind, I try to hit the gym for a workout session or go for a run in one of London’s parks regularly. 

Start-up insights: AminoAnalytica

Abhi Rajendran is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Department of Materials. Together with recent alumnus Adam Wu, they have founded a new start-up, AminoAnalytica and are participating in this year’s Venture Catalyst Challenge, Imperial College London’s flagship entrepreneurial competition.

In this new blog post, the team tell us more about their start-up and what they’ve learned so far.

Can you tell us more about your company?

One of the main challenges when making drugs is that it takes a long time to test them in a laboratory. A lot of time and cost is spent on screening thousands of proteins in a lab, often to find only one has a chance of making it to a phase-one clinical trial. It can cost over $1000 to physically screen a single compound, making this process incredibly wasteful.

Our new company, AminoAnalytica is a protein property prediction software that aims to accelerate drug discovery. We develop an AI tool to predict the physical properties of drugs before you need to synthesise them in the real world. This means the only drugs that are made are the drugs that will cure your target disease.

Long term, we are aiming to form strategic partnerships with biotech companies where we can combine their in-house data with our proprietary datasets to develop the most accurate virtual screening method for protein-based therapeutics.

What was the inspiration behind starting your company?

I took a deep dive into the into the world of protein modelling as part of my MEng project with Dr Stefano Angioletti-Uberti. This was new space for me, but I did have some prior experience in data-driven environments which was quite applicable. As soon as I started to see promising technical results from my project, I reached out to my housemate Adam Wu who graduated from the Department of Materials last year.

Using his experience in business consulting, we assessed the market and made a few calculations to see if there was potential in the property prediction space. From there, we applied to the Imperial Venture Catalyst Challenge and got accepted onto the 2024 AI x Robotics track.

Starting a business as a student or new graduate can be challenging. Have you had any obstacles and how have you navigated these? 

At this stage in our careers, it has been challenging to grow a significant network in the biotech/pharma space – this makes everything from customer discovery, idea refinement and feedback a challenge. Fortunately, the Enterprise lab at Imperial have been incredibly helpful in perfecting our approach to reaching out and we’ve met some very useful people as a result.

In addition to this we have got involved in several student led organisations such as Nucleate (biotech community) which has been great for sparking interesting conversations with academics and industry leaders.

Are there any key lessons or skills you’ve learned through the process?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people, just be honest about what you know and what you are after – most people are actually out to help you!

Since publishing this blog post, AminoAnalytica has won its track and is a finalist in the Venture Catalyst Challenge 2024 Grand Final!

Get your tickets for the Grand Final.

PhD Spotlight: Transforming battery technologies

Ramin is a PhD student in the group of Professor Mary Ryan. Her research focuses on understanding some of the major degradation processes we see in lithium-ion batteries – which are found in your laptops, calculators, e-bikes, children’s toys. Improving this battery technology, could lead to reduce consumer costs for battery replacement, as well as contribute towards legislative efforts in electrifying the UK.

What inspired you to study for a PhD?

I always knew that I wanted to do a PhD because I loved the idea of having a specific research question and dedicating time to answering it (or trying to, at least!). I did my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at UCL, and my master’s project, supervised by Dr Yang Lan, revolved around investigating the colloidal stability of coronavirus-like particles, a highly relevant project during the pandemic. I enjoyed variety of tasks needed to complete my project, such as deriving a theoretical model to simulate the particle behaviour and writing a comprehensive literature review and knew that I wanted to continue working in a research field.

The only question that I had was ‘which field do I want to study in?’, which was quickly answered as I undertook three modules related to energy sources. I immediately learnt about how crucial a role renewable sources play in transitioning our world to net zero. The idea of being able to contribute directly to society and have the opportunity to work with some fantastic researchers is definitely a ‘pinch me’ feeling!

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research focuses on understanding some of the major degradation processes we see in lithium-ion batteries. These batteries can be found in your laptops, calculators, e-bikes, children’s toys, just to name a few applications, but they come with several issues. The biggest challenge they face is their susceptibility to the formation of dendrites.

Dendrites are tree-like, lithium-containing extensions that grow on the electrode surface and can potentially create a ’bridge’ between the cathode and anode, causing short-circuiting (and in worst-case scenarios, possible explosions) (Fig. 1). If dendrites are such a major problem in batteries, why can’t we stop them? The answer is a two-fold one.

  1. While various efforts have been taken to mitigate/ suppress dendrite growth in batteries, such as adding additives into the electrolyte, we cannot truly stop dendritic growth completely until we understand exactly how and why they even grow.
  2. To do this, we need to be able to visualise how batteries work at the nanoscale, which is a huge challenge due to the limitations in current analytical techniques.

My research aims to utilise the new cryogenic facility (cryo-EPS) in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, more specifically the atom probe tomography (APT) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) machines, to investigate the local chemistry and structure of dendrites at the nanoscale, just as they start to grow. An in-situ electrochemical cell is used to simulate early-stage dendritic growth and allow us to visualise this in real time, and this is then characterised to paint a clearer image of the redox/ degradation mechanisms occurring. This information will provide insights into predictive indicators of dendritic growth along the electrode surface and from this, we can devise more effective mitigating measures to suppress their growth. This research is also very cool as it involves plunge-freezing batteries in liquid nitrogen to ‘freeze’ the chemistry in place – this way, we’re able to achieve a snapshot of the battery system in real time!

By improving battery technology, this research aims to reduce consumer costs for battery replacement, as well as contribute towards legislative efforts in electrifying the UK.

What does a typical day involve?

One of the best parts of a PhD is how varied the days are. It’s essentially a four-year project, which means there are lots of tasks to get on with and these tasks differ depending on the stage of your PhD and personal deadlines.

Recently, I’ve been spending my mornings in the lab synthesising electrode materials (which involves a lot of stirring) or coin cell batteries. Testing the battery performance immediately after assembling them is always slightly stressful as you can expect at least one of them to fail! My afternoons are generally spent on desk, which can involve analysing data, putting presentation slides together or reviewing current literature, which has been especially important for a current paper I am working on. My days can also consist of teaching undergraduate students (as a Graduate Teaching Assistant) or supervising master’s students.

Can you tell us more about your research group?

My project ties in electrochemistry with complex materials characterisation techniques and because of this, I have several research groups spanning different research themes. I work primarily under Professor Mary Ryan(Fig. 2a), whose large interdisciplinary group covers nanoscale science and interfaces, including energy materials, bio-sensors and corrosion science.

I also work with Professor Baptiste Gault (Fig. 2b), who spends his time between Imperial and Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung in Düsseldorf and whose research group specialises in APT and correlative TEM for various applications.

My other research groups include the Conroy group, led by Dr Shelly Conroy (Fig. 2c), and the Interfacial Electrochemistry group, led by Professor Ifan Stephens (Fig. 2d). The research of the former focuses on APT and TEM (particularly 4D-STEM strain analysis) and is part of the cryo-EPS facility at Imperial, while Stephens’ group focuses on the large-scale electrochemical conversion of renewable energy to fuels, namely via LIBs, catalysis and fuel cells.

What do you enjoy outside of your PhD?

I like to unwind from my PhD through trying out new recipes, whether it’s through cooking or baking. As science experiments tend to require careful measurements, I like that cooking is generally more flexible and gives me the chance to be slightly more creative. I also enjoy practising creativity through art, especially hyper-realistic drawings and paintings.

Aside from this, I still enjoy the science realm outside of my PhD, often engaging in outreach events, including school presentations and Student Ambassador days for upcoming engineering students. We also have several group lunches/ dinners per year as part of a research group, including the most recent Christmas lunch with the Conroy group (Fig. 3)!

References:

[1] Babu G, Ajayan PM. Good riddance, dendrites. Nature Energy.

Supporting the LGBTQ+ community and how to be a better ally

Staff member captured in March 2023.

February is LGBTQ+ History Month! This year’s theme is ‘Medicine under the scope’. We spoke with our Student Wellbeing Advisor, Olly Swanton about the importance of support in the LGBTQ+ community and how to be an ally.

The importance of this years theme – “Medicine under the ‘scope”

During LGBTQ+ History Month, we celebrate important figures from the past and remember their impact on our community and in their respective fields. It’s a time to recognise the roots of the LGBTQ+ community, including the origin of the LGBT acronym. Did you know lesbians were at the forefront of helping gay men with medical care during the 1980s AIDS epidemic and as a result the order of the ‘L’ became the first letter of the acronym most used today?

This month also gives us the opportunity to think about how medicine and mental health support has developed over the years. According to a report by the Institute of Physics, Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry, 28% of LGBTQ+ scientists in the UK have considered leaving their jobs because of discrimination at work. The Mental Health Foundation highlight how members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a greater risk of a hate crime, and MIND share that LGBTQ+ people are 2 to 3 times more likely to experience a mental health struggle. These are important issues that can affect the lives of LGBTQ+ people and show the importance of seeking support and supporting those around you.

What you should do if you need support?

Something that many of us have experienced is struggling to talk about how we feel, as there can be a huge pressure to present as being in control. Over the years, I have experienced how talking about our struggles can help us truly understand our thoughts and feelings and give us a wider perspective on possible solutions to our issues. This understanding came from volunteering as a Samaritan in London for over a year, which in turn lead me to my journey to becoming a Psychodynamic Counsellor. I remember what it was like (many years ago) to worry about my own sexuality and how it might impact my life. For anyone that might be reading this that is dealing with any kind of struggle, please know you are not alone and that you can reach out to a Student Wellbeing Advisor. You can also find dedicated LGBTQ+ Mental Health Support online if you would prefer.

At Imperial, we have a strong LGBTQ+ community (Imperial600 for staff and Imperial IQ for students) with radio shows, networking events and even picnic lunches – why not get involved?

How can you be better ally?

Be visible in your support, avoid assumptions, speak up and listen. What helped me was being fortunate enough to have people around me that let me talk about how I was feeling, without any judgement and with full confidentiality, until I felt ready to be free and open with who I was. Everyone deserves that support and containment. It can take time to feel comfortable to talk about anything that makes us feel vulnerable so know you will never be pressured to talk unless you want to.

I find wearing our rainbow lanyards and lifting LGBTQ+ voices makes a big difference in showing that you are an ally and that the environment is inclusive and welcoming.

You can find out more about being a better ally on our website: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/equality/resources/lgbtq-equality/

Davos 2024: A glimpse through the eyes of an undergraduate student

Victor Klippgen, an undergraduate student in the Department of Materials, recently attended The World Economic Forum at Davos 2024. In this blog post, he reflects on his experience, sharing more about the insights gained during the event.

What motivated you to attend Davos 2024 and how did you secure the opportunity?

My involvement with Davos stemmed from my past work with Det Moderne India (DMI), a non-profit based in Norway. DMI extended an invitation for me to participate at Davos, where I was tasked with documenting the discussions of their roundtable event on sustainability through video and photography.

How was your experience and did it meet your expectations?

My experience at Davos surpassed all my expectations. I found myself in a melting pot of esteemed individuals, from CEOs to academics. The streets were buzzing with excitement as companies showcased their technological advancements and visions for the future. Everywhere I turned, there was something happening. In one moment, I was having my face scanned for an AI exhibition; in the next, I was listening to Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, share his insights on the future macroeconomic outlook during a live CNBC interview.

Were there any particular sessions or speakers that made a lasting impression on you?

Several sessions and speakers left a lasting impression on me. One highlight was having the opportunity to engage with two battery company CEOs over drinks, discussing the future of renewable energy and sustainable technology. Additionally, speaking at length with a graphene expert about AI methods to materials discovery was incredibly insightful, particularly as I plan to pursue further studies in computational materials science.

Were there any significant trends, insights or global challenges that you found particularly relevant to your current studies or future career goals?

AI technology was a major trend at Davos this year, capturing my interest for its potential to accelerate materials discovery and enhance the accuracy of electronic structure calculations. Before AI, computational methods for predicting the properties of materials encountered significant accuracy issues for certain systems and were limited to a few hundred atoms. However, the advent of machine learning is revolutionising the landscape. The introduction of AI to materials discovery and electronic structure calculations is particularly exciting, and I hope to contribute to this rapidly advancing field in the future.

What was your biggest takeaway?

My exposure to high-level discussions on generative AI, sustainability, and the macroeconomic picture provided valuable insights. However, what intrigued me the most was experiencing tangible progress towards a sustainable future. One notable example was NEOM’s presentation of “THE LINE” project—a linear smart city under construction in Saudi Arabia, spanning 170 kilometres and designed to accommodate 9 million people, all powered entirely by renewable energy.

My most significant takeaway from Davos is a sense of optimism for the future. Amidst a turbulent political climate and uncertain macroeconomic outlook, witnessing tangible progress and innovative solutions first-hand instilled a sense of hope. Davos served as a powerful reminder of our capacity for progress and the efficacy of collective action in tackling global challenges.

PhD Spotlight with Connor: Charging ahead with battery research

Connor working on an experimental setup at the UKs synchrotron, Diamond.

Connor is working as a part of the newly founded InFUSE Prosperity Partnership, linking Imperial research with state-of-the-art techniques to progress the energy transition. Connor’s research focuses on the degradation of Sodium-ion batteries, widely considered to be the next big thing in battery energy storage, particularly for large-scale applications.

What inspired you to study for a PhD?

Before university, I didn’t even know that ‘Materials Engineering’ was a thing. As anyone interested in the sciences at school does, I thought my options were limited to medicine, the natural sciences or the more classical engineering routes (civil, mechanical, electrical, etc.). It was only a couple of weeks before the UCAS deadline that I discovered – thanks to my sixth form tutor (thanks again, Mr Hunt!) – the wonders of Materials Engineering.

I applied for and got accepted onto the course at the University of Birmingham and have never looked back. The top-down approach, where you start with an application, assess the materials requirements, and then go to work on manipulating materials at the most fundamental level to achieve these, was something that really resonated with me. In my third year I chose a battery-related group project, thinking they were a worthy application to focus on with this top-down approach. In my Masters’ year, I again chose batteries for my individual project, this time focusing more on recycling. Continuing onto a PhD was the logical next step and one that I didn’t, even for a second, consider not doing. I love the research culture, and where better to go than Imperial!

Sodium-ion Batteries that Connor created and tested.

Can you tell us more about your research?

Currently, my focus is on the cathode materials for sodium-ion batteries (NIBs). Much like the lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) that we all have in our mobile phones, NIBs work by shuttling and storing positively charged ions and atoms, respectively, between two electrodes. The only difference is that sodium batteries shuttle sodium, which is both cheaper and more sustainable than lithium but also heavier and less energy-dense. So, as with everything, the technology has pros and cons.

These similarities and subtle differences make NIBs, in particular, very suitable for large-scale energy storage solutions. Decreasing our carbon footprint and focusing on renewable energy conversion (e.g., wind or solar) requires such storage solutions to operate effectively. They allow us to boil the kettle when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Currently, this type of grid-scale storage is dominated by pumped hydro, but cost and geographical constraints limit its global application. NIBs – in my opinion – will be the bridge we need to get us to a truly decarbonised society.

The InFUSE group.

In slightly more detail, my work focuses on trying to understand why some of our most promising NIB materials degrade as fast as they do. I create, or rather I engineer, ways to study these materials as they charge and discharge, helping to paint a picture of what happens to them at the smallest scales in real-time. These specific techniques are labelled ‘operando’. I conduct these experiments at the UK’s national synchrotron facility, firing high-energy X-rays into my batteries to yield all sorts of useful (and awesome) information.

One particular technique to called Xray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS). It’s very useful for studying batteries as the information you get out relates directly to the chemical and electronic structure of the host electrode material. Looking for unusual changes in the XAS signal as my target electrode charges/discharges is a large part of what I do as a researcher.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical day would see me in the lab making and testing batteries. Production is a complicated and multi-step process, so depending on which stage I’m at, this could mean using furnaces, slurry mixers, coating machines or the testing/cycling rig. Most days will also involve some sort of data analysis too; either cycling data from the lab or some more hardcore stuff from a recent synchrotron experiment. However, as with all research, no day is ever the same and things are always changing!

Can you tell us more about your research group?

I work in two different groups, not uncommon here at Imperial. My primary supervisor is Prof. Mary Ryan in Materials, but most of my lab work is with Prof. Magda Titirici’s Battery team in Chemical Engineering. In my second year, I organised Mary’s biweekly group meetings and also went to both France and China with Magda’s group for conferences.

What do you enjoy outside of your PhD?

I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for sport. I’ve played field hockey my whole life, and throughout the PhD is no exception. I also love music and regularly attend a ‘pub choir’ in south London with a bunch of friends. Coming from a farm in rural Leicestershire, I also need my regular dose of fresh air and greenery, so often take hikes out of London with my girlfriend.

Slightly closer to home, I really enjoy my work as an Outreach Ambassador for the Department of Materials. As I said at the start, not many people know about Materials as a field, let alone a degree or career option, and that’s a real shame! I’ve done lab demos at Imperial’s Open Days, helped run stands at public events such as The Great Exhibition Road Festival and even organised my own event for 2023’s Pint of Science Festival.

The group of Professor Mary Ryan on an outing to Dishoom.

Alumni spotlight: Dewen Sun on Co-Founding DeSolve Technology

Dewen Sun completed an MEng Material Science and Engineering in the Department of Materials, graduating in 2023. He is currently Head of R&D and Co-founder of DeSolve Technology (LinkedIn), a start-up which provides software solutions for designing drug carriers, striving to enable a more streamlined and efficient drug development cycle. In this blog post, he shares more about his time at Imperial, his current role and his advice for students thinking of founding a start-up.

  • Can you tell us about your current occupation and company? 

I am currently continuing my study in Germany, pursing a PhD in solid state physics. My specialisation is in the area of quantum mechanical modelling and machine learning, which is also the focus of our start-up. This position not only allows me to enhance my knowledge in a structured and systematic manner, but it also provides the connection to the academic world, which is invaluable for an early-stage startup like us.

As part of the research community, we are able to retain access to all the latest publication and developments. With this platform, we have been able to connect with a number of academic partners. Through our collaboration, we will benefit greatly from their experimental data, while we provide free software services as part of our field testing.

Being in similar fields, all the knowledge and experience from my PhD feeds nicely into the work of our company. This enables me to continue to be fully involved and committed to the start-up.

  • What inspired you to start this company?

A casual dinner conversation. My friend from Biochemistry mentioned the issue of insolubility when developing drugs. Many promising new compounds fail due to their lack of solubility in water, preventing them to be absorbed by our body. This forces researchers to develop complex carriers, which is still done largely through trial and error. This struck a chord with me. Having spent three summers working on solvent development within our department, I realised that the techniques that we have been using could also be applied here.

Putting our ideas to work, we decided to start a company working on the development of drug carriers. More specifically, we provide a software solution that designs tailored carriers for individual drugs. Since then, we have been constantly energised by the prospect of contributing to the vital field of drug delivery and excited by the huge challenge laying ahead.

We are also firm believers of the market driven approach. The drive for profitability from the beginning focuses us on the most effective means rather than the most scientifically significant. This will allow us to have much more direct and immediate influence on our target clients and markets.

  • What are your ambitions for the future? 

Within our first year, we have established a multitude of partnerships with commercial and academic experts in the field and are on track to develop a fully functional demonstrator by 2024. We are now working towards two aims in the coming years. First, to begin full collaboration with our laboratory partner to validate the scientific functions of our software and gain credibility of our product. We are also looking at beginning early-stage commercial roll out of our product and concept.

This will set us on track to becoming an established company for carrier development, providing a trusted and well recognized product in the field. It will also allow us to maintain the invaluable relationships with all players in the field of pharmaceutical.

  • What piece of wisdom can you share with students?

The best advice I have is to make use of every available resource at Imperial. From our colleagues and lecturers to the entrepreneurship programs, I would not have even dared to do any of this without them. It was the incredible knowledge and insights of my colleagues that gave me the inspiration and the confidence to start this business. I would not have the capability to lead the research and development of such a complex product without building experiences through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme.

The business, marketing and IP trainings from the Imperial Enterprise Lab were also absolutely invaluable. They helped us evaluate and re-evaluate our business and really refine our strategy, setting us on the right path.

Meet our postdocs: Celebrating National Postdoc Appreciation Week

National Postdoc Appreciation Week (PAW) is a celebration of the fantastic contribution postdocs and researchers make towards research and academic life. Held every year from 18 – 22 September, the week is a chance to thank our postdoctoral researchers and everything that they do!

To celebrate this week, we hear from five postdocs from the Department of Materials.

Dr Jerry Sha – ‘Our community enables me to address challenges in my research and career development every day’

Dr Jerry Sha is a Research Associate in the group of Professor Stephen Skinner. He joined the Department as an undergraduate student in September 2013.

Jerry is part of a project called Epistore, funded by Horizon 2020. The group are aiming to revolutionize the energy storage sector by developing new innovative cells that could efficiently store renewable electricity and cater to applications where the use of conventional batteries is impractical. This includes overcoming size limitations or long-term storage needs. Applications for this research could include off-shore power generation and transportation.

Outside of research, Jerry enjoys playing piano, photography, reading, and karting.

He comments: “I greatly appreciate the inclusivity and support within the postdoc community, which has enabled me to address various challenges in both my research and career development every day. I am also grateful for the opportunity to develop friendships with people from diverse backgrounds.’

Dr Anna Winiwarter – ‘ I enjoy the events organised by my peers’

Dr Anna Winiwater is a Research Associate in the group of Professor Ifan Stephens. She joined the Department of Materials this year.

She is involved in creating an eco-friendly method to produce ammonia, a vital ingredient for fertilizer that feeds half the world’s population. The traditional method, known as the Haber-Bosch process, emits a lot of CO2, contributing to global emissions. Using air’s nitrogen and renewable electricity, the group are working on an electrochemical approach that offers a cleaner alternative. Her research focuses on detecting ammonia and unwanted side products using online mass spectrometry.

Outside of research, Anna enjoys like dancing (in particular Argentine tango), baking sourdough bread, hiking and generally being in nature as a balance to the busy life as a postdoc.

She comments: “I feel very welcome and supported by the postdoc community, both through events organised by peers (like the monthly breakfast for Materials postdocs) and the wide range of services provided by the PFDC.”

Dr Pankaj Sharma – ‘Becoming a member of the postdoc community has been a wonderful experience’

Dr Pankaj Sharma is a Research Associate in the group of Professor Fang Xie. He joined the Department of Materials this year.

Pankaj’s research involves the synthesis of plasmonic photocatalysts for green energy production and environmental applications. He engages in activities related to photoreduction and electrochemical conversion of CO2, the valorization of biowaste, the intergration of catalytic processes for valuable chemicals, and the exploration of photocatalysts for medical and cosmetic applications.

Pankaj is also involved in exploring seawater batteries for hydrogen storage and production, nanomaterial development, synthsising multifunctional porous/hybrid materials, investigations into gas separation, and membrane fabrication.

Outside of research, he enjoys watching regional cinema, occasionally cooking, and savouring delicious food.

He comments: “Becoming a member of the postdoctoral community at Imperial has been a wonderful and novel experience.”

Dr Megan Owen – ‘Our research could impact clean energy generation’

Dr Megan Owen is a Research Associate in the group of Professor Sir Robin Grimes. She joined the Department of Materials in 2022.

Megan’s research uses simulations to model nuclear materials like fuel and cladding. She works to analyse materials during operational temperatures and beyond operational temperatures to better our understanding of materials’ properties.

The group are aiming to develop an understanding of future nuclear materials for new reactors, which will be beneficial for clean energy generation to meet net-zero targets.

Outside of research, Megan enjoys Côr Llundain (London Welsh Choir), attending the gym, and baking.

She comments: “I’m happy to be a part of the postdoc community at Imperial. The PDFC provide excellent support for progression, and monthly coffee mornings and social events within Materials allows me to meet and collaborate with other postdocs.”

Dr Apostolos Panagiotopoulos – ‘I feel constantly inspired to excel and innovate’

Dr Apostolos Panagiotopoulos is a Research Assistant in the group of Professor John Kilner. He joined the Department of Materials in 2018 as a Research Postgraduate.

The group’s research aims to pioneer upscalable and sustainable routes for the processing and manufacturing of electrochemical energy storage components towards high performance devices. His research focuses on exploring their operating intricacies, benchmarking and unveiling charge storage mechanisms. This allows him to re-envision components with superior design, streamlined supply chains and safer function. Apostolos hopes to integrate these innovations in trusted and bold new industrial landscapes, pushing us a step closer towards net zero.

Outside of research, he enjoys competitive fencing and sailing. Apostolos also enjoys cycling, weight-lifting, dancing and has recently started badminton at college.

He comments: “I feel constantly inspired to excel and innovate by the Imperial community. Every day, presents an opportunity to learn and enhance a variety of skills.”

PhD Spotlight with Jessica: Titanium Alloys for Tomorrow’s Orthopaedic Implants


Meet Jessica! Jessica is a PhD student in the Department of Materials and she is a part of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Advanced Characterisation of Materials (CDT-ACM). Jessica’s research focuses on the corrosion of additively manufactured titanium alloys for custom orthopaedic implants.

In this blog post, she explains what inspired her to do a PhD, more about her research and what she enjoys outside of her studies.

What inspired you to do a PhD?

In the penultimate year of my undergraduate course (also in the Department of Materials at Imperial), I spent the summer as a UROP student working with Dr Stella Pedrazzini.

I was working on a Rolls-Royce project replicating salt corrosion in single-crystal nickel superalloys used in turbine blades in jet engines. On my first day of my UROP, Stella and I attended a Rolls-Royce meeting in Derby, allowing me to meet my industrial supervisors. What fascinated me the most was when Stella introduced me as her student who would be conducting the project – it was mind-blowing that in a room full of materials science experts, I could try to solve a problem that would affect all future Rolls-Royce engines! At the end of my UROP, we went back to Derby to report my findings, which was very fulfilling. There was a lot of scope for future research in the area, allowing me to continue my experiments as my final year project.

It excites me that I am trying to solve a problem that will benefit industry and society directly and to see the concrete impact of my research in the future.

Can you tell us more about your research?

My current research focuses on the corrosion mechanisms of additively manufactured titanium alloys for custom orthopaedic implants. Implants such as knee and hip replacements tend to be made from titanium alloys that are forged (shaped into their final shape using applied forces, such as with a hammer or a die). Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, allows us to produce complex-shaped implants for patients requiring bespoke devices. This will hugely benefit patients who cannot utilise mass-produced implants, such as bone cancer patients, young children, and patients requiring revision surgeries from previously failed implants.

Figure 1 One of the AM lattices studied using a scanning electron microscope showing unmelted powder on the lattice surface.

The issue with additive manufacturing is that the components produced tend to have defects from the manufacturing process. They also contain more oxygen which causes the component to be more brittle. The porous structure of the implants, called lattices, also means that they are more susceptible to corrosion damage. Once placed in the body, these implants will be exposed to blood plasma, body temperature, and forces from body movement.

My work replicates these environmental factors to AM titanium lattices to interpret the corrosion mechanisms of the implants, especially with applied mechanical loading. Knowing the durability and safety of AM implants is important as they will reduce the need for revision surgeries in the future, benefiting patients and the NHS.

I use materials characterisation techniques such as atom probe tomography (APT) and energy dispersive spectroscopy (scanning tunnelling electron microscope – STEM-EDS) to determine oxygen concentration around crack tips from fatigue loading and across grain boundaries with different crystal orientations. Furthermore, I work with colleagues from my industrial collaborator, Alloyed Ltd, to determine the best way to manufacture these lattices, with complex shapes and overhangs, accommodating components such as nails to attach them to neighbouring bone.

What does a typical day involve?

My day varies a lot depending on the stage of my PhD. Last year, I spent most days conducting many compression fatigue tests of my lattices, some of which lasted a month per test! Currently, I am mostly preparing APT samples using the focussed ion beam (FIB) facility. I usually spend a bit of my day reviewing new literature on similar topics, writing papers for publication, and making pretty figures that I can later use in conference presentations and my PhD thesis. The rest of my day is usually filled with meetings with my supervisor or undergraduate/master’s students.

Can you tell us more about your research group?

My research group (metals electrochemistry group, led by Dr Stella Pedrazzini) is undoubtedly one of the reasons I enjoy doing my PhD so much. We meet once a week to update each other on what we have been up to, whether it is a failed experiment, writing research proposals or going on holiday!

What do you enjoy outside of your PhD?

I enjoy doing STEM outreach and am an active Discover Materials Student Ambassador and Departmental Student Ambassador. Materials is such a great field to be in, and many people are unaware of its existence! I have delivered many workshops, lab demos and presentations to young people about my research and materials science at events like The Great Exhibition Road Festival, Big Bang Science Festival, Cheltenham Science Festival, College Open Days and more!

Outside of work, I enjoy cooking and baking. Coming from Indonesia, I also play the Javanese gamelan, a traditional ensemble music made up of metallophones, gongs and drums. We play at various gigs and practice every week.

Inside the workshop: With Russell Stracey and Mike Lennon

The RSM workshop, located on the lower ground floor of the Royal School of Mines, serves as a central machining facility providing design and manufacturing support for all three Departments within RSM: Materials, Bioengineering and ESE. It has a comprehensive range of both manual and CNC machines; some of the manual machines date back to the old Metallurgy workshop and have been in operation since the 1960s.

Russell Stracey, RSM Workshop Manager, became a part of the workshop team in 2008, while Mike Lennon, Mechanical Workshop Technician, joined in 2013. We had the opportunity to speak with Russell and Mike to learn more about the workshop’s evolution over time, exciting projects, and their personal highlights.

Can you tell us more about the workshop?

Mike: Workshops are important to produce of a wide range of goods. When you think about it, everything around you is likely created in a type of workshop, from transport to household items and clothing – it just depends on the size, scale, and capability of the facility. In the Department of Materials, we focus on making components that can support research or teaching – and we are always up for a new challenge!

Russell: When you look around our workshop, there are a range of drilling, cutting and creating machines – both old and new. The workshop’s physical layout has undergone significant transformations throughout the years. When I arrived in 2008, it was three times its current size and occupied multiple floors! Furthermore, our team has expanded, welcoming additional staff members. Over time we have introduced CNC machines alongside traditional manual machines, enhancing our operational efficiency. Some of the old machinery still has a valuable purpose in supporting our work – the oldest facility here dates to the 1960s!

What’s a typical day like?

Russell: A typical day for us can be quite varied! We usually focus on machining experimental components for our PhD students and researchers to support their projects across a wide range of disciplines, from engineering alloys to medical and energy applications. We also manufacture samples for tensile testing that our UG students use during their labs

Most parts machined in the workshop are made from metal or plastic. In recent years, we have witnessed a growing demand for the use of new materials such as Peek. Peek is a fairly new material. It has become an increasingly popular material, replacing PTFE for sample holders, as it doesn’t contaminate the material which is being tested, is a more stable material from a machining perspective and is able to operate at higher temperatures.

Can you tell us more about collaborations and projects that you have been involved with?

Mike: We have opportunities to be involved with unique research projects. For example, I enjoyed machining parts to support Professor Neil Alford with his research into diamond masers (a microwave laser) which work at room temperature.  This idea was suggested in the 1970’s but no one had managed to create a diamond maser because they all used microwave cavities – a metallic cylinder with connectors –  made by the manufacturer of the big magnets used in the experiment. Professor Alford asked if I could create a cavity in oxygen free copper to support the world’s first diamond maser. The group are now trying to miniaturise the device, so I’m helping to build microwave cavities for this research.

Russell: We’ve also machined parts to support the ‘design study’ projects created by our undergraduate students. Sometimes, they just needs a small part or tweak to get it working properly! Recently we have created hundreds of custom ‘materials bucky ball’ key rings for the Great Exhibition Road Festivals and Open Days too, which was a new challenge!

What do the team most enjoy about their roles in the workshop?

Russell: What I enjoy most about the role is meeting people and working with the team. In the workshop, you get to work with many people with great ideas for making the world a better place. If we can be just a small part of that stepping stone to support their research, it can feel very rewarding.

Mike: I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to train our apprentices. I first started training apprentices 11 years ago, and I’m currently training my last! It’s been fantastic to see younger technicians learn new skills over the years and take these forward in their new roles.