Blog posts

PhD Spotlight: Nomaan Nabi on student life during Ramadan

In this post, Nomaan Nabi, Research Postgraduate in the Department of Materials, explains more about Ramadan and how he balances fasting with his research during the holy month.

My name is Nomaan Nabi and I am a Muslim student in the final year of my PhD in the Materials department. I work in the field of energy storage in the Electroceramics group supervised by Professor Stephen Skinner and Dr Ainara Aguadero.

As some of you may know that last week the Holy month of Ramadan began, upon the sighting of the crescent moon. Below I’ve outlined a few common questions about Ramadan and life as a Muslim student during this month.

Can you tell us more about Ramadan?

Ramadan is an extremely special occasion for Muslims as it is a time for God-consciousness, forgiveness, charity, and self-discipline. The month is not only about dry fasting from sunrise to sunset but also about, keeping up with daily prayers, avoiding speaking ill of others and using foul language. At the end of the month, we celebrate Eid al Fitr.

How long do you fast for?

We begin our fast before the first prayer of the day known as Fajr Salah which is before sunrise. We end the fast at sunset. The time during the day for fasting depends on your geographical location with people furthest away from the equator having to fast the longest. This is typically done for thirty consecutive days.

How do you break your fast?

Iftar is the time when we end the fast. Traditionally we break our fast with a date followed by the prayer at Sunset known as Maghrib Salah and then you can have the rest of your meal. As one of the purposes of Ramadan is to put yourself in the shoes of the less fortunate, we try to not have a vast amount of food when we can start eating. I think I can speak for all Muslims one of the greatest feelings at the end of each fast is the first sip of water and a date.

Nomaan Nabi, a Research Postgraduate in the Department of Materials.

When did you start fasting during Ramadan?

I was fourteen years old when I first started fasting. Growing up in Scotland, fasting was something I dreaded as it was during the long summer days. However, as I get older it is always a time I look forward to, as I begin to further understand the benefits whether spiritual or health.

Can you tell us about student life during Ramadan?

The life of a Muslim student during Ramadan can vary a lot from periods of productivity, to becoming quite sluggish as you become dehydrated throughout the day. However, the majority of Muslims during Ramadan go about their day as normal.

Now is a good time as many students are on holidays and hopefully get to spend time with their family and friends.

What will you do this year for Ramadan?

Personally, I tend to stay active in the laboratory, and by the end of the month, I realise how much work is accomplished. As I will be away from my family this Ramadan I will be breaking my fast and praying with fellow Imperial Muslims in the prayer room at College.

Overall, Ramadan is a time for self-improvement and achieving spiritual goals that will hopefully last a lifetime.

If you have any questions regarding Ramadan, you can always approach a Muslim colleague as I am sure they will be more than happy to answer your questions or point you to a more knowledgeable source.

Research Insights: Interview with Dr Anna Klöckner

Dr Anna Klöckner is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Materials. Her research focuses on finding novel treatment strategies to overcome the problem of antibacterial resistance. She works within the Stevens Group and the Edwards Group (Microbiology, CMBI). 

In our latest blog post, Dr Klöckner shares more about her research and the fight against a potential global health crisis.

Can you tell us more about your research area?

The discovery of antibiotics was one of the milestones in medicine. By preventing and treating bacterial infections, these drugs saved millions of lives. In the Golden age of antibiotic discovery (around 1940-1960), many antibiotics were discovered and introduced in the clinic with the misleading assumption ‘to close the book of infectious diseases’. Instead, bacteria have been striking back by getting more resistant to antibiotics and making these once-powerful weapons blunt. Infections caused by multi-drug resistant bacteria often require higher antibiotic concentration and more prolonged treatment courses that come alongside severe side effects for the patients.

With the challenges of finding new antibiotics alongside fewer investments in R&D, we may head towards the next global health crisis caused by multi-drug resistant bacteria. It is now vital to use multidisciplinary efforts to find new ways to treat bacterial infections. Over the last few years, more and more researchers have started investigating bioengineered drug delivery systems in which drugs are encapsulated into particles or scaffolds as an alternative to conventional antibiotic therapy.

What are the main aims of your current research?

Finding novel treatment strategies to overcome the antibacterial resistance problem is a significant team effort. As a microbiologist, I experience difficulties finding new antibiotics, and I know the importance of looking at the problem from different angles.

Over the past years, I have been working on bioengineered drug delivery systems to make our existing antibiotics more efficient. The treatment of multi-drug resistant bacteria often requires a more prolonged and harsher antibiotic course, which can cause side effects and interfere with the patient’s microbiota.

An image of the particles or scaffolds in green with bacteria around them in red.

In my research, I focus on drug delivery systems made of multiple compartments that can be loaded with an antibiotic. They look like a flower and act like little trucks carrying goods. Thereby, the trucks protect the cargo from the environment and vice versa. A significant drawback of antibiotics is that they do not selectively kill harmful bacteria and often affect our good microbiota. To avoid that, it is vital to release the antibiotic from the drug delivery system only at the side of infection.

The beauty of our drug delivery system is that an on-demand release mechanism was introduced, which is triggered by molecules that are only produced by pathogenic bacteria. This guarantees a very local antibiotic exposure which protects most good bacteria in the human body. Over the last years, more research has shown that using a combination of antibiotics to treat pathogens often leads to a better outcome than single antibiotic therapy.

The difficulties in antibiotic combination therapy are that both drugs simultaneously reach the side of infection in a high enough concentration. Due to the multiple compartments of our system, it is straightforward to deliver numerous medications in the same area, guaranteeing the bacteria’s exposure to both drugs at the same time. Therefore, drug delivery systems can provide a promising approach to carrying multiple antibiotics and releasing them only where needed. They would be safer and more efficient than their free antibiotic counterparts.

How could this research potentially benefit society?

The Covid-19 pandemic showed once more how devastating a global pandemic can be for society and economics. Before discovering antibiotics, bacterial outbreaks were frequent. With the plaque holding the dark record as one of the most fatal pandemics in human history, we should not underestimate the threat caused by bacteria. With antimicrobial-resistant bacteria on the rise and the challenge in discovering new antibiotics, there is a chance that history will repeat.

The last decades revealed that the golden age of antibiotic discovery is long over and not many new antibiotics made their way into the clinic.  Bioengineered antibiotic delivery could help overcome the limitation of our currently existing antibiotics and use them more efficiently. The drug delivery system I am working on is versatile and tailored towards a specific bacterial infection. The delivery of multiple antibiotics and the local release of drugs antimicrobial-resistant bacteria could be targeted easier by simultaneously preventing the interruption of the patient’s healthy microbiota. Therefore, drug delivery systems are a promising way to improve our current antibiotic treatment regime and help to solve the antimicrobial-resistant crisis.

What are the next steps in your research? Are there any challenges ahead?

We are in the early stages of developing this type of drug delivery system, where we showed the triggered release of multiple antibiotics and the resulting antibacterial activity in a laboratory environment. We are currently tailoring the drug delivery systems towards specific bacteria classified by the World Health Organisation as critical due to their resistance to antibiotic therapies. Therefore, new release mechanisms, drug combinations and materials for the assembly of the compartments are under investigation.

The immediate next steps would be to test the drug delivery system in an animal infection model to see whether the antibiotic delivery works in a more complex environment. The longer-term challenges are upscaling the production without losing the quality of the drug delivery system by keeping the production costs low and finding the ideal route of administration.

Overall, there might be a bumpy and long road ahead of us before this type of drug delivery system makes it into a real-world application. Still, if that means we are one step closer to overcoming the antimicrobial-resistant problem, it is worth it.

Research Insights: Interview with Dr Sam Humphry-Baker

Dr Sam Humphry-Baker is an Imperial College Research Fellow in the Department of Materials. His research lies at the intersection of materials science and fusion engineering, where he develops new materials that can enable fusion energy reactors to be deployed on a smaller scale.  

In this blog post, Dr Humphry-Baker shares more details about his research and passion for fusion energy.

Can you tell us more about your research area?

My research supports the development of fusion energy. In the past, fusion reactors have been very large and expensive to build, which has meant progress with the technology has been slow. However, recent developments of more powerful magnets have meant that the reactors can be made much smaller than previously.

The shrinking of the reactor leaves certain components more exposed to damage from high energy particles being produced by the fusion reaction. Usually, these components are protected by shielding, but current shielding materials are optimised for conventional nuclear power, so these components will begin to degrade within weeks or months. It is therefore important that new, more efficient shielding materials are developed.

My research seeks to design these materials so that the lifetime of the reactor can be extended to decades to enable commercial power production. My team and I at Imperial are designing new ceramic materials with orders of magnitude increases in reactor lifetime over conventional materials. This work is carried out in collaboration with leading fusion engineering companies like Tokamak Energy Ltd, as it is important to consider the issues involved with integrating these new materials into a real engineering system.

Once these materials have been designed on the computer, we must address the key scientific and engineering challenges governing their practical use. This is critical as these materials are not used industrially. Therefore, there is limited understanding of how they can be manufactured and how they will behave in the extreme conditions of a fusion reactor.

What are the main aims of your current research?

The first aim of my research relates to the manufacture of the materials. Because they are not widely available, we must develop a new understanding of how the fabrication variables can be optimised to gain optimal performance in the material. These ceramics melt at very high temperatures; therefore, we must build them up from powders. My team and I do this by fusing the powders together under heat and pressure, similar to how many high-temperature components like space shuttle tiles are made.

The second aim of my research is to demonstrate performance in reactor-like conditions. The key challenge is that they will be bombarded by high energy particles in the reactor. This is particularly damaging in a fusion reactor as the particle energy is much higher than in a conventional nuclear reactor. The bombardment tends to jumble up the arrangement of the atoms, which can make the materials more brittle; in the same way that when you bend a paperclip back and forth, it can eventually snap. To test this, we collaborate with experts in computer modelling to understand what kind of jumbling up processes are most important. Then we use specialist particle beam facilities to experimentally see what the jumbling up does to the structure of the material.

The final thrust of my research group is to engineer new composite structures with improved damage tolerance. One of the tricks we have used is to add a cement-like layer between relatively brittle ceramic particles. These kinds of structures are commonly found in nature; for example, sea-snail shells are built from thinly stacked layers of relatively brittle chalk-like ceramics, with a gluey substance in between. So, when predators strike the shell, cracks tend to stop in the glue, and the snail survives. Obviously, shells have had several million years of evolution to optimise their structure, whereas we must do it in a much shorter timescale, which is challenging but also exciting!

How could this research potentially benefit society?

My research in developing these materials could enable fusion reactors to be built at a much smaller scale than previously possible, meaning privately funded companies can now get involved for the first time. This accelerates the rate at which fusion energy can be rolled out in the future. For example, companies like Tokamak Energy and General Fusion plan to build energy demonstrating reactors in the 2020s. This is much earlier than the equivalent front running energy demonstrating fusion reactor being planned by international government collaboration, which is planned for 2050. Accelerating fusion’s development could allow us to help the UK in meeting its ambitious carbon emission targets.

Many of the environmental benefits of fusion are shared with renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. However, fusion has additional advantages in that there is no need for costly long-term storage for when it’s dark, or the wind isn’t blowing. Furthermore, since electricity only represents about a fifth of the UK’s energy usage, we must decarbonise our substantially larger needs from heating. Small fusion reactors could do this by heating our homes through district heating systems and powering challenging processes like steelmaking as they will operate at a much higher temperature than conventional nuclear reactors. A further advantage over conventional nuclear is that there is no risk of a reactor meltdown, and the waste produced is safe to handle and recycle after a much shorter time.

I recently attended the Earl of Wessex Future Energy Conference to explain my vision for how small fusion reactors can help the UK reach Net-Zero by 2050. My team and I were awarded a prize in the Young Persons energy pitch competition.

Dr Humphry-Baker and team picture with Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

What are the next steps in your research? Are there any challenges ahead?

We have already developed the maturity of our first generation of new shielding materials to a fairly high level. The next stage for these materials is to put them in a real nuclear reactor and study their performance in greater detail. These experiments are very costly and require collaboration with dedicated international facilities. We currently have materials sitting in a reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, and we expect to start getting the first experimental results at some point later in the year, which is very exciting.

Once this work is complete, there are several engineering challenges that must be overcome before these materials can be deployed in a real fusion reactor. For example, we must develop new ways to join them to structural elements in the reactor and understand how they interact with coolants, which can often be corrosive.

Materials science is at the heart of many of these challenges, but solving them will require collaborating with a huge array of different engineers and scientists in the future. Interacting with these people keeps me fresh and energised to do this research!

Time to turn over a new LEAF? Research Postgraduate Ritika Vastani on improving sustainability in the lab

Ritika Vastani is a Research Postgraduate in the group of Professor Stephen Skinner. In Spring 2020, Ritika and her research group took part in the LEAF framework, an initiative created at UCL to improve the sustainability and efficiency of laboratories. The group received a bronze award for their efforts.

In our latest blog post, Ritika shares more about her experience and the small steps you can take to improve sustainability in the lab.

  1. What inspired the group to get involved with the LEAF programme?

As a research group that works towards materials development for new energy technologies, we understand the growing importance of combating global warming and climate change. Whilst most people associate sustainability with the environment, I believe that becoming sustainable is a part of our daily life choices. I saw the LEAF programme as an opportunity for our group to become more sustainable because research laboratories are resource and energy-intensive. As a group, we decided to work towards achieving the bronze award, and through fortnightly group meetings, we discussed where improvements were needed in our research lab.

  1. How did you maintain a collaborative effort towards sustainability?

All group members were involved in improving sustainability within the lab. We had two nominated people in our group to drive sustainability forward, and the remaining members were appointed to oversee one of the criteria in the framework. Frequent group meetings played a significant role to discuss and identify our areas for improvement and we were able to update each other on our progress. Most importantly, fortnightly lab cleaning allowed us to work together to achieve the criteria which we identified to take longer, i.e. tackling or discarding waste materials left by departed students and staff. These efforts combined encouraged us to work as a team and achieve the bronze award.

  1. What changes did the group implement in the labs?

The main changes to the lab included creating a new system for sharing of chemicals. To combat this, we set up a Quartzy database to track shared chemicals in which all lab members had access to search and add new inventory. We became more sustainable through encouraging sharing and reducing potential future waste. In addition, we sorted through pre-existing samples, where we then assigned a designated area for older samples. Moving forwards, we implemented an exit form for future departing staff/students. The form allowed us to know the exact location of the stored samples in the lab. Most importantly, visible signage was placed to encourage good practice to lower fume hood sashes, discard chemical waste appropriately, turn off lights when not in use and recycle packaging where we can.

  1. What did you learn from the programme?

Taking part in the LEAF programme has enabled us to understand how sustainability is not only dependent on reducing waste and energy consumption. Becoming a sustainable research lab has also relied upon becoming socially responsible in day-to-day life around the lab. For example, the Quartzy database allows current users to input and future lab members to search for existing chemicals. These changes have allowed us to implement sustainable practices around the lab, allowing short-term benefits from an economic prospect and long-term environmental benefits to arise.

  1. What advice would you give staff and students looking to improve sustainability in their labs?

Taking part in the LEAF programme is an excellent opportunity to improve sustainability in your research lab. As a student who is driving sustainability forward in our group, it is important to work as a team to implement sustainable practices.

The LEAF programme is now available for any research institution looking to improve their sustainability, including outside the UK. If you are interested in taking part, please email LEAF@ucl.ac.uk for an introduction and information on how to get involved.

If you would like to learn more about sustainability at Imperial, please visit the college website for more information.

Disability History Month: Dr Amy Nommeots-Nomm shares more about her hidden disability

Disability History Month is celebrated every year from 18 November to 18 December, with the aim to celebrate the lives of disabled people now and in the past, challenge disablism by exploring oppression and achieve equality. 

Dr Amy Nommeots-Nomm is a Research Development Manager in the Department of Materials. She completed her PhD in the Department of Materials under the supervision of Professor Julian Jones. 

Dr Nommeots-Nomm also has a hidden disability – dyslexia.

In this blog post, she explains how dyslexia can affect her daily life and the changes she would like to see to support people with dyslexia.

Can you explain more about dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a common, lifelong, specific learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. It’s estimated up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia! I wasn’t diagnosed until the third year of my undergraduate degree, when things went a little pear-shaped when I was trying to write my undergrad thesis. Once I was diagnosed, a lot of things just made sense!

How does this impact your life at Imperial?

In my current role, I do a lot of writing, proofreading, and sending emails as with any job (and exasperated by covid)! On the surface, this doesn’t seem like it goes too well with my dyslexia, but as I have gained an understanding of my specific learning difficulty, I have become equipped with several workarounds.

Compared to when I found out about my dyslexia 10 years ago to now, there are so many great and free pieces of software out there to help people like me- like using google translate to read out emails before you send them or Grammarly software to sanity check words that sound the same but are spelt differently. So, I find, less and less frequently do I accidentally ask people to bear with me!

Are there any programmes or communities at Imperial which have helped you?

I am a member of ABLE which is Imperial’s staff network for disability and disability supporters. They’re a wonderful community, and it has been a great way to connect with people outside of the department since being in post, learn more about the different disabilities within our community, and support others.

What would you most like to change about people’s view of your disability?

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence; Albert Einstein is famously dyslexic! I like the analogue that dyslexic brains are wired differently, and just because we sometimes struggle to articulate ourselves on paper, doesn’t mean we don’t have other great skills!

Do you have any advice for others with a hidden disability?

Don’t keep it a secret!  Be honest about your situation with colleagues/your supervisor. I’ve learnt that it makes the somewhat inevitable mistakes more bearable.

Research Insights: Interview with Professor Baptiste Gault

Professor Baptiste Gault is a Professor of Materials in the Department of Materials and leader of Atom Probe Tomography research at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung. He is the Group Leader for Atom Probe Tomography

Atom Probe Tomography is the only material analysis technique offering extensive capabilities for both 3D imaging and chemical composition measurements at the atomic scale. Since its early developments, Atom Probe Tomography has contributed to major advances in materials science.

In this blog post, Professor Baptiste Gault shares more about Atom Probe Tomography, his research journey and how materials will be crucial in transitioning to a zero-carbon world.

Can you tell us more about Atom Probe Tomography?

Atom probe tomography is a growing microscopy and microanalysis technique that provides three-dimensional compositional mapping with sub-nanometre resolution and a sensitivity that goes down in the range of parts-per-million across all elements of the periodic table. This essentially means that we can take a small piece of material and measure very locally and with a high precision how much there is of each element inside and how they are distributed with respect to one another.

Why is this interesting, you might ask…? In any given material, the way the atoms of the various components are organised controls the properties of interest of the material. If we wish to design materials that are stronger, more active, more resilient against failure, then we need to understand what in the atomic structure and distribution underpins these properties and how these evolve during service. That’s where atom probe tomography becomes useful: it can complement existing techniques – think optical and electron microscopies, wet chemistry or X-ray based diffraction and spectroscopies, for instance – and provide compositional analysis on an unparalleled scale. The facility that we’re establishing at Imperial will enable us to deploy multiple microscopy techniques on the same specimen to obtain structure and composition from correlating electron-based techniques and atom probe tomography.

The field has been expanding and evolving really fast in the past decade. During my PhD studies, there were more than a dozen groups worldwide and maybe 20 instruments in operation. Today there are over 120 and the community is growing. We described these recent developments and how the atom probe works in this Nature Reviews Methods Primer article published in late July.

The new Hydra Plasma Focused Ion Beam facility in the Department of Materials

What led you to research this area of Materials Science?

That’s a tougher question than you might think… like many other things in life, they often happen. I studied both physics and chemistry as I intended to become a secondary school teacher, then ended up picking up a master degree and materials science seemed closer to my interests; the list of internships had one with a recently appointed lecturer who seemed nice and fun, and I got into atom probe then… this might have been a trap!

I was then awarded a scholarship for a PhD and decided to continue working on the development of the atom probe instrumentation during my postdoctoral work and then as a senior scientist and now academic. I’ve kept an interest in method development and in the application of the technique to an ever-increasing range of materials systems and problems. It’s good fun, and I keep learning from all the amazing folks I end up collaborating with – that’s the most interesting side of this entire endeavour.

What are the main aims of your current research?

So my research really had two main directions.

On the one hand, “push the analytical limits of atom probe tomography” – this was my mission statement when I started my first postdoc at the University of Sydney in 2007 and still applies today. So part of the work of my close collaborators is a consequence of the development of new instrumental protocols, for instance, how can we transport samples from one instrument used for the preparation of suitable specimen into an atom probe while keeping them very cold (cryogenic temperature close to -200˚C) and under very high vacuum (somewhere in the range of what we find in outer space). We also work on developing methods to extract more meaningful information from the three-dimensional point cloud that we generate or to improve the reliability of the processing of the raw data from the instrument. For this, we explore the use of machine learning approaches, for instance.

On the other hand, we make use of the technique to provide insights into a range of materials, which includes steels for cars, nickel and titanium and aluminium alloys for various parts in planes, thermoelectrics and photovoltaics for energy conversion from heat or sunlight, hard and soft magnets for electric car engines or wind-power generators amongst other things. Because the microstructure of these materials is typically hierarchical and complex on multiple scales, we use a range of microscopy and microanalysis techniques which culminate with atom probe tomography performed on the bits of the material that have been identified as the most critical: the cherry on the cake.

Can you explain some of your recent results?

Materials will be critical to most aspects of the zero-carbon transition. Whether we want to extend the lifetime of engineering parts to limit the use of resources and their making, which is an important source of emissions, or design new materials with enhanced properties or activity towards enabling the hydrogen economy, atom probe can be used in complement to an arsenal of techniques to bring insights that are critical to understanding fundamental processes and apply those to engineer better materials.

LEAP 5000 XR Atom Probe Facility
LEAP 5000 XR Atom Probe Facility in the Department of Materials

Since the award of an ERC-Consolidator grant in 2018, the group has a specific focus on the analysis of hydrogen in materials and materials relevant to the hydrogen economy. We hear a lot more about hydrogen in the media at the moment, as it is an interesting candidate for decarbonisation of aspects of our society – maybe some parts of transportation and industrial processes, including steelmaking.

Hydrogen is also known to cause or facilitate embrittlement of most metallic materials, which becomes especially critical for high-strength alloys that are necessary for making lighter cars and planes to reduce carbon emissions, for instance. Hydrogen is the lightest of elements, and it remains elusive to most microscopy and techniques, so many questions regarding its interaction with the microstructure remain open.

In the group, we make use of our dedicated infrastructure involving an atom probe and a cryogenically-enabled focused-ion beam and the possibility to transfer samples from one instrument to another. This platform, located at MPIE in Germany, served as a template for the facility that is being installed at Imperial as we speak. First, we showed the possibility and critical importance of cryogenic specimen preparation. Then, we used isotopic-labelling, i.e. introduced “heavy hydrogen” inside a material, froze the sample to prevent hydrogen diffusion out of the material and then performed analysis to map the distribution of deuterium and help narrow down on some of the hydrogen embrittlement mechanisms and mechanisms of hydride growth. We use this knowledge to design new alloys as well. In parallel, we are looking at hydrogen-based ironmaking, for instance, and the synthesis of active materials for water splitting and subsequent analyses by APT to better understand how they form and what underpins their activity. So a relatively broad range of materials and problems.

What are the next steps for your research? 

We’ve started making a dent into the possibility of analysing frozen liquids and liquid-metal interface, and that’s where the next frontier for us lies. The new facility at Imperial will help us perform these analyses at an unprecedented level of precision. We will be able to stop ongoing surface reactions, for instance, or wet corrosion “as it happens”, and these processes can be used to our advantage to tailor active surfaces, for example. This is extremely exciting for me!

PhD Spotlight: Enrico Manfredi-Haylock on chemical robots and new discoveries

Enrico Manfredi-Haylock is a Research Postgraduate in the Department of Materials. His research focuses on lead-acid battery recycling using novel solvents under the supervision of Professor David Payne.

During his research, Enrico received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council to build a chemical robot as a student project. Over the summer, he led a team of UROP students for 10 weeks, developing a chemical robot for the automated dissolution and dilution of lead materials in solvents.

In this blog post, Enrico explains more about the benefits of this robot and its potential on a larger scale.

1. Can you provide an overview of the main aims of your PhD research project?

While my project has changed due to COVID-19 and from new data gained from experiments, the aim has always been to discover new solvents to dissolve and recover lead materials from batteries.

I aim to find a solvent that is so effective at dissolving and recovering lead materials from batteries that a process built with it can completely replace smelting-based recycling, which is highly polluting and energy-intensive.

The solvents under investigation are called Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES). They are essentially mixtures of organic compounds that combine unique intermolecular interactions that result in a very chemically active liquid that is highly capable of dissolving metal oxides and other compounds. I’ve been actively exploring DES for lead-acid batteries since 2018 when I did a UROP for my 3rd year UG placement in David’s group. I then chose the project as my master’s project the following year, and doing a PhD in it seemed like a natural progression and a good way of answering the question that has always bugged me – how do these solvents work?

2. What led you to develop a chemical robot?

The problem with the solvents I use is that they are very viscous. This, combined with their chemistry, means that the reactions are very slow. This firstly presents a challenge because you have to keep the reaction going for a long time (sometimes days!) to get a time-resolved reaction profile. The second challenge is that in these very slow systems, processing parameters significantly affect the final dissolved lead content (how we measure how “good” a solvent is – the more lead dissolved, the better).

So if you stir it a bit faster, or you’re a little too slow in your dilution when the reaction is finished, you introduce significant error into your final readings of lead concentration in the solvent. The smallest error that I was getting after I’d been doing the experiment for months and had built up the experience and muscle memory was still 30%, which does not help figure out how the solvent works. So instead of using the same method, which clearly didn’t work, I asked myself what else I could try. After thinking about it for some time, automation seemed like the best solution.

3. Can you tell us more about the chemical robot you created? 

In its current form, the robot will automatically add lead solids to a vial filled with a deep eutectic solvent and stir it for a set amount of time. After mixing, it will automatically extract the mixture of solvents and residual solids into a syringe and then push it through a filter into a smaller vial. A micropipette will then pick up about 20 thousandths of a millilitre and place it in another vial filled with about 5 millilitres of acid. While this machine is a little slower to do the dilutions (400s) than by hand (~300s), it is much more precise and can keep track of the time taken, allowing for more consistency in the result.

It can also do 5 samples consecutively without stopping, allowing for uninterrupted multi-day mixing experiments with excellent time precision. This machine was originally built remotely in two parts by UROP students Dewen Sun (Materials) and Sarthak Das (Design Engineering) with Irdina Rohaimi shadowing the project. After the 10-week remote build phase, the parts were delivered to campus, where I integrated the systems into the final machine and tested it.

(A video of the chemical robot in action. This video has been sped up x4 for viewers)

4. How will the chemical robot help your research?

The current iteration of the robot is meant to be more of a proof-of-concept and a testbed for future iterations. However, this system will allow me to double my throughput since it can conduct about as many experiments as I can do independently (with cleaning in between). This is important for solvent discovery as we just need to try lots of solvents and combinations.

To some extent, this kind of work is perfect for automation because you only change starting materials, but other than that, the experiments are the same. Therefore, instead of being a machine myself, I can build one and spend the time doing more experiments or interpreting my data, which will take a load off my shoulders. In future, an upscaled version of this system will work much faster than me and will generate so much data that I won’t need to go into the lab at all except for maintenance and machine refills. I think this is a dream shared by many chemists, some of whom are also trying to automate their lab processes!

5. What are the next steps for your project? 

I have just applied for £80,000 to the Royce materials 4.0 feasibility & pilot scheme to build an upscaled version of the machine with David’s support.

The upscaled version will handle around 500 samples compared to the 5 of the current machine and will be able to run some processes in parallel. This machine should average 71 samples a day. For context, I can only do 15.

The core concept is the same – instead of starting from scratch, I intend to use a 3D printer as a starting point because it already has all of the XYZ handlings we need and a structured command language to execute these movements. However, instead of using a couple of cheap desktop printers with 12x12cm of accessible space, I will be using an industrial 3D printer with 180x60cm of accessible space.The 500-position syringe filtering system also needs to use a co-located robotic arm to access and actuate each position.

It’s a very ambitious scale-up but based on the concepts tested with the first prototype, I’m confident that it will work, and it may well end up being one of the largest automated chemistry robots out there!

Research Insights: Interview with Dr Stella Pedrazzini

Dr Stella PedrazziniAn image of Dr Stella Pedrazzini is a Lecturer in Engineering Alloys and Metallurgy in the Department of Materials.

She works on the environmental degradation of engineering alloys, with a particular interest in oxidation and hot corrosion of nickel and cobalt-based superalloys, aqueous corrosion of steel as well as advanced characterisation techniques such as transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and atom probe tomography (APT). Dr Pedrazzini also teaches the 1st year undergraduate module in Materials Electrochemistry.

  1. Can you tell us more about your research area and the importance of investigating metallic corrosion?

Imperial College is based in central London, and yet no one comes to work by driving through Hammersmith bridge, even though avoiding it leads to a very long detour. There’s a very simple reason for this: the bridge is closed for the next 7 years. It is in immediate danger of collapse due to decades of unchecked corrosion[1]. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Metals have been used by mankind since about 3000 BC, and in thousands of years, we have not found a way to stop them from corroding. That is because most pure metals are a human creation: in nature, they are only found as ores. Ores are generally a mixture of metal oxides, chlorides or sulfides. We process ores to become pure metals, we “borrow them” from nature for a few years but there is always a strong driving force acting to revert them back to their stable state. We are fighting an uphill battle with corrosion.

Hammersmith Bridge
Hammersmith Bridge

But this is a battle worth fighting: we need metals. Metals have properties other materials just don’t have. They are ductile, strong, electrically and thermally conductive and their properties can be tailored through alloying. Over the years, our metallurgical investigation tools have become increasingly sophisticated, allowing step-changes in progress towards the understanding of metallic corrosion and protection techniques.

  1. What led you to study metallic corrosion?

When I was a student at the European School of Brussels I always favoured the sciences over other subjects, particularly chemistry. That’s part of the reason I chose to study Materials Science at university: it is a mixture of chemistry, physics and engineering.

Once I started the courses, I realised I had a particular interest in metallurgy, an interest which I pursued during my MEng and DPhil degrees at the University of Oxford. When I graduated, I started working on different metal investigation tools, such as atomic scale microscopy. It’s around this time when I started working on corrosion: corrosion is very difficult to investigate and I really enjoyed the challenge. I worked on corrosion as a researcher for almost 5 years, initially at the University of Oxford, then at the University of Cambridge, before establishing my own research group at Imperial College London.

To this day, very few research groups around the world work on corrosion due to the challenges involved in this type of investigation. I am delighted to receive support for my corrosion work from Imperial College, from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, from the Royal Academy of Engineering and from various industrial partners, all of which serves to highlight the industrial importance and economic impact of corrosion research.

  1. What are the main aims of your research?

Our aims are:

  • To be able to simulate in our labs the working environment of a metal (eg when used in a jet engine, industrial-scale furnace, industrial gas turbine, car engine, nuclear reactor, off-shore platform, wind farm etc). This allows us to corrode the metals in controlled laboratory experiments, without the costs and safety risks of them corroding in-service.
  • To understand the mechanisms by which the metals corrode so that we can prevent them. This can be done by changing the alloy composition, adding some in-built corrosion protection (like stainless steel), or by adding coatings or other protection mechanisms.
  • To use this knowledge to be able to predict how metals would corrode in-service in specific applications. This allows us to predict their lifetime, therefore reducing safety concerns.

My research group is divided by material: we have people working on steels, on nickel-based superalloys, on titanium alloys and more recently on zirconium too. The noble metals are the only ones that don’t corrode (…easily! Though that can be arranged too!), everything else is worthy of investigation.

  1. How could this research potentially benefit society or the way we live?

Dr Pedrazzini in the lab with her research group
Dr Pedrazzini in the lab with her research group in 2019

Corrosion has a huge environmental, safety and economic impact: it costs us 3.4% of global GDP yearly[2]. It presents challenges in almost every industry: construction, transportation, bio-medical, electronics, power generation and many more.

We only need to go through some newspaper headlines to realise the effect of corrosion on our daily lives. Bridges have been shut[3], or have collapsed[4], aeroplanes have been grounded[5], oil pipelines have burst[6], nuclear site accidents have happened[7], all due to unchecked corrosion. In addition, due to some recent high-profile retirements in the field, there is currently a strong need for more corrosion management professionals both in the UK and worldwide.

Some of the work from my own research group has helped inform the corrosion rates of aero-engines, industrial gas turbines, nuclear reactors and medical implants exposed to body fluids.

  1. What are your next steps are in your research? Are there any challenges ahead?

Since moving to Imperial in 2018 I have focussed all my efforts on building up our corrosion research capabilities. This involves building unique equipment that can allow us to simulate metal service conditions, so we can safely corrode metals in a controlled manner in the lab.

All this equipment has to be bespoke and homemade: no companies produce it or sell anything like it. This includes bespoke electrochemical cells that allow us to apply mechanical pressures on the samples while in a wet corrosive environment, or to handle corrosive gases while fatigue testing the metallic components. Some of it involves safely pressurising very corrosive gases like H2S, or heating the samples to over 1400 °C, if that is the environment they have to survive in-service. We also just received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a new microscopy facility which will be instrumental for analysing corroded samples.

All these new unique facilities are now coming together, so I am looking forward to being able to expand the range and tackle more corrosion problems as they arise.

[1] http://www.transport-network.co.uk/Hammersmith-Bridge-wont-open-until-2027-after-decades-of-unchecked-corrosion/16940

[2] http://impact.nace.org/economic-impact.aspx

[3] http://www.transport-network.co.uk/Hammersmith-Bridge-wont-open-until-2027-after-decades-of-unchecked-corrosion/16940

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/genoa-bridge-collapse-engineer-riccardo-morandi-warning-corrosion-rust-concrete-a8498716.html

[5] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2018/11/09/rolls-royce-admits-yet-corrosion-problems-jet-engines/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/04/us-oil-pipeline-left-to-rust-to-paper-thin-before-145km-pacific-ocean-slick

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/03/nyregion/corrosion-seen-as-a-plant-accident-cause.html

Student Interviews: Lukau Mbolokele on Black History Month

Lukau Mbolokele is a second-year undergraduate student in the Department of Materials. For Black History Month 2021, he has shared more about his journey into Materials Science, having pride in your achievements and the importance of diversity in Science.

The theme this year for Black History Month is #Proud to be (me). To find out more about events for Black History  Month and celebrations at Imperial, please visit our website.

What led you to study Materials Science at Imperial?

When I first realised the versatility of Materials Science – being interdisciplinary in Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. The concept of understanding, manipulating, and applying materials as solutions to the world’s problems reinforced my desire to pursue materials as a degree. Imperial was also my preferred university due to its specialisation in STEM courses and exposure to different cultures and mindsets.

What did you enjoy about your first year at Imperial, and what are you looking forward to this year?

My first year introduced me to a range of new interconnected concepts. Learning different topics every day helped keep my interest ablaze during the pandemic, and I enjoyed learning new skills like 3D printing and coding. This year I’m looking forward to connecting with the Imperial Materials community in person and continuing projects that have built transferable skills.

The theme of Black History Month 2021 is #Proud to be (me). Can you share what you are most proud of?

Coming from a low-income background, I wasn’t exposed to many opportunities to enrich my interests in STEM. There was also the challenge of overcoming the stereotypical barriers that have been imprinted on us from youth by the media.

I’m #Proudtobe a student who has reached one of the top universities in the world. My acceptance has brought so much happiness to my family and me.

What changes would you like to see for students studying STEM in the future?

I’d like to see a more diverse pool of students studying Materials Science (and STEM subjects in general!). Everyone must also strive for a place where all students can confidently attend university without feeling isolated or like an imposter.

An image of Lukau Mbolokele
Lukau Mbolokele standing on the steps outside the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College London.

Student Interviews: Our Summer placements

Many undergraduate students at Imperial College London decide to complete a placement based in a department, at another university or with industry over the summer. These placements are organised by the student independently.

In the blog posts below, two of our students have shared more about their experiences this year.

Harry Hughes – Undergraduate Research Opportunity Placement in the Department of Materials

An image of Harry HughesHi, I’m Harry! I am an incoming second-year undergraduate student studying Materials Science & Engineering at Imperial College London. I have recently completed a 10-week Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme for the Engineering Alloys research group with Dr Stella Pedrazzini.

The project investigated stress corrosion, cracking and pitting corrosion that austenitic stainless steels experience under various salt exposures; this will be used in the context of the dry fuel store campaign that EDF Energy is conducting.

The motivation to complete a placement within this field was to further build on my experiences of working within corrosion and oxidation. I have previously worked as an intern for a year within EDF Energy’s Chemistry & CO2 Oxidation group, where I helped research boiler oxidation kinetics in the current fleet of UK AGR power stations.

Any placement comes with its own set of challenges, and the UROP was not an exception. As the research was independently run by myself and another student, I had to formulate an experimentation plan with limited lab experience and knowledge of the subject area. Time management was also a key factor in the success of the placement – due to the pandemic, time spent in the laboratory was limited to only 15 hours a week. This meant I had to be smart with my time and plan ahead to complete the investigation within 10 weeks.

In all honesty, I wasn’t keen to complete research before the UROP. However, its independent nature led me to fundamentally enjoy my experience and has made me consider completing a PhD after my undergraduate degree. I have always been a person who enjoys leading projects, and this UROP has exposed me to this. Working with Imperial has also been very different to working with EDF Energy. The internship at EDF Energy was more structured by having stricter objectives, and for the most part, I completed smaller remedial tasks. Compared to the UROP, whilst having a final goal, I could pick and choose areas within corrosion that I could investigate, which I really enjoyed.

My advice to anyone who is thinking of completing a UROP? Look up which professors research areas spark your interest the most and contact them directly to see whether any positions are available within their group. Imperial College London’s Careers Service and your personal tutor are also useful tools you can use to seek out any potential placement opportunities.

I hope this post has given you an understanding of how a materials UROP takes place, alongside its challenges, and has inspired you to apply for one. Good luck!

Jakub Lala – Summer Placement at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

An image of Jakub LalaThis summer, I completed a 10-week placement at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, specifically in the Computational Sciences and Modelling Lab led by Michele Ceriotti. EPFL has several placement programmes available, and I applied through both the E3 Engineering Programme (deadline around January) and the Research Internship Programme (applications open in October).

During the first five weeks, I worked on a visualisation tool called Chemiscope, improving its website and implementing a Jupyter Notebook integration. For the rest of the internship, I worked on a PyTorch model to optimize coupling parameters, reducing the amount of elemental information required for material structure datasets, hence improving the learning rate of machine learning models afterwards. Having both of these aspects during the placement showed me the importance of both software engineering and actual modelling science in the arena of modelling computation.

Although this will vary depending on the lab, I am extremely grateful that my direct supervisor was a PostDoc, who was almost always available, meaning whenever I felt frustrated or I was stuck in terms of progress, he would easily step in and helped me with valuable guidance. Posing stupid questions to him was not an issue, giving me the potential to learn a lot and advance fast. On the other hand, when he went on a summer vacation, the internship highlighted that one also needs independence during work to develop the necessary problem-solving skills without someone senior fixing his problems for him.

A snapshot of Chemiscope, a Visualisation tool that Jakub used for his research.

This opportunity also allowed me to taste life in another country, especially the work and societal cultures. This not only gave me important insight that may become helpful once applying for future jobs or PhDs abroad, but it also widened my perception of global opportunities by demonstrating that it is conceivable getting involved in impactful work all around the world, in all sorts of fields. More importantly, by talking to PhDs or PostDocs in the lab, you get invaluable information that will help you decide on your future career. Personally, I realised that an academic career is definitely something I do not want to pursue, but going for a PhD interlinked with the industry might be somewhat lucrative and exciting.

If you are trying to find an internship, use the network you already have. By asking your current professors or researchers, either sending them an email or visiting their office, you are doing yourself a favour in the long run, as they can recommend you suitable labs, professors, or companies in whatever field you might have interest in. For instance, my former Imperial UROP supervisor recommended Michele’s lab as an interesting place to apply to, and then in a similar manner, Michele was kind enough to suggest a potential MIT supervisor for my future Master’s thesis.

To find out more about Undergraduate Placement Opportunities, visit the Department of Materials website.