Welcome to Interfaces, the newsletter from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield. Every month, we’ll bring you news from the world of Materials, from us and elsewhere, and how discoveries made through the years affect our lives today.
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Dr Rebecca Boston is a Lloyd’s Register Foundation / Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at The University of Sheffield. Her research is into the control of nanostructures for functional oxide ceramics, with a specific focus in their uses in capacitors, thermoelectrics and batteries. These components are of particular relevance as they can be found in any modern electronic device you can think of from your mobile phone to complex scientific equipment.
How did you get to where you are today?
I started off studying at the University of Bristol for a degree in physics, followed by a PhD with the Bristol Centre in functional nanomaterials. I moved to the university’s School of Chemistry to do my PhD, and so when I decided to do a postdoctoral I wanted to carry on researching something that covered areas of both physics and chemistry.
My PhD was looking at controlling nanoscale crystal growth in oxide materials, and I decided to continue this work by expanding my techniques into new materials. I was very fortunate to find a postdoctoral position at the University of Sheffield, which gave me the scope to test some of my early ideas. I realised quite quickly that my expertise was a new approach for the field, and that I had something potentially valuable to contribute. These ideas lead me to apply for fellowships to give me independence in my research and ideas, and enable me to build my own research group.
Why did you choose to study physics?
I enjoyed physics at school and I wanted to carry on learning about how the universe works. Physics underpins a lot of general scientific concepts so I’ve found it really useful to have the fundamental understanding of materials, which physics has given me, and it’s great to now be able to use that to solve real-world problems.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
Every day has something different – I do a lot of work in the lab, designing and running experiments, for myself or with the students I supervise. I also spend a lot of time writing, either grant applications or articles for journals. Communicating ideas is absolutely central to my everyday work, so it’s good to be able to do a little every day.
What are you working on at the moment?
My team and I now work on controlling crystal growth in all sorts of materials, with the goal of reducing how much energy is used to make them, and to create materials that work more effectively than those we currently use. My work at the moment is all about oxide materials, which are found everywhere in modern life. The problem is they take a lot of energy to make and often contain toxic or rare materials, which make them expensive or difficult to recycle. My goal at the moment is to use natural products to make materials at low temperatures, and control the size and shape of the crystals as they grow. Shape and size can be used to control how the materials work, rather than just composition, and hopefully this means we will need to use less energy, and will be less reliant on elements for which supplies are running out.
What has been your biggest career highlight?
Gaining independence has been the biggest step for me so far – being able to choose my own direction and follow my own ideas to wherever they lead is incredibly rewarding.
What’s your main advice to others about securing funding?
Start early, apply for everything you can, and try not to take rejection to heart. It’s really hard to see something you’ve put so much into not work out, but don’t give up, use any feedback – if you get some – and make the next one even better. Most importantly, you need to be passionate about your ideas – if you don’t believe in what you’re trying to do, the panel definitely won’t, but genuine passion is infectious and one of the best ways to communicate convincingly.
66th Hatfield Memorial Lecture: Connection and Pathways Evolving from a Metallurgical Education at Sheffield University
Dr Jeffrey Wadsworth, Former President and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute
In an entertaining and informative talk, Dr Jeff Wadsworth kept the Hatfield Memorial Lecture audience fully engaged with stories from his career. With his guidance, we travelled from Ancient Egypt to neural bypass technology, with several stops along the way.
The journey began with Dr Wadsworth’s work in the development of superplastic steels, and how they happened to discover, or rather rediscover, the secrets of Damascus Steel. In addition to reproducing the Damascus patterns that arise from redistribution of the carbides in steel, the superplastic steel was also made into laminates with mild steel, then forged and folded repeatedly, while undergoing heat treatment cycles to control the microstructure.
While working on the development of these laminated steels, Dr Wadsworth and his colleagues became aware of a process for carbon dating steel, allowing them to investigate the provenance of a number of historical artifacts.
With this knowledge, Dr Wadsworth turned his attention to reviewing some historical mysteries. Frank Richtig was a knife maker from Nebraska who claimed to have a secret method of treating his knives so that they would be tough and retain their sharp edge. To demonstrate their properties, Richtig would cut up steel bolts, horseshoes and axles, and then cut newspaper to show edge retention. Subsequent work found that Richtig had discovered the process of Austempering well ahead of his time.
Next, we travelled to Giza in Egypt, and the Great Pyramid, where a piece of laminated steel was discovered in 1837, and claimed to date from 2650 BC, with his understanding of carbon dating, Dr Wadsworth proposed to confirm the date using this technique. However, the British Museum were reluctant to let the artefact be compromised by such testing, so while the technique to more accurately estimate the age of the piece exists, this is one mystery that will remain intact…for now.
Dr Wadsworth then moved on to talking about the amazing work carried out at Battelle Memorial Institute, For instance, did you know that bar codes, compact discs and the Xerox machine were all developed at the Institute. They have the world’s most powerful laser, and the world’s fastest computer. They are leading research in energy, advanced manufacturing, defense and healthcare, and Dr Wadsworth, Alumnus of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield, led the company and shaped its vision for nine years.
In his presentation, Dr Wadsworth echoed the vision of Gordon Battelle, founder of the Battelle Memorial Institute. Battelle wanted to translate scientific discovery and technology advances into societal benefits for the purpose of education in connection with and the encouragement of creative and research work in the making of discoveries and inventions to do the greatest good for humanity.
Dr Wadsworth emphasised that there is no greater gift than that of an education and that he and the Battelle Memorial Institute are dedicated to making sure this continues to be the case. To this end, in addition to the private gifts that he and his wife have given, the Battelle Memorial Institute has made a donation to the University, to mark Dr Wadsworth’s retirement. In 2017, Battelle awarded the University $1.5 million to support international research partnerships – an early career fellowship exchange programme between the University, Battelle and Ohio State University.
The ambition for the Wadsworth Fellowships is to provide an outstanding educational experience for early-career researchers and to advance the academic programmes and values of the institutions involved.
The race is on to discover new materials to address many challenges faced by society. We seek new materials for a variety of tasks, from high energy density batteries and new antenna materials for communication networks, to high efficiency solar power devices and many, many more.
Current technology allows us to observe materials at an atomic level. We can identify atoms at a surface, evaluate interactions between a specific atom and its neighbouring atoms and study the changes in physical properties arising from an atomic arrangement through atomic manipulation.
We also use technology, in the form of computer modelling, to simulate materials, understand their properties and make predictions of how they will respond to external stimuli.
Computational modelling is now routinely used to accelerate the discovery of new materials as it is cheaper, quicker, and greener than actual materials development. These computer models allow for the rapid identification of potential new materials that can then be tested in the lab.
However, as the drive to discover new materials which meet specific demands from industry, even the most powerful supercomputers, consisting of many thousands of processors, struggle to the conduct more complex high-accuracy simulations needed to gain the necessary understanding of the materials being developed. In order to accurately model a new material, we need to perform simulations consisting of many thousands of atoms.
Quantum computing is one route to performing these massively complex simulations, and in turn will unlock deeper insight into the nature of atoms and how they interact.
When we are performing chemical simulations, we are calculating the solution for Schrodinger’s equation. This means we are calculating where an electron most likely is or is not. This is because electrons are not particles, but act as waves, and so we must work with the probabilities that an electron is in any one single point in space about an atom.
This is an expression of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – we can never know exactly where a quantum particle is, only the probability of where, and that the action of observing the particle changes the motion and subsequently the probability of where the particle will be next. This probability is fully expressed mathematically by the ‘wavefunction’. Typically we are seeking to find the wavefunction that represents the most stable configuration or state of electrons for a particular configuration of atoms.
This calculation where more than one electron is involved is much harder to perform. Electrons are indistinguishable, which makes the mathematics much more complex. Knowing what wavefunction models a system, and all of these states is a herculean task. The number of electrons in the simulation increases the computational cost of the simulation exponentially. In order to perform the calculations on traditional computers we have to guess at the wavefunction and approximate to perform the calculation. The result informs how we improve our guess. It’s that wavefunction part that we hope Quantum Computers will solve.
Quantum computing is based around the concept of the qubit. In regular computing our basis of expressing numbers is through a string of binary digits (or ‘bits’). Bits are either on or off, 1 or 0. Thus the number two is the bit string 10. The number 3 is 11, and so forth.
A qubit is much more special, it exists in both states at once, called a ‘superposition’ – just like our electrons. Thus a series of qubits can used to represent all the possible states of the electrons in a chemical system simultaneously. This way, we will be able to accurately model new materials.
In addition to simulating new material discoveries, quantum computers will also solve complex mathematical problems for use in data security and encryption.
The main challenge we face is how we build qubits for our quantum computer? Individual photons, ions, small semiconducting nano-particles called quantum dots are just some of the ways to represent a qubit. Such systems often require supercooling, and the information of the qubits is read using lasers, microwaves, or magnetic pulses.
We’re not going to see a desktop version of such a computer any time soon, but some progress has been made. Google has successfully made a quantum computer able to predict the energy of the hydrogen molecule, while IBM has pushed on further, looking at lithium and beryllium hydrides.
IBM now has prototype quantum processors made up of superconducting transmon qubits, and is giving the public access through an online platform called the IBM Q Experience, collectively to date amassing over six million quantum experiments. With Google, IBM, Microsoft and companies like Volkswagen, Daimler and startups like Rigetti all pursuing ever larger quantum computers, the dream of solving some age old chemistry questions is getting tantalizingly close. While the next iPhone for many decades will not be a quantum computer, it may well in the near future have a next generation battery designed using the insight gained from such powerful computing.
This work is a key research interest of Dr Christopher Handley, EPSRC Research Associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/materials/staff/research/chrishandley
Download our infographic: Santas Sleigh Infographic
For a few weeks now, we’ve been presenting the world with some amazing materials facts covering all aspects of materials science. You can find these on Twitter and Facebook.
A few of the facts we’ve shared are:
Amazing Materials Factoid #1: A spider silk fibre as thick as a full stop would be enough for spiderman to hang from.
Amazing Materials Factoid #4: Steel is cheaper than crisps
Amazing Materials Factoid #7: Titanium was discovered by William Gregor in Cornwall in the UK, in 1791
Amazing Materials Factoid #18: Did you know that nuclear waste will be radioactive for more than 100,000 years? Glass and ceramic materials are used to immobilise these nuclear nasties because they are radiation-proof and very corrosion resistant.
There must be thousands of interesting facts out there, so if you know any yourselves, we’d love to hear them. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and include your Twitter handle for a shout out!
So, you think you know your materials? Can you identify the picture above? Post your comments below, or Tweet us @msesheffield with the hashtag #WhatsTheMatter.
Last month’s picture was a microscope image using polarized light of a liquid crystal (a regular arrangement of rod-like molecules which can be switched around).
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