Interfaces Newsletter February 2020

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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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World-leading battery research

Our battery research takes place right across the Faculty of Engineering. By pioneering new materials, new chemistry, new electrical technology and new electrical systems, our engineers are helping batteries power a future where energy is reliable and sustainable.

Involving research from four departments in the Faculty of Engineering – Materials Science & Engineering, Chemical & Biological Engineering, Electrical & Electronic Engineering, and Automatic Control & Systems Engineering – the University of Sheffield is leading the world in the development of new battery technologies.

Take a look at the video below to see how each department contributes to these developments.

Engineers develop materials that could help clean-up Chernobyl and Fukushima

Materials which could be used to help clean-up the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power stations have been developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield.

  • University of Sheffield engineers have developed materials that could be used to help decommission the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power stations
  • The materials, created in collaboration with colleagues in Ukraine, simulate Lava-like Fuel Containing Materials (LFCMs) – hazardous substances left behind by a nuclear meltdown
  • New research is the first time a close approximation of a real LCFM has ever been achieved
  • Development paves the way for the safe analysis of hazardous materials left behind at Chernobyl and Fukushima

The materials, produced by Dr Claire Corkhill and her team from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, in collaboration with scientists in Ukraine, can simulate the Lava-like Fuel Containing Materials (LFCMs) that are obstructing decommissioning efforts at the nuclear disaster sites.

Published in the journal Nature Materials Degradation, the development is the first time a close approximation of a real LFCM has ever been achieved.

LFCMs are a mixture of highly radioactive molten nuclear fuel and building materials that fuse together during a nuclear meltdown.

During the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, radioactive materials mixed with fuel cladding and other building materials in the reactors and are now incredibly difficult and dangerous to remove from the sites. If left untreated, the LFCMs pose an ongoing radiological safety risk to the local environment.

In the case of Chernobyl, the mixture of molten fuel, cladding, steel, concrete and sand formed nearly 100 tonnes of highly radioactive glass-like lava, which flowed through the nuclear power plant and has solidified into large masses.

The masses present a highly dangerous risk to personnel and the environment in the surrounding area and could remain a hazard for decades, even millennia, unless something can be done to stabilise or remove them. However, very few samples of these meltdown materials are available to study and the masses are often too hazardous for people or even robots to get close to in order to better understand the behaviour of the materials.

Dr Corkhill said: “Understanding the mechanical, thermal and chemical properties of the materials created in a nuclear meltdown is critical to help retrieve them, for example, if we don’t know how hard they are, how can we create the radiation-resistant robots required to cut them out?”

In the research published in January, the University of Sheffield engineers at the NucleUS Immobilisation Science Laboratory (ISL) report their development of small batches of low radioactivity materials that can be used to simulate LFCMs.

These simulated materials have been used to analyse the thermal characteristics and corrosion kinetics of LFCMs, which produced results that are very close to those of real LFCM samples reported by previous studies.

The study of the corrosion behaviour is vital to support ongoing decommissioning efforts – both at Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – where LFCM-type materials are thought to have formed, and remain submerged in water used to cool the melted core. Using the new simulant materials developed at the University of Sheffield, Dr Corkhill and her team are collaborating with researchers at the University of Tokyo and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the process of highly radioactive dust formation that occurs at the surface of LFCM when water is removed.

Dr Corkhill added: “The major difficulty in understanding the real materials is that they are too hazardous to handle and, although the Chernobyl accident happened over 33 years ago, we still know very little about these truly unique nuclear materials.

“Thanks to this research, we now have a much lower radioactivity simulant meltdown material to investigate, which is safe for our collaborators in Ukraine and Japan to research without the need for radiation shielding. Ultimately this will help advance the decommissioning operations at Chernobyl and also at Fukushima too.”

The investigation into the corrosion behaviour needs a lot more work, but having established a starting point, the research team hopes to advance this work quite rapidly. Dr Corkhill noted: “Since the clean-up of Chernobyl is anticipated to take around 100 years, and Fukushima at least 50 years, anything we can do to speed up the process will be beneficial to Ukraine and Japan, in both financial and safety terms.”

The development at Sheffield comes ahead of the Olympic Games being held in Japan this year. The Olympic torch relay is due to start in J-village – a sports ground close to the site of Fukushima – where high levels of radioactivity have been found.

Dr Corkhill added: “Until we have developed an understanding of the meltdown materials inside Fukushima, we can’t remove them — and until then, there may always be a small risk that radioactive materials from the reactors may find their way to the surrounding environment.”

The research paper, Synthesis, characterisation and corrosion behaviour of simulant Chernobyl nuclear meltdown materials, is published in Nature Materials Degradation. To view the paper, visit:

For more insight into how Dr Corkhill and her team are reconstructing a nuclear meltdown in Sheffield to help inform decommissioning efforts at Chernobyl and Fukushima, visit: Reconstructing a nuclear meltdown in Sheffield

Materials Research Exchange

Earlier this month, members of the department were in London for the Innovate UK/Knowledge Transfer Network Materials Materials Research Exchange (MRE) 2020 exhibition and conference.

We were there to discuss research activities within the Department, The Henry Royce Institute, Sheffield, MAPP EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hub, and DARE.

This was a great opportunity to meet people from industry and academia, share ideas and investigate the possibilities for collaboration. We were able to showcase some of the many areas of research we are involved with, from additive manufacturing to natural polymers made from bacteria.

We also had a number of interactive displays, including a mobile app which simulates the building of Lifecycle City – a sustainable sity game powered by augmented reality, a demonstration of machine learning in the control of additive manufacturing processes, and (one of the biggest draws to the stand) a competition to see who could spin a 3D printed spinning top the longest for a chance to win a copy of Materials Monopoly!

On top of this, Professor Martin Jackson presented: Advanced Metals Processing – Doing more with less, and two of our researchers, Dan Geddes and Jose Aguilar Cosme each won prizes for best poster in their categories.

Freshgate Trust Foundation Awards

We are delighted to announce that three of our students have just been awarded prizes by the Freshgate Trust Foundation. These prizes are intended to provide opportunities for these students to travel to further their studies, attend conferences, develop external collaborations to further the work with a company or create opportunities otherwise unavailable.

The prizes have been awarded to:

Luis Fernando Romano Acosta (3rd year of PhD)
Luis is working on a project involving the thermomechanical processing of CP800 steel, and is exploring new processing routes for this existing composition, improving the mechanical properties so that it can be more competitive than more expensive, and alloy-rich steels. CP800 is a steel used for automotive sheet.

Daniel Alejandro Olguin Ramirez (2nd year of PhD)
Daniel is working on a line-pipe steel composition (X70), investigating the effect of non-equilibrium heating and cooling, typical of welding processes, and their effect on the austenite grain size and dissolution/precipitation behaviour of Nb (CN).

Luis and Daniel will be using their award to attend and present to the international conference on Thermomechanical Processing of Steels, to be held in Shenyang, China during 24-26 August 2020.

Kerry McLaughlin (currently a self-funded part time PhD student)
Kerry is undertaking the study of materials for multi-layered ceramic capacitors (MLCCs); an area of growth of MLCCs is the automotive industry, accounting for 12.8% of the UK’s export. In 2012, approximately 3k units were required per vehicle but with the development and rise of electric vehicles (EV), over 10k MLCCs are now needed per EV, with over 125 M EVs expected to be on the road by 2030. These materials are needed to withstand higher operating voltages and temperatures (e.g. > 600 V, ~ 150 -200 0C) and to have improved equivalent series resistance compared to existing materials along with being comparable with existing processing.

Kerry is researching alternative materials for improved performance and there are two opportunities that would really help Kerry in expanding her horizon in this research.

The first is to visit an industrial collaborating concern, AVX, for a 2 day trip. They are based in Coleraine, Northern Ireland and build over 1M devices per day. Visiting them, meeting the staff and seeing the industrial process first hand will provide Kerry with an exceptional understanding of the limitations in the materials and processes she is helping to develop. The second is to be able to attend the FeUK20 conference on materials for MLCCs in Bath on May 13th and 14th to present some of her work and meeting and discuss findings with the wider committee.

A picture speaks a thousand words

Anyone who works in the area of Materials Science and Engineering knows that images play an essential role in articulating our work, whether we’re looking at the nano-scale or length scale. These image can also be beautiful to look at.

In the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, we hold an annual image competition, where we challenge our students and staff to send in their favourite materials-related images. And we see some fantastic entries.

The images above are the winners from 2019. All entries can be found on the Department Flickr page. Keep your eyes peeled for when the 2020 compeition opens!

Research in brief

We’ve been talking to a number of our academic and research staff about their research interests, and asking them to summarise it in just a couple of minutes. Over the coming issues, we’ll share these videos with you.

Our second research video features Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala, a Tissue Engineer who works on growing blood vessels in the lab. Take a look at what his work involves.

Look out for further research insights.

Let us know what you think

We’d love to hear your views about Interfaces. If there’s more you’d like to hear about, leave us a comment below or email us at

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