Interfaces Newsletter May 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.

If you haven’t already signed up to receive Interfaces, you can subscribe here.

Senior technician makes PPE at home

John Lowndes is a Senior Technican at the Henry Royce Institute, Sheffield – part of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He’s been using his skills, his own materials and facilities set up at home to produce PPE to support the effort to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the Covid Door Claws made by John

John is shielded himself during lockdown on health grounds, so he has been using his own workshop to make a variety of items.

He started using his own 3d printer and materials to make Personal Protective Equipmant (PPE) for a paramedic friend who was then able to pass them on to others who needed it. But John was then able to borrow a printer from his place of work, the Royce Translational Centre to help him increase production, and Royce Principal Engineer Dr Rob Deffley has been helping to maintain a supply of materials.

John has been making face shields as well as Covid Door Claws, which are used to safely open doors and have a dibber on the end for touchscreens and push-button door access – paramedics, doctors and nurses love these. He has also redesigned Covid Buckles which are designed to take pressure off the ears when wearing face masks – these are in high demand.

Covid Buckles take the pressure of the ears when wearing face masks.
John’s paramedic friend, Simon, gratefully receives PPE made by John.
Another batch of PPE is ready for dispatch.

John has been printing from 7.30am until 11pm every day, and has sent out over 700 pieces of PPE via his paramedic friend. He has also sent PPE to East Dene Primary School in Rotherham to help them prepare for a phased return, and has had enquiries from a school in Leeds where his youngest daughter works. And he’s done this for free, to help those people at the front line of this crisis, because kindness matters.

Hats off to you, John. You’re a hero.

Studying in lockdown

Our teaching has had to evolve very rapidly to adapt to the lockdown situation we have found ourselves in. Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but we hope that we are able to give our students the best possible opportunity to learn and continue with their course.

We have spoken to some of our current students about how they have adapted to studying in lockdown. We asked them what it was like to study remotely, whether there has been any practical work possible and how they have been supported by the department. We also wanted to know how they have set up their workspaces, what social contact they have had with their classmates and housemates, and what they are most looking forward to when we do return to the department. And have they gained any new skills during lockdown?

Find out how Kathryn Baker, Sanchari Das, James Knight and Dennis Primoli have found their time in lockdown…

What has it been like to study remotely?

KB: I’m a final year student so most of my time is dedicated to my Research Project but we still have some lectures. In some cases, the modules are already set up for distance learning for students around the world, so recorded versions of the lectures were already available online. The lecturer then uses the time when the lecture was supposed to take place as a tutorial over Blackboard Collaborate (the virtual learning platform the University uses) in a sort of ‘flip learning’ approach. Other lecturers are using Blackboard to deliver the lecture in the allocated time slot as normal over video. This works quite well because you can still follow the same timetable as you would if you were in Sheffield and you can still ‘raise your hand’ using a little button to ask a question and it will be answered in real time.

Given how nervous I was to be starting University back in 2016 when everything was normal, I can’t even try to understand how apprehensive you must be feeling as a year 13 or gap year student now. Although we hope everything will go back to normal as soon as possible, I just wanted to give a bit of context for what ‘virtual’ university has been like for us as existing students just in case it doesn’t.

Kathryn Baker
Final year MEng Materials Science and Engineering

JK: The shift to online learning was quite a sudden change for everyone, but something I have grown used to over the last couple of months. I don’t think anything can match being taught face-to-face, but online lectures have been well organised and run. We’re still able to interact with lecturers, asking questions and completing tutorials to test our understanding. The added bonus is the slices of cake that occasionally appear on my desk mid-afternoon!

I think that, given the circumstances, the department have been really quick to adapt to a new way of working online. I was told in good time how assessments would change; all of my modules are now assessed by coursework. The deadlines for these have also been well spread so I have not felt pressured to complete them.

SD: I had 2-3 virtual lectures which I found quite easy flowing to be honest. Being in my pyjamas and attending lectures while having breakfast wasn’t all that bad!

I have also used the University’s library system quite a lot recently to access eBooks and journals to conduct research for my upcoming assignments.

What practical work have you been able to continue and how?

SD: We were due to do a group project, which required us to make yellow glass. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown, we weren’t able to access the lab and there was no way we could’ve produced glass. Instead we focussed a lot on the theoretical aspect of actually producing yellow glass and I honestly gained a good understanding of the glass industry and the current technologies used.

DP: Our Industrial Training Programme project had to be redesigned becuase we weren’t able to access the labs, so we’ve had to focus on a thorough literature review and final report, and we had the chance to access a much wider pool of information to build up our discussion.

KB: I’ve been quite lucky that my final year project hasn’t been interrupted too much by the closure of the University. My project is about developing machine learning models to identify defects in additive manufactured parts, so all of my practical work is computer based using a programming language called R, which is free to install and download on my laptop so my project can continue as if nothing has changed.

I also know that two of the lecturers in the department have set up a website called that allows you to do experiments virtually. Although you might not be able to get your hands on the actual equipment just yet, this means you can still do some practical experiments to back up the theory that you learn in lectures.

DP: As 3rd years MEng students, we were also supposed to undertake a 5-month industrial placement starting in May. This is was supposed to be worth 30 credits, so it was very important to the course as a whole. Through continuous communication with the department, including multiple group calls, a set of new parameters were put in place to allow us students the flexibility necessary from the current worldwide situation. Personally, I think this was a good compromise to ensure we received as much experience as possible while still being able to work from home or from a different country.

What support have you been given by the Department during lockdown?

DP: I was always confident that the Uni, and all its departments did their best as usual to ensure us students were well taken care of. The Materials department was no different and they kept us constantly up to date with latest info they received. Once the University decided to halt in-person lectures, immediately switching to online ones over the weekend and I’m happy to say that we didn’t miss a single one.

KB: The department have also been really helpful at supporting us throughout the transition to ‘virtual’ Uni life. I have regular meetings with my project supervisor who makes a point of seeing how I’m coping personally as well as how I’m finding the work.

JK: Each week, we are also sent a wellbeing email by the department, with tips on how to keep you physically and mentally healthy.

KB: The regular wellbeing emails have recommended resources for keeping you and your family busy through art, extra-curricular learning or exercise, suggested by members of the department. It’s been really useful for finding new ideas and also gives a bit of an insight into what other people in the departments’ lives are like outside of Hadfield.

SD: It was actually nice to get those emails because it was sort of like an assurance that the Department didn’t forget us! There was a great site suggested in one of the emails for conducting pub quizzes with your friends and I’ve done it like 5 times now since they have great questions with super interesting themed rounds.

What’s your workspace like at home?

KB: I am back living with my parents for now and so I’ve set up the desk in my room as my workspace which has meant that I’m not disturbed by the rest of my family when on Zoom meetings. It does, however, mean that I have had to be quite strict with myself in how I work. Normally I make use of the Information Commons or the Diamond as space to work away from the comforts of home, but working in my room has made it much more difficult to resist the call of my bed.

SD: I’m currently here in Sheffield. I still have 3 of my housemates living here with me in the house so it’s not all that bad because I’m not completely alone here.

Sanchari’s lockdown workspace

I usually wake up, have breakfast and exercise for a bit. I finally started regularly exercising at home since I have more time now. I usually call my parents or grandparents after that back in India and just fiddle with my phone really. I watch something on my laptop while having lunch and right after that I start working on my assignments. My evening usually goes in to studying or researching to finish my final assignments with occasional breaks in between. I’ve also started learning Italian so I spend a little bit of time on that.

DP: I live in Uni accommodation and the situation has been quite calm for a while now. I am currently the only one left in my flat and have been for the past month or so. It can get lonely at times, but I keep myself distracted, either with assignments or with other activities such as movies, podcasts and call with my friends. I even signed up to help tutor A-level students across the UK, as schools are still closed. I’ve also began working out in my room, which worked great to form a routine around during the passing days.

Have you been able to maintain social contact with your classmates and housemates?

JK: Luckily, video calling has meant I have still been able to keep in touch with my housemates and course mates, even though we’re all back home. The Materials Society committee, made up of students from all years in the department, also put together a pub quiz, which I really enjoyed hosting. It was great that lecturers and students alike joined in.

SD: I’ve started talking to my friends more and we started playing more virtual games together. We have a set time every week where we get together, video call each other and play games online. That really helped me initially to kind of feel like everything around me is normal. I have reconnected with some of my old friends from school too.

KB: Outside of University I’ve been making a point of meeting up with friends over Zoom or Google meets. We have replaced the weekly pub quiz we would usually go to with our own version which has turned out to be great fun because the drinks are cheaper, and you can customise rounds to make them more personal. As an alternative, (because I am getting to the point of exhausting my general knowledge) we’ve turned to scavenger hunts and taskmaster style evenings where everyone has to find an item around their house within a set time limit or complete tasks set by a ‘taskmaster’. I’ve also found that playing and chatting over the Xbox provides a good excuse to talk to my friends about something not related to uni work, which can sometimes be quite hard when you’re approaching a big deadline. 

What are you most looking forward to when you come back to the department?

SD: LABS! Didn’t value it that much until now because I realized putting our knowledge into practice makes it so much more interesting to learn and explore. It really helped me to get loads of practical experience from the things we were learning in our course.

KB: Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I won’t be able to return to Sheffield as a student as I’m in my final year and due to finish in June. Nevertheless, I am already looking forward to coming back for alumni days in the future and to be able to do something as mundane as sit in the Turner museum having a coffee and socialising with the rest of the department like we used to between lectures.

I also have Graduation to look forward to, whenever it may be, which I’m sure will be even more emotional and exciting with the added dimension of being able to see all my course mates again. However, more than anything, I am looking forward to the grand tour of Sheffield’s pubs that I am sure will follow it.

JK: When I am back in Sheffield, I am particularly looking forward to seeing my mates again and getting back on the hockey pitch! It will be nice for things just to start returning to normal. As I’m going into my 4th year, I’m also looking forward to (hopefully) getting back in the labs to complete my final-year project. In the meantime, I’m hopeful that I will be able to complete some kind of shortened summer placement.

Have you gained any new skills?

SD: I have gotten into cooking recently, so after my occasional experimentation with food, I go downstairs and spend time with my housemates. We make it a point to always have dinner together. I’ve also started learning Italian so I spend a little bit of time on that.

DP: Meal planning is also now a thing for me, as I began cooking more and more complex plates requiring many ingredients. I’ve always found cooking quite relaxing and having a whole fridge to myself surely doesn’t hurt either.

JK: I’ve been spending a lot more time in the garden and at the allotment growing fruit and veg which I’ve found to be surprisingly rewarding.

James has been spending time in the sun working on his parents’ allotment

Developing new materials for fusion reactors

Nuclear fusion has great potential to be a future source of energy generation. It is highly energy efficient – it is estimated that 1kg of fusion materials could produce the same amount of energy as 10 million kg of fossil fuels. It is also an attractive form of nuclear energy as no long-lived radioactive wastes will be produced.

The process works by two lighter atomic nuclei combining to form a heavier nucleus. This process is accompanied by a release of energy which can be used to generate power.

A key part of the development of nuclear fusion technologies is to ensure that the materials used for the fusion reactors are able to withstand the extreme temperatures of the fusion core , and tolerate damage caused by energetic particles released during the fusion reaction..

Radiation damage in materials for fusion

Dr Amy Gandy and other researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield are trying to identify structural materials which contain fewer activation elements (i.e. those elements that will not become radioactive when exposed to a radioactive source). 

The class of materials that are of particular interest to Dr Gandy and her research group are High Entropy Alloys (HEAs – also known as Compositionally Complex Alloys, CCAs). These are alloys made up of large numbers of elements (typically five or more) combined in similar quantities. 

The drive to identify new alloy systems is the possibility of discovering a step-change in performance, hopefully leading to a number of interesting and attractive material properties, including high strength and temperature stability.

The alloy systems developed for one investigation were based on reduced activation elements, silicon (Si), iron (Fe), chromium (Cr) and vanadium (V), with the addition of molybdenum (Mo), which is not a reduced activation element. Mo was included in some alloys to investigate the high temperature thermal stability and radiation damage resistance that can be achieved.

Backscattered electron images of SiFeVCr

Initially, these alloy systems were computationally designed to identify compositions that were likely to produce single phase body-centred-cubic (BCC) structures (known to have superior resistance to radiation damage compared to face-centred-cubic microstructures). Having identified compositions with the potential to meet the criteria of chemical and physical properties, small quantities of the alloys were made using vacuum arc melting, and then characterised and tested to determine how the alloys behaved at high temperatures, and under energetic particle irradiation.

Arc melting of alloy sample

It was found that the reduced-activation alloy formed a high temperature, single BCC phase, with desirable physical and mechanical properties, worthy of further investigation as a promising reduced activation alloy for advanced nuclear systems.

In a further study by Dr Gandy’s team, they investigated whether alloys made up of more than one microstructural phase could exhibit a superior level of resistance to radiation damage compared with single-phase alloys. On this occasion, the study examined alloys based on vanadium (V), chromium (Cr), molybdenum (Mo), tungsten (W) and cobalt (Co). The alloys, which formed a metastable, multiphase microstructure, showed excellent phase stability when irradiated, raising questions over previous theories that only single-phase microstructures are desirable for radiation damage tolerant structural components.

Details of the research can be found in two recently published papers:

  • Gandy AS, Jim B, Coe G, Patel D, Hardwick L, Akhmadaliev S, Reeves-McLaren N and Goodall R (2019): High Temperature and Ion Implantation-Induced Phase Transformations in Novel Reduced Activation Si-Fe-V-Cr (-Mo) High Entropy Alloys. Frontiers in Materials, 6:146. doi: 10.3389/fmats.2019.00146
  • Patel D, Richardson MD, Jim B, Akhmadaliev S, Goodall R and Gandy AS (2020): Radiation damage tolerance of a novel metastable refractory high entropy alloy V2.5Cr1.2WMoCo0.04, Journal of Nuclear Materials, 531, doi: 10.1016/j.jnucmat.2020.152005

Materials for Energy Transition: Roadmap Webinar – 15 June

The Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials is hosting a Materials for the Energy Transition Roadmap Webinar on Monday 15th June 2020 in collaboration with the Institute of Physics (IOP)

As the UK has become the first major economy in the world to pass a net-zero emissions law, it is now more important than ever to adopt more energy-efficient materials and processes in order to achieve the ambitious target of bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) 2019 Report.

Materials science research is critical to enabling greenhouse gas reduction in the following areas:

  • Future of materials for low-carbon methods of hydrogen generation
  • The future of materials in photovoltaic systems
  • New materials for heat exchange systems (thermoelectric and caloric)
  • Low-loss electronics

The UK materials community has therefore come together to develop roadmaps on these four key areas to highlight opportunities for materials science to contribute to the 2050 target.

The webinar on 15th June will aim to update the materials community, policymakers and funding bodies on the roadmapping activity and to receive input for the next steps.

Attendees will be able to hear from leading energy researchers from the materials community and take part in a Q&Q before discussing the next steps to progress ‘Materials for the Energy Transition’.

Click here to register.

Let’s get quizzical

Lockdown life meant that the annual MatSoc May Ball was cancelled this year, much to the disappointment of staff and students from the Department. But the MatSoc committee didn’t want to miss the opportunity to stay sociable.

Instead of dining together and dancing the night away, a bunch of students and staff came together via their computers and phones to take part in the MatSoc Lockdown Quiz.

Hosted by quizmaster James, 40 players completed 6 rounds, including identifying Ikea furniture models and facts about Sheffield, music intros, with questions like:

  • Roughly how many trees are there for every person in Sheffield?
  • How many towns or cities in the UK end -field?
  • Can you identify the MatSoc Committee member from their baby photo?

The quiz proved so popular that James has been asked to arrange another one. It’s great to see that the sociable nature of the Department remains even when we are working remotely.

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.

Why is cement interesting? We think that Professor John Provis is suitably qualified to tell us about the importance of developing cementitious materials for a variety of applications. It certainly is interesting!

Look out for further research insights in the future.

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

Don’t forget, if you haven’t yet subscribed to Interfaces, you can do so here.

2 thoughts on “Interfaces Newsletter May 2020

  1. Cathy Cox says:

    Hi, I’ve been enjoying reading Interfaces.
    My name is Cathy Cox and I’m daughter of John Sharp who was prof in your dept before John (featured here), and Neil. I teach A-level Chemistry at the Sixth Form College, Colchester.
    I think it would be good if some of our current students could see Interfaces, especially the bit featuring your students and how they are copng in Lockdown. It might be encouraging to sixth form students in lockdown themselves feeling unsure whether to apply to uni with coronavirus around. Also I think it’s hard for sixth formers to be aware there is such a degree as Materials Science. And of course I am well aware what a great place Sheffield Uni is to study it!
    Perhaps you could send Interfaces to our Careers Dept and tell them it was me who asked for it. We usually have a big drive at this time of year to make our students aware of how to apply to uni, what courses are available, etc. But this year this will be much harder.
    The email address is:
    Keep up your excellent work!

    1. Stephen Birch says:

      Hi Cathy,
      Sorry for the delay in replying. I certainly can send the newsletter on to your careers department and ask for them to share it with students. I’ll also add them to the distribution list.
      We have a Recruitment, Outreach and Student Experience (ROSE) Co-ordinator in the department, who would be interested in hearing about this. Is it OK if I pass on your contact details to her? Her name is Amanda Southworth. When we get out of lockdown, she will be looking at getting out to schools to introduce Materials Science and Engineering to school students studying STEM subjects, so having an ally in a school is always helpful.
      Many thanks,
      Stephen Birch (

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