Interfaces Newsletter October 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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Sheffield students take full advantage of Royce summer internship programme

Four Materials Science and Engineering undergraduates have benefited from a new summer internship programme offered by the Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials.

Four University of Sheffield undergraduates have benefited from a new summer internship programme offered by the Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials.

The scheme offered materials science-related research projects to more than 20 students who were about to enter their final year of study. The (predominantly remote) projects, which covered a variety of areas including characterisation, machine learning and modelling for a variety of materials applications, all ran over the summer break.

University of Sheffield students Lucy Ellwood, Lauren Levine, Karol Murgrabia and Joshua Peters all welcomed the opportunity to carry out the research, which culminated in a virtual mini conference and poster presentation session attended by their fellow interns, supervisors and Royce staff.

Royce supported the interns to set up their own academic Twitter accounts and use the social media platform to share their own posters, and ask questions and comment on others. The full discussion around the Twitter poster session can be found under the Twitter hashtag #RoyceSummerInternPosters.

Lucy Ellwood’s project aimed to create a model that could predict the stable equilibrium phases that would form during the oxidation of niobium-silicide based alloys, which are of interest as possible replacements for nickel-based superalloys in jet turbine engines.

She investigated a number of alloy systems with metal additions such as tin, chromium and titanium. The model that was created can be used to predict phases, identify layering and confirm various experimental findings, helping to improve understanding of Nb-Si based alloys’ oxidation behaviour.

Lucy said: “I found the Royce internship to be a great experience which provided an interesting insight into the world of research. Working independently from home was sometimes challenging but, with the helpful directions from my supervisors, I was able to overcome any major problems. The opportunities for networking, presentation and the development of other skills will certainly be valuable to me in the future.”

Karol Murgrabia investigated the effects of the plutonium decay in the barium titanate and found that the coordination of oxygen around the Ti changed from six to around five after irradiation.

He said: “The subject was interesting and engaging, despite the fact that it was a new experience for me to do this type of work. I think that this experience will help me when applying to participate in future research projects.”

Lauren Levine’s project looked at analysing the mixing behaviour of sodium and potassium Nitrate using GULP (General Utility Lattice Program) simulations to provide data on the enthalpies and entropies involved in mixing these two compounds together. Using a 4x4x4 super cell within the GULP program, Lauren wrote a program to automate the random mixing process of different ratios of KNO 3 and NaNO 3 . It was discovered that, upon mixing,
there is a positive enthalpy of mixing, which is suggestive of a greater entropic nature of the simulation.

Lauren commented: “The University of Sheffield has been delightful in every sense; from the attentiveness of the world-leading department to the community spirit of the Turner Museum to the wonder of the peaks to city life itself. The Royce internship has given me a taste of what research is like, even in the most novel of circumstances. It has taught me about a new way of working, which I would have never experienced otherwise.”

Joshua Peters’ research focused on modelling Field Assisted Sintering Technology (FAST) of titanium powders. There is currently much interest in FAST as it offers a much cheaper, quicker and lower energy alternative forging route for titanium versus the current hot isostatic pressing process.

Josh said: “It was great to work on a project in which Sheffield is a global innovation leader with both the ongoing research at STAR (Sheffield Titanium Alloy Research) as well as the Royce Discovery Centre now housing a new large-scale FAST machine.

“This internship gave me an insight into what research in industry looks like and enabled me to learn about finite element modelling and improve my practical engineering skills such as time management, project timeline planning, independent academic literature research, presenting academic work and producing academic posters. I would like to thank Royce and
the Department of Materials for this brilliant opportunity and also my supervisor Dr Ben Thomas for helping and guiding me this summer.”

At the Zoom-based internship mini-conference, each intern had the opportunity to deliver a five-minute presentation based on their research poster, and to take questions from the audience. Royce CEO Prof. David Knowles introduced the conference and delivered a presentation on ‘The Role of Materials and Materials Science in a Sustainable Future’.

In addition, a guest panel of materials science graduates discussed their career paths and opened the floor to questions from the interns. Quotes and highlights from the Zoom conference were live-tweeted on Royce’s main Twitter account, and can be found under the hashtag #RoyceSummerInternConference.


Researchers develop an energy efficient technique for densification of biocompatible glass powder.

Recent developments by researchers within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering to the technique known as cold sintering, have demonstrated the ability to densify glass powders at temperatures significantly lower than those used in traditional processing methods. Safety and energy efficiency features of this process are proving to be attractive to the healthcare industry in particular.

The process has been used to produce glass components with a density of 95% from powders by applying pressure and heat up to 250°C in the presence of simple solvents such as water.

Schematic illustrating the different stages of the cold sintering process (Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. (https://doi.org/10.1595/205651320X15814150061554)

Although the technique is still in its infancy, the potential for its application in a huge number of sectors has been recognised by chemical giant Johnson Matthey, sponsors of the research, who have already applied for a patent for the process.

The idea for the process development came from an understanding of the cold sintering of ceramics. In addition to densifying (the process of forming a dense final product from powder by the application of heat and pressure) a range of specialist glasses, cold sintering is of particular interest for bioactive glasses such as Bioglass®, which are biocompatible and widely used in the medical and healthcare sectors.

The advantages of using this process to densify Bioglass® are manifold:

  • The low temperatures mean that glasses can be co-densified with polymers to achieve better mechanical properties, without compromising their bio-active properties.
  • We envisage the potential for drugs to be embedded in the Bioglass® before densification to create a slow release delivery system.
  • Cold sintered glasses can be used to coat surfaces and stick together a wide range of materials, including other glasses, ceramics, composites and metals.
  • The scope to create a wide range of composites with high polymer to high glass volume fractions, impossible with other techniques and facilitating a wider range of bio-applications

Already known for their ability to promote bone growth, bioactive glasses can be used to create scaffold structures which, when placed in the body, can contribute to the rapid repair of damaged tissue. Indeed, one of the next areas for investigation is how the technique can be applied to 3D printing of bespoke parts with more complex shapes.

Materials Science and Engineering PhD student, Jess Andrews, who progressed from her undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield, is leading the research under the supervision of Professor Ian Reaney said: “Cold sintering is still a relatively new technique, but we are beginning to see it’s huge potential – it has already been utilised in a really broad range of applications from electroceramics to bioactive glasses. I think it will be exciting to see what larger scale changes can come from these initial developments in the lab.”

Jonathan Booth, Research Manager at Johnson Matthey Technology Centre, said: “We are very excited about the enabling potential of this technology which will hopefully allow us to explore new functional glass, polymer composites hitherto impossible to manufacture.”

Looking to the future, the researchers are seeking interest from potential end-users of the process to allow them to investigate possible applications, as well as further funding to expand the scope of the research.

More information about this research can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1595/205651320X15814150061554


Double success for department researchers at Royal Society of Chemistry conference

With more conferences and academic meetings taking place online, organisers and participants are getting used to alternative ways of communicating their research. It appears that researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering have adapted particularly well to this ‘new normal’.

At the 2020 Early Career Researcher meeting of the Royal Society of Chemistry Solid State Chemistry group, held online in September, two of our researchers – one PhD student and one Postdoctoral Research Associate received accolades for the presentation of their work.

Charlotte Pughe, PhD student in Dr Eddie Cussen’s research group won the poster prize at the meeting for her presentation of her work on Quantum Criticality in Double Perovskite Spin-Ladder Systems. This looks at the development of novel solid-state magnetic materials which could be used in future computing applications. By altering the crystal chemistry of the material, it has been possible to record significant changes in the material’s magnetic response.

Poster presented by Charlotte Pughe, which won first prize

On top of this success, Dr Otto Mustonen, Research Associate also in Dr Cussen’s group, was awarded Runner-up in the Contributed Talk category for his presentation, Non-Magnetic Cations Can Drive Magnetic Interactions in Double Perovskites, work which furthers the understanding of the atomic structure of materials which will be critical in the progress of future computing applications, such as spintronics and quantum computing.

Both pieces of research contribute to the wider study of perovskite materials sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust.


Microscopy technique used to detect antibiotic resistance

A new, quicker way of detecting antibiotic resistance in bacteria has been developed by a team of scientists from the EPSRC funded interdisciplinary research collaboration, i-sense.

Principle of the rapid optical antiobiotic susceptibility testing (AST) method.

The new technique, developed by a collaborative team of researchers including a scientist from the University of Sheffield, uses nanotechnology to detect antibiotic resistance in approximately 45 minutes. 

The standard method for detecting resistance is a relatively slow process that typically takes between 12 and 24 hours. The ability to reduce this time could significantly help the ongoing battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria – a problem which is predicted to cause 10 million deaths per year and cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050.  

Speeding up the time it takes to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria could improve our ability to prescribe antibiotics correctly and reduce the misuse of antibiotic treatments – a key step in the fight against antibiotic resistance.  

The new method developed by Dr Isabel Bennett from UCL in collaboration with Dr Alice Pyne from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor Rachel McKendry from UCL uses a new Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) detection system. 

This method uses a nanomechanical cantilever sensor together with a laser to detect single bacterial cells as they pass through the laser’s focus, which provides a simple readout of antibiotic resistance by detecting growth (resistant) or death (sensitive) of the bacteria.

By placing a reflective surface – a small stiff cantilever – in a filtered growth medium in a petri dish and reflecting a laser off it onto a photodiode detector, it is possible to detect bacteria as they pass through the path of the laser, therefore altering the signal at the detector. Following the addition of the antibiotic to the petri dish, the study has shown that it is possible to detect whether fewer bacteria interfere with the laser beam, thereby indicating cell death in the antibiotic-sensitive bacteria.

The new technique developed by Dr Bennett builds on an AFM method from a previous study, however Dr Bennett’s method doesn’t require the bacteria to be immobilised – making the new detection system much faster.

Dr Bennett said: “Our method allowed us to quickly differentiate between resistant and sensitive phenotypes in multiple strains of E. coli, a bacteria implicated in a number of challenging infections including UTIs.”

Dr Alice Pyne from the University of Sheffield added: “We were able to show that our faster method was able to reproduce values from gold standard measurements, such as MIC’s in a fraction of the time.”

The study, Cantilever Sensors for Rapid Optical Antimicrobial Sensitivity Testing, was conducted by Dr Isabel Bennett as part of her PhD supervised by Dr Alice Pyne and Professor Rachel McKendry.

The research by the all-female team of scientists is published in the journal ACS Sensors. The journal has published an interview with Dr Bennett following the paper being selected as an ACS editors choice. The interview can be accessed via: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssensors.0c02086 
To access the paper in full, visit: https://doi.org/10.1021/acssensors.0c01216


Academic participates in Twitter Conference

At the end of October, Professor John Provis, Professor of Cament Materials Scence and Engineering took part in a Twitter Conference on Sustainable Materials organised by the University of Oulu in Finland.

John’s contribution can be seen below, and the full (#SustMat) conference content can be found on the University of Oulu’s Twitter Conference feed.


Let us know what you think

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