Interfaces Newsletter November 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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Will advances in superconducting materials leave us floating on air?

Few scientific challenges in the last hundred years have been more compelling than the quest for a room temperature superconductor.1 The idea of a material which can carry electricity with zero resistance is both captivating and potentially transformative for technology. Dr Becky Boston takes a look at some of the latest developments in the world of superconductivity.

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Superconductors have many possible applications, including the practical (such as exploiting their ability to carry electricity with no energy loss through heating of the wires – which currently accounts for up to a 15 % energy loss) and the futuristic (such as levitating transport systems, using the Meissner Effect).

The application of superconductors to everyday situations in the real world, however, faces one major hurdle: most superconductors work at very low (liquid nitrogen or lower) temperatures, making their wide-scale use impossible. You’ll find them in a few, niche multimillion pound applications such as MRI scanners in hospitals, but these run on liquid helium which is expensive, dangerous and increasingly scarce. 

The late 80s and 90s saw a step change in the development of oxide superconductors4, but since then, the race for higher (and maybe room temperature) superconductivity had all but stalled; although new families of superconductors have been discovered,5 none have succeeded in significantly increasing the temperature of the transition to the superconducting state.

However, in 2015, a breakthrough was made: H2S (yes the rotten egg smell!) at high pressure showed superconducting properties at -70 °C.6 Whilst still too cold to be truly useful, this piqued interest in the subject opened the door to further discoveries.

In mid-October 2020, researchers at the universities of Rochester and Nevada Las Vegas reported that they had found a material which showed superconducting properties at an unprecedented 15 °C.7 The material, methane doped H2S, doesn’t exist under ambient pressure, but the researchers found that by applying very high pressures –  287.7 GPa to be precise –  the atoms could be forced close enough to one another to form new phases. It is these phases which show superconducting behaviour at room temperature. Whilst the authors propose what these phases might be, (the fact that much of the structure is hydrogen, makes it a poor scatterer of X-rays, and therefore difficult to analyse by X-ray diffraction), they did manage to use Raman spectroscopy to examine the bond lengths, which indicated that the materials formed were likely to be a pressure-induced alloy between H2S and CH4.

So, will we all be driving levitating, superconducting cars in the next few years? Well sadly not, whilst the material does indeed superconduct close to room temperature, the very high pressures required means that the properties are not yet accessible under everyday conditions. We’re unlikely then to be seeing this in technology any time soon, but it remains one of the most significant advances in the superconductor field in the last two decades.


1. W. Pickett and M. Eremets, Physics Today 72, 5, 52 (2019)

2. J. Oestergaard, IEEE Transactions on Applied Superconductivity 7, 2, 719 (1997)

3.  W. Braunisch, N. Knauf, G. Bauer, A. Kock, A. Becker, B. Freitag, A. Grütz, V. Kataev, S. Neuhausen, B. Roden, D. Khomskii, D. Wohlleben, J. Bock, and E. Preisler, Phys. Rev. B 48, 4030(1993)

4. K. M.Shen and J. C. S. Davis, Materials Today, 11, 9, 14 (2008)

5. Y. Kamihara, H. Hiramatsu, M. Hirano, R. Kawamura, H. Yanagi, T. Kamiya, and H. Hosono, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 128, 31, 10012 (2006) 

6. A. P. Drozdov, M. I. Eremets, I. A. Troyan, V. Ksenofontov and S. I. Shylin, Nature 525, 73 (2015) 7. E. Snider, N. Dasenbrock-Gammon, R. McBride, M. Debessai, H. Vindana, K. Vencatasamy, K. V. Lawler, A. Salamat and R. P. Dias, Nature 586, 373 (2020)

Professor’s outstanding scientific achievements recognised by Royal Society.

Professor Beverley Inkson‘s contribution to the world of microscopy has been recognised by the Royal Microscopical Society as they announced the winners of their 2020 Mid-Career Scientific Achievement Awards.

Professor Beverley Inkson with her award from the Royal Microscopy Society

Beverley was one of six award winners this year from across all microscopy disciplines. The awards celebrate outstanding scientific achievements in the recipients’ specific areas of expertise.

Throughout her career, Beverley has applied Advanced Microscopy to engineering problems, in particular leading innovations in the areas of in-situ microscopy, tomography and mechanics of nanomaterials.

Beverley has a lifelong interest in the mechanical properties of materials, and how the 3D structure of engineering materials affects their behaviour. Amongst her many achievements is the first development of FIB tomography, to image the microstructure of advanced engineering alloys and composites in 3D, including the 3D morphology of individual grains and cracks. FIB tomography has been a ground-breaking development, and is now widely used in academia and industry across many fields of materials science.

A career-long Interest in the behaviour of nanomaterials in different environments has led Beverley to carry out innovative work developing novel technologies to deform materials in-situ in the electron microscope including the first TEM tribo-probe. This has led to seminal work on the real-time mechanical and tribological behaviour of nanomaterials including tribological transformations of carbon, and 3-body wear mechanisms.

Beverley’s work on tomography continues with the recent award of a UK-leading X-ray microscope for in-situ environmental and mechanical testing, as part of a new Tomography Centre soon to be opened at Sheffield University.

Beverley blends development of both world-class electron microscopy/spectroscopy techniques, with a focus on real-world applications in materials science and tribology.

New Network+ project to help improve the sustainability of UK’s foundation industries.

Following the award of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a consortium of universities led by the University of Sheffield will interact with the foundation industries to help develop a national strategy to improve sustainability.

The foundation industries (namely glass, ceramics, metals, paper, cement and bulk chemicals) are worth £52 billion to the UK’s economy, produce 28 million tonnes of materials per year and accounts for 10 per cent of the UK’s total CO₂ emissions.

In line with the Climate Change Act, 2008, there is a need to reduce carbon emissions to 80 per cent below the levels that were seen in 1990 by 2050, and the recent COVID-19 induced stress on global supply chains demonstrate the importance of re-use and recycling in the manufacturing sector. It is paramount therefore, for the UK’s foundation industries to innovate in order to remain internationally competitive.

The Network+ led by the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with the Universities of Leeds, Swansea and Manchester, will coordinate a unified UK wide approach to tackle these challenges by bringing together expertise and best practice in the fields of materials, engineering, bulk chemicals, manufacturing, physical sciences, informatics, economics, circular economy and the arts and humanities.

Furthermore, the Network+ will underpin the ISCF Transforming Foundation Industries Challenge to establish a unified identity, a community focused interdisciplinary science and promote cross-sectoral solutions

The Network+ will grow by catalysing interactions across academic, industrial, regulatory and policymaking stakeholders to co-create novel solutions that transform and reinvigorate these sectors. In addition to workshops, knowledge transfer, outreach and dissemination, the network will test concepts and guide the development of innovative outcomes by issuing calls for projects totalling £1.4 million to the wider academic community.

Professor Ian Reaney from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Director of the Network+, said: “An economy is only as sustainable as the materials it is built on. The environmental, social and economic impact of industrial processing and manufacturing can be substantial, and yet positive changes to these practices can be simple and effective if applied across a sector. Our goal with the Network+ in Transforming the Foundation Industries is to help the UK stay at the forefront of sustainable manufacturing.”

Professor Susan Bernal Lopez of the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds (formerly Lecturer at the University of Sheffield), and Deputy Director of the Network+, added: “Times of crisis, while deeply unsettling, also open the opportunity to reflect and identify strategies to enable our industries and society to do better, and to be better. Foundation industries have historically played a key role underpinning every aspect of our daily lives, while constantly adjusting to the changes of time and needs, driving unique innovation. This Network + has the ambitious goal to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders to identify holistic pathways enabling transformation of these industries in response to the unique challenges of our time.”

Excellence in PhD research recognised at award ceremonies.

Recognition and awards continue to come in for our alumni, with the excellence of two more of our former PhD students – Dr Stephanie Thornber and Dr Antonia Yorkshire – receiveing plaudits from independent panels of judges.

Dr Stephanie Thornber (left) and Dr Antonia Yorkshire (right)

Stephanie has been announced as the winner of the European Nuclear Society High Scientific Council (HSC) PhD award 2020 during the final round of the competition, which was held virtually on the 10th November 2020. The competition was open to all PhD graduates in the field of nuclear science and engineering who have graduated within the last 36 months across all European nuclear societies and was voted for by members of the HSC.

Stephanie, who currently works as a Senior Research Technologist at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), was first selected as the UK entrant to the competition in March after submitting her application through the Nuclear Institute. A total of 9 countries submitted entries to the competition, which were reviewed by the 22 members of the HSC. The final four candidates were unanimously selected by the HSC and were invited to present their work at the final stage of the competition. Stephanie gave a 20min presentation on her PhD research and her work at NNL in the field of plutonium disposal. Her presentation gave an overview of her PhD developing zirconolite glass-ceramics for Pu immobilization and the use of hot isostatic pressing (HIP) as the thermal treatment technology for consolidating the materials. Her presentation also highlighted the impact and relevance of her research by showcasing the ongoing development of active HIP facilities at NNL to progress the technology readiness level of HIP and of ceramic wasteforms for actinide disposition in the UK.

Following her presentation Stephanie took part in a 20 minute Q&A session with 18 members of the HSC. The council members then deliberated all finalists and their presentations before announcing Stephanie as the overall winner of the competition. Stephanie was praised for the quality and impact of her research and presentation and the quality of her answers during the Q&A session.

Antonia was named as the winner of the The Adam Neville Prize, presented to the best national PhD in the field of cement and concrete.

The Neville Centre Symposium is held annually and features influential speakers delivering topical talks on cement and concrete. The Adam Neville Prize event takes place alongside the Symposium, and is an opportunity for the best national PhD student in the field of cement or concrete to present their research to a panel of experts from the Neville Centre and the Concrete Society. The panel then judged each presentation and announced the winner of the Adam Neville Prize.

Finalists for the award included candidates from the Universities of Lancaster, Cambridge and Leeds with the Prize eventually going to Antonia for her PhD Thesis entitled “Uranium, Plutonium and Technetium Interactions with Cement Minerals for Radioactive Waste Management”.

This year’s event was hosted virtually by the University of Leeds. The symposium also included a number of guest speakers in the field of sustainable cement technologies, including Prof John Provis from the University of Sheffield.

In September, Antonia successfully defended her PhD, and is now working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Cements@Sheffield research group.

FlashyScience extends its free access arrangement

In May, at a time when we were adapting to a new way of working, we reported that the virtual science experiment site, FlashyScience, was being made available to all UK schools until August for free.

As a result, the site has now attracted more than 90 UK schools and institutions with over 2000 individual users. These are students studying science subjects at schools, colleges and even universities.

FlashyScience is a website which allows GCSE and A-Level science students to perform virtual experiments which complement the syllabuses. The website is usually a paid-for resource but it will now be free for pre-university schools and colleges to access until August 2021 so students can continue their learning and practical education during the coronavirus pandemic, whether they are in school or not.

The virtual experiments include Hooke’s Law, Ohm’s Law, Specific Heat Capacity and Radioactivity, amongst others, and these can be repeated in the classroom or at home as many times as the students like.

Now that we are in the new academic year, the developers of FlashyScience, Professor Dan Allwood and Dr Julian Dean from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, have announced that FlashyScience will now be available to pre-university schools and colleges around the world for free until August 2021.

Within the University of Sheffield, we have been using the platform with new students studying on Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and General Engineering courses to supplement hands-on laboratory classes as they start their degree courses with us.

However, in recent months the FlashyScience team have been working hard to extend the capabilities of the site, by making the site compatible with tablet devices, and introducing new experiments.

They also employed the services of an intern to develop a series of curriculum-based questions and answers to accompany each experiment to help the users test their understanding.

On top of this, further experiments are in preparation and are expected to be released in the next few weeks.

Already, an alumna from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield, Hermanchi Galiaya, is working on promoting Flashy Science in her home country of Kenya by delivering demonstrations to science teachers, as part of her role as a community worker.

Professor Allwood comments, “It is fantastic to see so many students making use of the resource that I put together with Julian, and we hope that more will take us up on the offer of a free subscription for the coming academic year.

“We recognise that the school setting may change at very short notice, but by having FlashyScience available, teachers will still be able to provide their students with the opportunity to learn online, using experiments that they can do and redo to generate genuine experimental results.”

If you know any schools or teachers who would like to access all of the resources on the website, get them to email or visit to contact the team to request a free license.

First lab open and ready for business at the Royce Discovery Centre

The Henry Royce Institute, Sheffield, is pleased to announce that its Basic Characterisation Laboratory is the first lab to become fully operational at the University of Sheffield’s brand new Royce Discovery Centre.

Basic Characterisation Laboratory in the Royce Discover Centre

Hosting a wide range of cutting-edge equipment and instrumentation, the laboratory is now accessible to staff and students across the Department of Materials Science, the Faculty of Engineering and the University. It will also offer a bespoke, professional service to external customers.

The Basic Characterisation Laboratory covers a variety of characterisation techniques in the areas of Thermal Analysis, Particle Characterisation and Molecular Spectroscopy, which all help to increase understanding into how and why different materials show diverse properties and behaviours. The lab’s research capabilities span numerous engineering materials, such as electroceramics, cements, refractories, metal, glasses, ceramics, as well as polymers and other soft materials.

The facilities will enable targeted research to take place in areas such as functional materials and devices, advanced structural materials, biomaterials and tissue engineering, nuclear engineering, and nanomaterials and nanoengineering.

Some of the thermal analysis techniques that will be employed in the lab include thermal gravimetric analysis, thermomechanical analysis, differential scanning calorimetry and flash diffusivity, and there is a whole range of high spec instruments available to enable this research. To find out more about Royce capabilities in materials characterisation, click here.

The analytical service that the laboratory provides is the measuring and determining of the physical, chemical, mechanical and microstructural properties of materials. This leads to the higher level of understanding needed to resolve important issues such as the causes of failure and process-related problems, as well as to allow the manufacturer to make critical materials-related decisions.”

Dr Oday Hussein, Senior Engineering Technician at the Henry Royce Institute

To enquire about accessing any of our facilities and services, please email

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