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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Developing bio-based materials for a greener world.

Having developed a range of bio-based materials with the potential to replace non-recyclable plastics in packaging applications, scientists at the University of Sheffield are now making progress on up-scaling production of a selection of these materials in preparation for potential commercialisation.

Due to the high annual consumption of polymers/plastics, green, biodegradable and biocompatible polymers are in high demand both for bulk applications and for medical applications. 

The ECOFUNCO project involves institutions from around Europe working on the development of eco-friendly bio-based coatings which can be used in applications including food packaging, personal hygiene, disposable food and drink containers and non-food packaging. The aim of the project is to create coatings that exhibit improved performance compared to existing products, but with more sustainable end-of-life options. 

The research taking place at the University of Sheffield, led by Professor Ipsita Roy of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, centres around the development of the base materials for the green coating formulations. Other collaborators in the consortium are formulating novel coatings using these and other materials, to be applied to plastic and paper substrates in order to impart hydrophobic (water stable), oxygen barrier and anti-microbial properties.

Cellulose is the most widely-available renewable material on Earth. Using cellulose-derived materials to replace fossil-based plastics in a range of consumer products, such as disposable food products or personal care items would make a considerable contribution to Europe’s environmental ambitions.

However, because cellulose materials in their current form have some limitations (such as poor barrier properties), they are often mixed with polyethylene, which limits its recyclability and undermines the environmental benefits. That is why alternative bio-based coatings are being developed to achieve the properties required. It is the combination of the substrate and the coating that will lead to the use of biodegradable, biocompatible and environmentally friendly materials in packaging applications where today non-recyclable materials are used.

The materials under development in the Sheffield labs fall into two classes: Bacterial Cellulose and Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).

Bacterial Cellulose is produced by bacteria, as an extracellular polymer in the form of a pellicle, or a thick layer. It is highly biocompatible and biodegradable, and possesses hydrogel properties which make it suitable for use in medical applications, eco-friendly coatings, and as a substitute for paper substrates without the need for further purification. It has a highly porous and crystalline nanofibrillar structure, has high water holding ability, hydrophilicity and excellent mechanical properties.  In ECOFUNCO this is being used for water-based coating applications.

Pure Bacterial Cellulose in pellicle form
SEM image of freeze dried Bacterial Cellulose, showing the fibrous nature of the material. 

PHAs are polyesters produced as intracellular granules by bacteria and can be produced using low value substrates such as waste frying oil, agricultural waste, biodiesel waste and municipal waste. The polymer is produced by bacterial fermentation followed by extraction of the polymer from freeze dried cells. These polymeric materials are environmentally friendly and biodegradable in both soil and marine environments, recyclable, and have a range of mechanical and thermal properties. The low melting elastomeric PHAs are excellent for packaging and coating applications. PHAs are also highly biocompatible and bioresorbable, hence are highly promising medical materials.

Purified Polyhydroxyalkanoate
Purified Polyhydroxyalkanoate

For both types of materials, researchers in ECOFUNCO have been experimenting with different coating formulations, and so far results are looking very promising. A variety of other candidate materials are being shared with other ECOFUNCO consortium members for investigation into their suitability for use as green coatings.

In addition, the Sheffield research group, which comprises Dr David A. Gregory, Dr Lakshmi Tripathi and Mr Emmanuel Asare, has developed methodologies for scaling up the production of PHA materials in preparation for potential commercial applications.

The ECOFUNCO project is funded by the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBIJU)/H2020, and is led by Consorzio Interuniversitario Nazionale per la Scienza e Tecnologia dei Materiali (INSTM) in Italy. The consortium includes academic and industrial partners from Italy, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Croatia, Belgium and Israel. Industrial partners include Consorzio Prosciutto di Parma CPP Italy (Parma Ham producers) and  Huhtamaki HUH Germany.

At one with Nature (Communications)

Academics from the Department have had their research published in high-profile publications this month. The papers demonstrate to sheer diversity of the research that takes place in the Department.

Dr Alice Pyne’s work on imaging DNA using Atomic Force Microscopy appeared in Nature Communications, featureing the highest resolution images of a single molecule of DNA ever taken and, for the first time ever, videos of how small circles of DNA adopt dance-like movements inside a cell have.

Small circles of DNA adopt dance-like movements inside cells

The footage, developed by a team of scientists from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and York, shows in unprecedented detail how the stresses and strains that are placed on DNA when it is crammed inside cells can change its shape.

Read the full story here.

Meanwhile, research led by Professor Mark Rainforth and Dr Junheng Gao has led to the development of a completely new way of making lightweight, high strength steel that can be easily adapted to mass manufacturing.

The left hand image shows the ultra-fine grain size (each colour is an individual grain). The right hand image shows the atomic structure (each bright sphere is an atom).

Experimental work has shown how ultra-fine grained steel can be made to deliver world leading mechanical properties (strength of nearly 2GPa with an elongation of 45% – for comparison, a similar unmodified steel alloy had a strength of ~710MPa).

Using these high strength steels in cars means that weight is reduced and therefore so is the vehicle’s environmental impact.

Read about these developments here.

It started with a Tweet

Faculty of Engineering Media Fellow Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala discusses the strategic use of social media to help enhance research.

The possibilities for making “Friends” and “influencing” people have never been so vast.

Social media is undeniably a powerful force in the modern world. Well established platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, along with new players like Tik Tok, all offer the ability to quickly and easily share content, information and ideas with huge audiences across the globe. These audiences are then able to directly engage with this content, and the users providing it, through “likes”, sharing and adding their own comments; delivering an organic shaping of narratives covering everything from global politics and technological revolutions to parish council meetings and cat memes.

How universities, and more specifically individual academics, can use social media to the help support and enhance their research remains a difficult question. Although the potential reach of social media is huge, it can be difficult to imagine how this can actually be converted into tangible benefits for research and the university, particularly given the fleeting nature of individual ‘posts’.

Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala, who was recently appointed as the Faculty of Engineering’s first Media Fellow, considered how social media could be used to promote and enhance his research. Through strategic use of social media (along with plain old perseverance), Sam has managed to achieve significant results, including access to new lab equipment, free research consumables, invitations to speak at international conferences and even a new research project.

We caught up with Sam to ask him about his work on social media, the clear benefits he has gained and to see what advice he had for other academics.

Why did you want to use social media to promote your research?

Today, social media is such a large factor in global communication generally, not just for engineering and science. The ability that major platforms like Twitter and Facebook give you to present to and interact with large audiences offers the opportunity to explore research engagement in new and exciting ways. These platforms are fast-paced, often providing rapid and even real-time feedback, giving a new dynamic to research communication.

As part of my role as the Faculty of Engineering Media Fellow, I was keen to see how using social media could help to support and enhance my research.

What was your strategy for using social media for research communication?

Engagement on social media is often thought of in terms of “likes”, “shares” and “followers”. Profiles, either personal or professional, post content and gather followers. More heavily followed profiles generate more reaction to their posted content and can thus be more influential in discussions or driving behaviour. The value of this influence is therefore important to the impact of any social media communication.

It takes a significant amount of time and effort to naturally grow a social media following. As I did not have the time or resources to focus on this approach, I decide to be more targeted and considered how the platforms could be used from a different perspective. I decided that I would use social media as a way to direct the communication of my research work towards companies that could potentially contribute towards enhancing it.

Regardless of my stature on social media, with just a few hundred followers on Twitter and Instagram, I was being offered rapid and effective access to many more people or professional bodies than in the past. I felt this was particularly valuable with regards to industry. Most companies have social media accounts and these permit new levels of contact and interaction.

Which companies did you engage through social media?

My first target was the prominent 3D printing company Formlabs. Formlabs pioneered low-cost, high quality, desktop 3D printing. The company has significantly reduced the cost of stereolithography (SLA) based 3D printing – the industry Gold-standard – allowing many more people to access this technology. Over the last 10 years, they have become a leading 3D printing brand, selling in excess of 50,000 machines.

I have used various Formlabs 3D printers throughout my research work developing tissue engineered blood vessels for treating cardiovascular disease. 3D printing allowed me to rapidly create bespoke lab equipment, including moulds for material casting and bioreactors for culturing vascular tissue. My research work would simply not have been possible without access to this technology.

I thought that engaging with Formlabs could be beneficial for my research, but also for them as a company, by showing a new use-case for their technology. I examined Formlabs social media profiles to see what information they communicated and the posts they interacted with, through likes, comments, retweets, etc. I also examined their website to get an insight into their company ethos and values. This allowed me to construct the best social media posts to grab their attention.

What platform did you use and what content did you post.

Originally, I used Twitter to engage with Formlabs. I chose this over Instagram, because Twitter offers the ability to include links to outside content within posts and comments. Instagram users must direct readers to their profile pages to achieve this, via the commonly observed “link in bio” statement. I have subsequently taken to using Instagram too, as the platform is particularly suited to the highly visual nature of many of my posts relating to Formlabs, which often show 3D printed objects.  

I carefully crafted my first tweet in an effort to catch Formlabs attention. I chose to tweet about how I had 3D printed a bioreactor chamber for growing a “mini-aorta” for cardiovascular research. I thought this exciting application of their technology would be noticed. I also chose my language to mirror their own website’s statement on the company’s mission to “expand access to digital fabrication, so anyone can make anything.” I paired my tweet with an eye-catching collage of pictures showing the 3D printed part, my print setup, and me.

What was the reaction to your social media engagement and how has this helped enhance your research.

I received a reaction from Formlabs very quickly. I had actually planned a series of tweets as a campaign to capture their attention. Instead, within 2 minutes of sending my first tweet the post had been liked and retweeted by Formlabs, and within 30 minutes I had a Direct Message from their social media manager asking if I would be interested in speaking to their medical applications team about doing a profile on my work. The immediacy of social media was so striking.

I quickly began working with Formlabs to produce a profile article about my research for their website. This article discussed my research work and also how I had employed 3D printing technology:

I was then invited to appear as a guest speaker for Formlabs at their first European User Summit in Berlin and at the TCT Show in Birmingham, both all expenses paid. Subsequently, I have now been appointed as one of Formlabs Global 3D Printing Ambassadors. This role allows me to promote innovative uses of 3D printing and also provides a number of perks, including access to newly developed 3D printing materials ahead of general release and discounted/free consumables and equipment. As an ambassador, I presented a webinar on my research work as part of Formlabs “Office Hours” series:

Formlabs are also keen to support young engineers and help them during their education and training. Through my role as a Formlabs Ambassador, I was able to arrange for a new Form 3 3D printer to be supplied to iForge makerspace in The Diamond for free, as part of a loan scheme. This provided engineering students and other iForge users with access to low-cost, high quality, 3D printing; enhancing their abilities to create. See image of me with the 3D printer below (others available):

The most exciting outcome from my social media engagement activities has been the creation of a new research area for me. During my time at the Formlabs User Summit in Berlin, I was able to discuss Formlabs materials development with their engineers. I discovered that my research work had clear regions of cross-over with their development goals in 3D printing materials, in particular around biocompatibility, degradation and sustainability. This led to the proposal of a new project on materials development which has now been successfully funded. This project aims to ultimately deliver a new 3D printing material for Formlabs platform, generating impact on a global scale.

All this from one tweet.

What advice would you give to other academics on using social media to promote and enhance their research?

The first thing I would say is that you need to be clear what your goals are. What do you want to use social media to achieve? There is much more to these platforms than gaining followers and increasing your influence; and you don’t need large quantities of either to produce valuable results.  

My goal was based on accessing industry and reaching companies that could help enhance my research. Although my platform was small, I piggy-backed on Formlabs much larger social media presence. They saw value in promoting me and proliferating my content as it ultimately enhanced their profile.    

You may want to use social media to find others that could help contribute to your research, such as academic collaborators, or to promote a discussion on an issue. Once you have your goal it’s much easier to form a strategy to achieve it.

Additionally, if you have little experience of social media, take some time to learn and understand how the platforms work. This is best done by actually using them. Sign up, get scrolling and spread a few likes and comments around. You’ll quickly learn how you should be structuring your content to get the best results.  

I understand that you also used social media during your work manufacturing PPE in The Diamond as part of the university’s response to the pandemic. Can you tell us more about this?

At the start of the pandemic I was part of a group of university staff and students who came together to try and combat the shortage of PPE facing our healthcare workers. This activity was led by Dr Pete Mylon with the team utilising the manufacturing facilities within the iForge makerspace. I was proud to be part of this initiative and along with manufacturing activities, I also promoted our work across Twitter and Instagram. I was able to leverage this coverage into a number of national media articles and interviews, including newspapers and radio, at the local and national level. The social media and wider press coverage helped promote the fund raising efforts to support our manufacturing. We raised almost £10,000 in just a few days and ultimately nearly £20,000, thanks to many generous donations. We used this money to produce nearly 10,000 face shields which were distributed to local healthcare workers, including GPs, hospitals, care homes, charities and the ambulance service. 

If anyone is interested in purchasing equipment from Formlabs please contact Sam, as he has access to a referral and discount scheme as part of his role as a Formlabs Ambassador. Email:

Share your revision and exam tips

Exams can be stressful, and good preparation is essential for success. We would like to share some of the best hints and tips with our students to help them through their exams.

What advice would you give your younger self? Do you have fool-proof methods of revision?

Please let us know your favourite hints and tips for revision and exam practice so that we can share these with our students.

Use this Google Form to add your tips to our student guide. You could even video yourself giving these tips and upload your video via the form.

Conference: Developing Advanced Materials for a Sustainable Society

The Henry Royce Institute Conference 2021 is on the topic of Developing Materials for a Sustainable Society, and will take place on Monday 22 – Tuesday 23 March 2021.

At the conference, the Institute will set out their Mission and Vision, as well as the delivery framework including Research Areas and the Materials Challenges which have been identified. Delegates will also be introduced to the Royce facilities and wider products and services and present case studies on what Royce has achieved.

This flagship event is aimed at the broader Royce Community – both Royce Partner staff who wish to attend, alongside advanced materials researchers from non-Royce HEIs, industry collaborators and industry users/customers of Royce facilities, as well as representatives from Catapults and other Research & Technology Organisations, policy-makers and funders from research councils and national/ local Government, and international researchers and facility users.

The event agenda and registration details can be found here.

SMEA Lecture Competition

On 23 February, the Sheffield Metallurgical and Engineering Association (SMEA) hosted the local heat of the IOM3 Young Persons’ Lecture Competition, sponsored by The Worshipful Company of Armourers & Brasiers and the Henry Royce Institute.

Appearing via Zoom, the four young SMEA members presented to a panel of judges on a variety of subjects:

  • Mark Anis: Insights into High-temperature Multilayer Ceramic Capacitors
  • Frances Livera: Improving the Complementarity between Additive Manufacture and Brazing
  • Krishnanand Shukla: Use of High ionised plasma to improve the surface alloying process using State-of-the-art HIPIMS technology
  • Daniel Geddes: A study of novel cementitious materials for the disposal of problematic intermediate level nuclear waste

Following the presentations, the judges conferred and declared Frances Livera as the winner of the local heat. Frances, a PhD student in the Advanced Metallic Systems CDT, will now go on to the regional final, and hopefully to the national final taking place later in the year. You never know, this may actually take place in person. We can only hope!

During the event, the SMEA also presented their annual student prizes. These were awarded to:

  • James Knight (4th year MEng Materials Science and Engineering), who received the SMEA Industrial Project Prize
  • Rohan Dunnett (3rd year MEng Materials Science and Engineering), who received the SMEA Hatfield Memorial Prize in Metallurgy
  • Daniel Pickering (3rd year MEng Aerospace Engineering, Interdisciplinary Programmes) who received the SMEA Prize in Aerospace Engineering
  • Jonathan Jackson (3rd year MEng Mechanical and Robot Engineering) who received the SMEA Hatfield Memorial Prize in Engineering
  • Judith Gulpin (Sheffield Hallam University), BEng Materials Engineering, received the SMEA Hatfield Memorial Prize in Materials Engineering, which is awarded to the top final year student
  • Berwyn Owain Pollard (Sheffield Hallam University) received the SMEA Prize for the best dissertation
  • Joseph Edward Clayton (Sheffield Hallam University), 5 Beng/BSc Materials Science and Engineering, received the SMEA Hatfield Memorial Prize in Materials Engineering, which is awarded to the top student on level 5 of a BEng/BSc preogramme

Congratulations to James, Rohan, Daniel, Jonathan, Judith, Berwyn, Joseph and of course, Frances.

Did you know that membership of SMEA is free?
To find out more, visit:

Event: International Women’s Day

This year, to mark International Women’s Day, we have an exciting online event which sees Professors Nicola Morley and Ipsita Roy discussing their careers, what they do now, how they got there and why they chose the route that they took. The discussion is led by Dr Felicity Freeman, Research Associate in the Department.

The event takes place on Monday 8 March (International Women’s Day) between 3.30 and 4pm. You can register for the event here, and you will be sent the instructions of how to join the event before the day.

To register for the event, click here.

You can also submit questions that you would like Nicola and Ipsita to answer. We will collate all the questions and ask all those that we have time for. Submit your questions using the Google Form before Friday 5 March.

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