Everybody should tune in to "the one show" today at 7pm on BBC1. They're going to be talking about the world's biggest chemistry experiment that is taking place across the country. You too can get involved!
Harton Technology College, South Shields, 1998-2003, South Tyneside College, South Shields, 2003-2005
University of Durham, 2005-2009, Masters in Chemistry, University of Nottingham 2009-now, Chemistry PhD
International Paint, Gateshead
Research towards a PhD
University of Nottingham
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love it when some part of science suddenly makes sense to me, by the combination of reading and learning through lectures. Chemistry is all about logic and patterns (and some explosions), so when it all fits together its fantastic. In lab work, I like being able to see exactly what I’ve made looks like right down at the molecular level, through electron microscopes (more on that later!).
I use carbon dioxide, in its form between liquid and gas, to make new types of plastic material.
With climate change being found in the headlines every week, it is more and more important to find other ways to make things. The world has to start and use chemicals that are non polluting to the environment, and also are in large supply- renewables. These are the aims of green chemistry, an area of research I work in.
Carbon dioxide is a waste gas in many chemical processes (including respiration!), and because of this there is no short supply of it. In my work we use carbon dioxide as a replacement to normal solvents, which are far more toxic and harmful to the environment. You may know carbon dioxide to be a gas, but just like water it can exist in a number of states. It is the supercritical state which I make use of. This has the combined properties of a liquid and a gas, which makes it advantageous in many ways.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is used in factories to remove the caffeine from coffee beans, for those who don’t like their coffee strong! But it is also ideal for making plastic materials (polymers) with unique properties. This is the exciting new area of research which I am lucky enough to be involved in!
When I make my polymers, I begin with liquid chemicals, most importantly monomers. These are the building blocks for polymers- think of a metal chain, and each link in the chain would be a monomer. When the monomers grow into long polymer chains, the reaction is over. I open my reactor and, HEY PRESTO, I have a polymer powder! It looks like a powder because it is made up of millions of tiny polymer spheres. Look at the “typical day” bit for a closer look at the spheres.
My Typical Day
Mixing reactants to begin making the materials, supervising younger students, presenting new results to “the boss”, and the odd coffee break!
Two working days are never the same, so a “typical day” doesn’t really exist. It’s also impossible to know where research may lead, and its worth knowing that many of the world’s great discoveries have been made by accident!
I make my polymers by following what you might call a “recipe”, and “cook” them in one of those metal reactors in the picture. I then measure them to see if they are the right length. Polymers are long chain molecules like spaghetti, and for me its important to know how long each “strand” is!
Another activity I do often is looking at my polymers under an electron microscope. These work by firing electrons- the things that power all electrical devices- at a sample. They then either bounce off the material, or pass through it, to produce a picture. It works kind of like a light-based microscope, but can see much smaller features- down to 1,000th the width of a human hair! And this is about the size of my polymer chains. See below for an example of an image.
The image shows one of my polymer (plastic) spheres, or “polymer particles” which consists of lots of polymer chains in a ball. You may be able to guess which type of food it looks like… This is because every other layer of the “onion” is made up of a different polymer. This is what we hope can give it some unique properties!
Outside lab work, I have to write up experiments ( I used to dislike that part at school, but love it now!). Also, I am sometimes allowed to go and present my work in other countries at events called “conferences”. This allows me to travel (so far I have been to Turkey and Scotland) which is one of the main highlights of being a scientist!
What I'd do with the prize money
I would make use of the money to do some science outreach in Ethiopia.
The money would go towards travelling there, and visiting a number of schools whilst drumming up lots of enthusiasm about science. I would also like to arrange for class trips to the Addis Ababa University, and try to help encourage them to choose a future in science.
The department of green chemistry (where I work), has developed links with Ethiopia, through Addis Ababa University. The role of green chemistry in the 21st century has been well discussed between the universities. Ethiopia is a country with needing developement, which will mostly need science to back it up, so introducing the subject is crucial. Also, there are alot of natural resources available there, such as sugarcane, coffee, nuts and tropical fruits. As well as being good items to eat, they are able to be used for the natural products inside them- oils, sugars, proteins etc. If the people who live there begin to learn how to make use of these to get the most value out of them, it could really help the economy of the country grow.
I think it’s also really important to spread the word to younger people, those who are the future of science. I would like to help convince school pupils that science is fascinating and important, and that they should consider it as a subject to follow into the future.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Energetic, approachable, versatile
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Early days, but so far I have enjoyed getting non-scientist friends and family interested in my work.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Only one detention- for failing to complete homework!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Ask me again in 2 months, and I will probably say my trip to China!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) The ability to fly (not very original), 2) Make one important scientific discovery in my lifetime and 3) More wishes