Boo, evicted :( Well - good luck to all the scientists, and great to speak to all you students!
Sir Roger Manwood’s School, Sandwich, Kent, 1995-2002
Imperial College London, Physics MSci, 2002-2006
Post Doctoral Research Associate
Imperial College London
Favourite thing to do in science Finding out new things! It’s an amazing feeling when there’s something that confused you before, and suddenly you can make sense of it all. And even better when you can explain it to someone else and see that smile on their lips as it all clicks into place. Also: Almond fingers with hot coffee.
I design molecules to make plastic solar cells better.
Our generation faces a serious energy crisis. We are depleting our favourite form of fossil fuels (oil and gas), and are turning to ever more dirty and environmentally damaging alternatives (brown coal, tar sands). The carbon dioxide and other pollutants that burning these fuels have generated since the start of the industrial revolution have distorted the energy balance of the atmosphere and are driving a climate change that will change out entire world.
All of our Energy, except for Nuclear and Tidal, comes originally from the Sun. A vast quantity of solar power shines on the Earth, about 122 petawatts (that’s 122’000’000’000’000’000 watts). Humanity only uses about 1 / 8000th of that in total. This is much more than any other renewable energy source.
Solar power is distributed across the whole world, everyone has access to it, and you can make it where you need it.
You may have seen those blue solar panels appearing on buildings and farms near you. These are usually made from silicon.
The problem with solar power is that the current things we build to turn sunlight into electricity are expensive! If we find a cheaper way to make these sunlight converters, we can start to use a lot more solar power, and put converters on everyone’s roof at home and in every country.
There’s lots of scientists, universities and companies across the whole world who are trying different ways to do this. We’re in a massive race competing to make the cheapest and most efficient converters. Whoever wins will be famous, but most importantly we’ll have all won, in having a planet that’s more habitable for it!
The group I’m a member of is trying to make solar panels out of squishy materials that we can make in big buckets, and that don’t need the high temperatures and complicated processing that silicon does (this is what makes silicon panels expensive, they’re actually just made out of sand – silicon dioxide).
We make solar panels by mixing special plastics with electronically different molecules. We dissolve them in solvents that are a lot like petrol. Then we make the smallest pancake you could imagine, putting a drop of this material on a piece of electrically conductive glass the size of a penny, spinning at thousands of revolutions a minute.
When they start making these solar panels in big factories we hope we will be able toprint them like newspapers in a big machine with rollers!
The current materials we use to make this type of solar cell are not good enough for mass production. They’re difficult and expensive to make, and don’t like Water or Oxygen, which is not a good thing for something you want to put on your roof!
A synthetic chemist is someone who make new materials, putting together atoms in ways that no one has ever done before. What they do is amazing, but there are so many different ways of putting together atoms that if we had to wait for them to try every combination, we’d be here forever!
So this is where I come in. Instead of having to make every possible one, I use big powerful computers to calculate how I think these materials should behave according to simulations of how the electrons interact. We’re still figuring out how to do this as we go along, so I also spend a lot of time calculating how we think a material that they’ve already made should behave, and then comparing this with what it does in reality, and trying to improve our methods.
Scientists have access to big collections of computers in things called clusters. These computers are super powerful, and can work together on a really big problem or all do the same calculation on different materials.
Today’s computers are so powerful that in a single second they can easily do more calculations than you could do with a calculator in a hundred years working non stop with no sleep!
My Typical Day
Cycling to work, coffee; Computers, calculations, programming; talking to colleagues, plotting data, sitting in talks; lunch, coffee; dissolving molecules in solvents, prodding them with electrons and photons; tea; thinking what question to ask next; trying to escape the physics building before it gets too late and get out somewhere to enjoy London with friends!
My day really varies depending what science I’m currently doing. But it almost always starts with cycling to work – to the massive Blackett laboratory at Imperial College London. It’s an enormous concrete block with thousands of physicists in it.
This is the main entrance to physics – above the doors are engraved slates showing important discoveries in modern physics with just pictures and diagrams.
Some areas of science take lots of people many years to design a single experiment, collect the data and analyse it. In the design of organic semiconductors, things move pretty quickly. Our experiments to measure the properties of new materials are fairly quick to carry out, it’s more that chemists are making so many materials and we would like to understand them all!
A lot of my time is spent sitting at my desk with my computer. One screen is usually full of technical documentation and google searches. On the other screen I’m usually logged into a computer cluster somewhere in the world. Here I tell the computers what I would like calculated, check on jobs that I set running days ago and write little bits of computer code to analyse the results and convert data from one form to another, plot the data and interpret the result. Quite a lot of time I just spend thinking, usually along the lines of: “Does this make sense?” and… “How can I check this result?”
I always try and get a visual sense of what is going on, so I spend some time making pictures of the molecules and electronic processes that are occurring.
Our labs are spread out through the whole building, so if I’m doing some experimental work I seem to find myself spending a lot of time walking! New chemicals are made in very small quantities at first (sometimes you just get a few flecks of dust!), and are extremely precious, so you walk around holding these tiny glass vials like precious eggs.
Every other week during term time I tutor undergraduate students. So I spend some time setting and marking homework, and then spending an hour long lesson talking with small groups of four in a classroom.
Scientists often give talks to one another about what they’ve been researching, and trying to understand. Lots of different types of scientist work on organic electronics at Imperial, so regularly I find myself going to different departments to hear people speak. Occasionally I give a talk to them about the latest things I’ve been looking into.
Also, very important for science is socialising and coffee. The Blackett laboratory has a fantastic coffee room, with a roof terrace eight floors above the ground. Physicists spend a lot of time in dark or dimly lit laboratories as the light interferes with our optical measurements, so it’s nice to sit outside in the sunshine!
Chatting over a drink or lunch is really useful in understanding the little things and hear what other people think may help.
What I'd do with the money
Make a solar cell out of raspberries to show people at schools just how amazing photovoltaics are.
There’s a type of solar cell called a Dye Sensitised Cell. The first time I saw this I was absolutely amazed. You can grind up raspberries (or any other strongly coloured fruit) to get the juice, use this to stain a piece of glass coated with what is essentially toothpaste, and then complete the circuit with another specially coated bit of glass and a drop of a liquid electrolyte containing iodine. And it instantly becomes a solar cell in front of your eyes, you can use it to power a little fan!
Solar Power seems such a complicated and strange thing, almost unreal. People think of spaceships and deserts as places where solar panels are used, after having been made in silicon chip factories by people in bunny suits. I think this is a really good way to show that there are other ways to make solar panels, and that there are very good reasons why we should be serious about Solar for the future, even in cloudy and grey Britain!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Excitable, intense, disorganised.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist or in your career?
The most amazing moment in science is when you find something is not what you expect. And it’s always a What? What?! WHAT?! moment. You won’t believe it’s true and try to remeasure, and ask other people if they can do the same experiment and whether they see the same result. For just a few minutes you’re the only person who knows this new little thing about the universe, and then you run around telling everyone you can about your result and why it matters!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes! Nothing major though 8)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Ooh – too many to describe! I listen to music all the time, to help me focus at work, to relax at home. The only time I don’t is when I’m in the lab — you need to be able to hear the alarms!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Cave exploration in the Alps — it’s amazing to walk along a tunnel deep within a mountain and see that your footprints are the first ever, your eyes are the first to ever see this place, and when you don’t know what is around the corner!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
More time! There’s so much to see and do in the world, so many people to meet and ideas to talk about. Just give me that one wish and I’ll give my other two away.
Tell us a joke.
“Hey, we don’t serve faster-than-light neutrinos here!” said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.