Paul Coxon

Having fun nerding it up at Cambridge Science Festival!

Favourite Thing: I like to make and discover new things! It’s like being an explorer from olden times, uncovering the mysteries of the world around us, but I don’t have to spend three months on a ship and get scurvy! :)



Bedlington High School 1995-2000; Newcastle University (Dept of Physics 2000-05), (School of Chemical Engineering & Advanced Materials 2005-10)


MPhys in Physics, PhD in Nanoscale Materials

Work History:

Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Chemistry, University of East Anglia

Current Job:

Postdoctoral Research Associate


University of Cambridge

Me and my work

I’m investigating new nanomaterials to help make solar cells more efficient and cheaper to produce.


My work

I’m investigating a new nanostructured type of silicon called ‘black silicon‘. It get its name because it looks, well… black. The surface is highly porous like a sponge, with tiny holes that make it excellent for trapping light. I’m trying to optimise the synthesis process and characteristics of my material to make it into a highly efficient anti-reflection coating for solar photovoltaic cells. By reducing the amount of wasted light reflected back, we can help make solar panels more energy efficient. If we can improve the efficiency of solar cells by only a tiny percentage, or bring down the manufacturing costs – the potential benefits are enormous.

I make my material using the FFC-Cambridge process, a revolutionary method for refining metal from its ores that was discovered by my boss a few years ago. This method uses molten salts, with involves working with high temperature furnaces – not too nice in the summer!

After the material has been made, we then characterize it using a whole palette of experimental techniques at out disposal. I’m very lucky that my department has one of the best electron microscope facilities in Europe which means I can look at the atomic makeup of the surfaces very clearly which helps understand how they form and how we can control the surface properties.


My Typical Day

No such thing: some days I can spend all day (and night) in the lab preparing samples or collecting data from them. Some days I can be in the office analysing data and writing it up.

Gym before work (the new university sports centre is literally across the path from my dept’s new building, so there’s no excuse!) then check emails and plan the day’s work.

My black silicon is made by electrochemically removing the oxygen atoms from silicon crystal wafers using molten salts. This takes a lot of time. The salt I use is very moisture sensitive so needs a long drying procedure to remove all traces of water. Usually first thing in the lab I start drying a new batch of salt. After a day or so, it’s ready for use and ready to melt inside a crucible within a furnace at 850 degrees. Melting the salt also takes time, but luckily the electrochemical reduction with silicon is quite quick – only  a few minutes. If everything goes to plan, I can prepare about 10 black silicon wafers a week ready for structural characterization and optical and electronic testing with our collaborators in the Cavendish Laboratory in Physics.

What I'd do with the money

I’d spend it on new equipment to help my department’s excellent outreach programme reach more schoolchildren.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Tall Northumbrian Scienceman

Who is your favourite singer or band?

They Might Be Giants, they do sciencey songs. Favourite song: Particle Man

What's your favourite food?

I love chicken – Nando’s FTW!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I won a science fair competition and got a trip on HMS Newcastle. I got to fly a Navy helicopter!

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist of some sort, doing research in chemistry/physics, which is great because that’s what I do now!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really, I was a nerd. I’m still one today, but now I get paid for my nerdiness!

What was your favourite subject at school?

Physics – I had ace teachers, Mr Thompson & Dr Wright, they spent most of the lessons talking about anything other than physics!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Travelling around the world to use enormous X-ray machines to do experiments.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My dad. He’s always been interested in how things work. When I was a baby he used to carry me around explaining how the fridge or vacuum cleaners worked. So I guess I picked up interest in the world around us from him. Thanks Dad!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Unemployed! Lol! No, seriously, I’ve always been interested in history so probably something involving that. I

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Increase my bench press, work out a perfect way to make the perfect cup of tea, to be able to fly.

Tell us a joke.

Why was the X-axis paranoid? Because everyone kept plotting against it!

Other stuff

Work photos:


Where I work: the lovely new Department of Materials at Cambridge University, opened in October 2013.


A look inside one of our new labs before we moved in. It’s nice and clean!


Our building is very green – the solar panels provide 3% of the energy, and we have a roofgarden with planting in the shape of the nanocrystalline domains in steel (so nerdy!)


The Furnace Lab: where I do most of my sample synthesis – it gets VERY warm in here!


One of my furnaces and reactor vessels.


‘Penguin’ silicon – so called because it looks like a colony of penguins. i think it looks like Antony Gormley’s famous sculpture of little terracotta men. Nature, science and art all together!


A scanning electron microscope image of a nanostructured black silicon surface.


This machine is very happy to supply our voltages!


Beamlines at BESSY – the Berlin synchrotron radiation facility!


BIG laser! This is used to measure the behaviour of the electrons in different materials and how the materials perform under exposure to different wavelengths of light.