Having fun nerding it up at Cambridge Science Festival!
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
Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Chemistry, University of East Anglia
Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of Cambridge
Favourite thing to do in my job: 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! :)
I’m investigating new nanomaterials to help make solar cells more efficient and cheaper to produce.
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 prize money
I’d spend it on new equipment to help my department’s excellent outreach programme reach more schoolchildren.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Tall Northumbrian Scienceman
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Travelling around the world to use enormous X-ray machines to do experiments.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
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!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, I was a nerd. I’m still one today, but now I get paid for my nerdiness!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Unemployed! Lol! No, seriously, I’ve always been interested in history so probably something involving that. I
Who is your favourite singer or band?
They Might Be Giants, they do sciencey songs. Favourite song: Particle Man http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsAiCs66l40
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!
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!