Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Materials Science and Engineering


My vision is to enable reliable large-scale manufacturing of novel advanced organic or hybrid organic/inorganic materials which have complex three-dimensional structure.
An advanced material is one with new properties that allows companies to develop novel high-value products to meet market needs, and in doing so generate growth and high-technology exports. Cutting-edge manufacturing is key to wealth creation in the UK. The UK cannot compete in the low technology (commodity) materials sector: these are now manufactured in countries with low cost labour markets.
To manufacture an advanced material, we have to understand its structure in detail. This means being able to observe and measure it over many length scales (nanometres to millimetres), and then use that information to understand its physical characteristics. Once we have understood how to create a material in the laboratory setting, the next challenge is to scale-up processing capability. Often the manufacturing process itself has a big impact on the microscopic structure of the material, and hence its physical properties. This leads to a development cycle. To maintain desirable properties, process variables are changed, informed by predictive modelling and re-examination of the microscopic structure. The aim is to identify process steps that critically impact on the product output capacity and reliability. This project will work directly with industrial partners to use novel ways of discern microscopic structure so as to inform the product development cycle.
The industrial partners are both large UK firms with interests in the energy sector: one working on developing polymer components for energy storage; the other working on up scaling process technologies for new types of low cost solar cells. For both materials systems, application performance success hinges on complex hierarchical structures. Scientists and engineers have realised that is often not only the material itself, but the way different structural arrangements, each at a different scale, interact with one another. As well as studying materials of immediate commercial application, this project also aims to harvest the information contained in very similar natural materials which also have complex hierarchical structures (spider silk in particular).
Prior development of this class of polymers has been hampered by the absence of measurement instruments and methods capable of accurately observing their composition and complex structure. I aim to refine a new type of electron microscopy that I have developed in order to measure, from the scale of nanometres to millimetres, soft-matter properties that define their electrical and structural performance. This will be tailored to the particular needs of my industrial collaborators, but the technique will also have much wider application. For example, I will also use my method to try to unlock the exact structural mechanisms that are found in the natural material silk - which has extraordinary properties as yet it is not understood how to retain these in the man-made equivalent. With the support of a visiting civil engineering expert who has developed scalable mechanical models for complex hierarchical structures, I aim to build a scalable model that will help to predict the link between process parameter variation and resulting materials properties. This will be informed using my new characterisation method.
Finally, in the light of the results from the research, I hope to pool the knowledge gained from both the industrial and academic partners to formulate a more general understanding of the development cycle for these technologically and economically important class of materials.

Planned Impact

Most directly, the project will impact on the people delivering it. It provides the PDRAs and me with the opportunity to experience research cultures in both academia and industry. We will develop an awareness of the different pressures dominating these different environments and the related differences in project planning, management, and communication. It will thus enable all team members to acquire knowledge transfer skills and potentially lead efficient technology/ knowledge transfer between UK academic institutions and UK industry. Staff at both companies will also benefit from new skills and broader knowledge gained during this project. PDRAS and students on the project will learn to communicate their research to the wider public.
The electron microscopy community will gain from the techniques which are to be refined. The methods developed will undoubtedly have much wider applications. New characterisation methods may follow; say by increasing the energy resolution of the secondary spectra, revealing new spectral features and new ways to interpret such measurements. The image contrast mechanisms involved may well open up other forms of material characterisation, leading to further insights into materials processing. Similarly, the theoretical approaches we are taking in order to understand secondary electron spectra from first principles should promote new research into fundamental scattering theory of low energy electrons.
There will be direct, and potentially very large, impact on my industrial collaborators because the project will from a key part of their product development program. I expect that the analysis and understanding of materials and processes provided through this project will lead to faster product development on one hand and products with good reliability on the other, hence leading to direct competitive advantages for these UK companies. These companies already have or are planning to build capacity for large-scale production. Hence, when these new products are introduced to the market and are mass-produced they could impact on the energy sector, transport sector, public health and the environment, all of which will benefit the quality of life the general public.
Of course, once our new approaches to the materials development cycle have been refined, they could also be rolled out into other industrial sectors: these could be centred around any technology that relies on multi-scale, hierarchical soft-matter structures.


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Abrams K.J. (2017) Nanoscale Mapping of Semi-Crystalline Polypropylene in Physica Status Solidi (C) Current Topics in Solid State Physics

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Abrams KJ (2019) Making Sense of Complex Carbon and Metal/Carbon Systems by Secondary Electron Hyperspectral Imaging. in Advanced science (Weinheim, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

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Almansoori A (2017) Feasibility of Plasma Treated Clay in Clay/Polymer Nanocomposites Powders for use Laser Sintering (LS) in IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering

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Barrows A (2016) Indium-free multilayer semi-transparent electrodes for polymer solar cells in Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells

Description Some imprint materials are still not well understood because there is no method to see chemical differences on small scale.

We have demonstrated that Secondary Electron Emission Spectra can be collected in several different commercially available scanning electron microscopes and that these spectra can be used to reveal the existence of local nano-scale chemical differences in technologically important materials that could not be seen before but play an important role to either increasing the performance of a material system (e.g. solar cell) or ensure stable performance as time goes by. As this spectroscopic method has never been applied before to todays complex materials we also had to find new ways of understanding how the spectra relate materials properties. We showed this this is possible by combining machine learning in combination with modelling.

For instance, using our newly developed methods we gained a new understanding of the role of nanoscale chemical variation in high efficiency, but still not stable enough solar cells: we found that stability is much improved if nano-scale chemical differences can be avoided, a key finding which we expect to improve solar cell device fabrication processes.

Furthermore we found different ways that allow us to look inside materials or devices with our spectroscopy. We found that special designed exposure to a plasma holds the key for many of the materials we wish to understand better, such as spider silk. For instance, we found that we can reveal the nanoscale chemical variations within the inner layer of spider silk which was inaccessible so far. We also found that there is a link between the distance between similar nanostructure inside the spider and its mechanical properties. This is important because it will allow to define design rules for man made materials.

We also applied our newly gained understanding of the interaction of plasmas with some natural materials and man-polymers to develop new composite powders for 3D printed parts that are stronger and have smoother surfaces.
Exploitation Route we currently undertake feasibly test with potential endusers (academia and industry) in other fields e.g. electrode materials for batteries
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Electronics,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description fostering economic competitiveness: we were able to help companies to image materials using our specialist knowledge to clarify failure modes
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Economic

Description Don Claugher Bursary Award (KA)
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Society of Electron Microscope Technology 
Start 04/2017 
End 12/2018
Description EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hub in Manufacture using Advanced Powder Processes (MAPP) Feasibility Study
Amount £49,918 (GBP)
Organisation University of Sheffield 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 07/2019
Description Institute of Physics Research Student Conference Fund
Amount £300 (GBP)
Organisation Institute of Physics (IOP) 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Description International Exchanges 2016/R3
Amount £11,984 (GBP)
Funding ID IE160969 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 02/2019
Description RMS Travel Bursary
Amount £200 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Microscopy Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 07/2018
Description GreatCell 
Organisation Greatcell Solar Ltd
PI Contribution Feedback on materials integrity with regards to different processing methods
Collaborator Contribution provision of materials of high relevance to field to enable well targeted fundamental studies
Impact DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.7b00265
Start Year 2016
Description Thermofisher 
Organisation Thermo Fisher Scientific
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution experimental data collection and analysis
Collaborator Contribution provided energy filtering system to Sheffield, provided training and modelling data
Impact 10.1088/1742-6596/241/1/012074; 10.1088/1742-6596/209/1/012053; 10.1017/S1431927610053754; DOI: 10.1016/j.ultramic.2010.04.008; 10.1016/j.elspec.2017.08.001
Start Year 2007
Description "Spider women" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 20 minute talk about the science of spider silk and to a cultural forum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description CDT 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lecture for first year EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in New and Sustainable Photovoltaics students to include latest methods developed under this grant and likely to be applicable to their future research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
Description Exploring STEM for girls 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 600 Year 9 - Year 11 school students were invited to UoS "Exploring STEM for girls" event
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description OpenDay 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact representing department at University open day and talk to prospective applicants and parents about course and own research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018
Description science week 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was a talk followed by hands on workshop for primary school children organised and run by my team for all year groups (Reception to Y6) to allow hands on experimentation to relate microscopy and engineering problems . Show of hands on who wants to become scientist/engineer before and after workshop was vastly increased after the workshop activity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description visitors to Sorby 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Tour to visitors from industry of research facilities used/developed in this project and information on how this might be applicable to their company
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019