Weekend's here! Woo! Keep those ASK questions coming in though.
Kingsbrook School, Northamptonshire (1995-2002)
University of Hull (2002-2003); Cambridge University (2003-2007)
Studying for a PhD in chemistry
University of St Andrews
Favourite thing to do in science Opening my next set of reactions. The reactions are in closed, steel containers so it’s like Christmas opening them… you don’t know what you’ve got until the lid is off! Sometimes it’s full of black rubbish – like getting woolly pink socks from grandma – and sometimes it’s full of shiny, colourful (and useful!) crystals – like getting that iPhone 4 that you’ve been hankering after for the last month or two!
I make brightly coloured crystals for storing and separating gases – useful for storing carbon dioxide (CO2) to fight climate change or for hydrogen powered cars.
I try to design materials which trap certain gas molecules (such as CO2) better than others. The idea is that we can pass a mixture of gases into the material and get one pure gas out the other end.
Gas separation would be useful for cleaning hydrogen gas to use in hydrogen powered cars. It would also be useful for separating CO2 from the gases coming out of a power station’s chimney. The CO2 can then be stored somewhere it can’t harm the environment.
The materials I work with are called Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs). These are solid materials which are mostly empty space – something like a microscopic climbing frame (but even smaller than micro!).
The small black hexagons in the picture are like the bars of the climbing frame an the pink and yellow coloured shapes (polyhedra) are the metal atoms. The empty spaces in these materials are really small and gas molecules really want to fill them up. I can choose which gases get trapped by the material by choosing the right metal to make the MOF from.
I use colourful solutions of metal salts (like copper sulphate, and other so-called transition metals) to make these materials and get a variety of colourful powders.
My Typical Day
In the lab, mixing coloured solutions, putting them in the oven and taking them out when they’re done. Then trying to work out exactly what I’ve made…
I get the bus at about 9.30am and ride to St Andrews, through the green Fife countryside with the sea on the horizon, and I’m in the department (which is only 5mins from the beach!) by 10am. Then it’s into the lab to take the previous couple of days’ reactions out of the oven. These cool back to room temperature and are then filtered to collect the solid, and washed. This bit is like Christmas – opening your presents to find out what you’ve got! Once these have dried (usually takes 24hours) I find out what I’ve made by X-raying the solids.
Lunchtime is about 12.30. There are a couple of cafes on the campus so I get lunch there with friends and people I work with (chocolate fudge cake is a must if I can get it!).
In the afternoon I work on the computer typing up my results (to be published in academic journals) and also run experiments on the more promising solids I made in the previous days. These experiments find out if the materials will trap the gases we want them to and how much gas they take up. I head home at about 7-8pm and do some more edible chemistry (making dinner!) back at home.
What I'd do with the money
Build models of the materials I’m working on to show how CO2 storage works; then take them to Dundee/Edinburgh Science Festivals to show the people how cool this is and why it’s important
In my work I make 3d pictures of the materials I work with to understand how they take up gas:
The picture on the right isn’t very clear and this is why being able to move the structure around in 3d or see it from several sides helps!
I would like to make scaled down 3d models of some of my materials to show where the gas sticks to the inside of the solids. I’d also like to show how my work fits into the bigger idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and would do this with a couple of posters showing the steps involved, what is currently being done to trap CO2 and what the next step in the technology might be. I’d like to take this display to Dundee and/or Edinburgh Science Festivals so that people can see what science is doing to help fight climate change and why this is an important area of research.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Friendly and enthusiastic, but a little disorganised!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist or in your career?
Worked in Kiel (Germany) for a month: found lots of new materials and made some really good friends (and enjoyed the local beer!)
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not much – I forgot to do my homework a few times and got in to trouble for dropping litter, but that’s about it
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Rock climbing at the EICA near Edinburgh
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) My own laboratory with an infinite supply to chemicals. 2) More time! 3) I’d like to go into space.
Tell us a joke.
An atom walks into a bar, and says to the the bar man ‘I’ve lost an electron’. Confused, the bar man replies, ‘are you sure?!’ The atom answers, ‘yes, I’m positive!’