The Royal Society

Solar nanotech

Posted by on 7 June 2011

Posted by Putting sunshine in the tank – using nanotechnology to make solar fuel - David Cant, University of Manchester

I’ve been asked to write a blog post about what it’s like being a PhD student in our field (Solar Nanotechnology) and having just come back from a trip, it seemed a good idea to talk about that! So last week, myself, two other PhD students (Patrick Lunt and Jon Treacy), and our boss, Professor Wendy Flavell went to a picturesque little town called Lund, in Sweden. What makes Lund different from other picturesque little Swedish towns is the fact that it contains a synchrotron, MAX-lab. A synchrotron is a type of particle accelerator, like the LHC that’s been in the news a lot for the last year or two, except instead of smashing together two beams of protons, it just whizzes one beam of electrons round and around at (roughly!) the speed of light. What we use this for is to generate a really bright beam of X-rays which we can shine on our nanoparticles to see if they’re actually made of what we think they’re made of!

Synchrotrons like this are really useful for lots of different research – there are only a few in the world, they’re not exactly cheap – and there’s only room for a few people to use it at any one time. What this means in practice is that you have to compete to get time at a synchrotron – you have to show that your research is important enough – and you have to make the most of any time you do get awarded. To a PhD student, this means some of us are going to have to work the night-shift. Putting aside for a moment the strangeness of going to bed at 6 am because of work, rather than in spite of it, the actual experience is quite interesting. Data collection is mostly fairly simple – we try to line up the x-ray beam with the part of the sample we want to investigate, and then we start scanning (the analysis which comes later is the hard part!). This means that there’s sometimes a fair bit of free time in the night, which gives you a chance to get other work done – marking undergraduate student’s reports being a ‘highlight’. There’s also a certain sense of camaraderie with others on the night-shift – you’re all interested in science, and you’re all trying to get as much data  as possible – so it’s fairly easy to start up a conversation during a tea-break or when you’re having your lunch in the kitchen. Speaking of the kitchen, you also get the opportunity to sample the cuisine of a place you might never have gone to on holiday – some highlights of Sweden include pizza with banana on, bearnaise sauce on every other pizza (there was a lot of pizza eating), and the bizarre flavours of ice cream they have, from chilli chocolate to lemon and liquorice.

Being a researcher in this field can ask a lot of you sometimes, as I’m sure is true of any field, but the experiences you get to have and the satisfaction of helping to bring about new knowledge are well worth the effort!