Last year I went to judge the NSEC chemistry prize at the Big Bang Fair and had the honour of meeting some staggeringly dedicated young men and women. I was really excited after last year’s overall Young Scientist of the Year turned out to be a chemist. The chemistry prize then had to be supported by Bristol Chemlabs and thankfully this year the Goldsmiths Company stepped in at the last minute to ensure our amazing young chemists’ work was acknowledged and they were supported. Laura MacDonald invited me back to meet them along with Gan Shermer from the University of Bath.

Once again, most of the students we met had been given opportunities through Nuffield bursaries to work with scientists and particular props this year have to go to Kendal’s Technical Fibre Products who had hosted at least 5 of students we met.

Ben Clarke (below) had been investigating ways of improving surface conductivity of composite materials. As it turns out, companies like Lockheed Martin are looking to composites for the next generation of their aircraft. The weight savings over metal construction are significant but one drawback is the lack of conductivity and associated hazards of a lightning strike. The F-35 for example will be the first mass-produced aircraft to use Carbon Nanotube Reinforced Polymers (CNRP) structurally. These are stronger and lighter than their carbonfibre equivalents. The ability to deposit a thin conducting layer would be well received and it’s due to TFP’s expertise in this area that Lockheed have begun working with them recently.

Ben had been investigating the use of embedding different nanotech products into a composite material base, specifically silver microspheres, nano graphene and polyaniline. I was surprised to see the latter described as a cutting edge technology given that it’s a material we’ve known about for over 150 years and one we muck about with in schools (don’t blindly follow the instructions on that sheet if you’re interested as they don’t work as written!) but as it turns out it wasn’t until recently we started to use it commercially. Silver microspheres are so hipster they don’t even have a Wikipedia entry but the premise is simple enough – if you want the properties of a metal but you don’t want to pay for lots of it and put up with its bulk density, just deposit it onto the surface of tiny beads.


Whilst Ben was developing new materials that were going to change the way we build out next generation of aircraft, another team of students (in part funded by the Ogden Trust) had been spending months measuring the ways in which TFP’s materials age – one of these was an example of an intumescent – a word I’d never heard of before [and I’m grateful that the dictionary has also picked it up as a spelling error so I’m no more daft than the computer!]

Intumescents are a type of material designed to expand on heating to provide insulation in situ. Many also release water which has a cooling effect. The idea is to slow the progress of a fire to critical areas. These pictures (left) show the expansion of an intumescent coating on some steel bars which slowed the heating of the metal to its critical temperature at which its strength drops dramatically. I wasn’t surpised to find when I looked that manufacturers of these compounds have since claimed that had this type of material been applied to the structural metal in the World Trade Center that it never would have collapsed on 9/11.

Gan and I found ourselves separately judging identical twins which was somewhat confusing – one of them was doing a project the Goldsmiths like the sound of! Many Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) use a high quality finish known as Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold [ENIG]. Essentially this consists of a layer of gold deposited over a layer of nickel which is plated onto copper. The nickel helps to prevent the gold migrating into the copper [having been doing some research on gold for a recent Exhibition Chemistry (available here) I wonder if this is because of the 4s2 valence configuration on the nickel forms a zero order MO combination with the 6s2 valence electrons in gold but the 4s1 valency of copper will allow for a 1/2 bond order with only one lectron going into the σ* orbital?].

The thorn in ENIG’s side is the “black pad” – a term used to describe a type of nickel corrosion that compromises soldered joints in the circuit. Black pad is one of the factors that can lead to products like mobile phones failing with age – if we can reduce its occurrence, we can improve product reliability. Anuriti Aojula had been looking at ways to replace our current aqueous immersion gold deposition process with one involving an ionic liquid containing gold chloride. Due to commercial sensitivity she was unable to talk in much detail about the nature of the liquid but the results she had produced looked really exciting as she showed us the samples she produced as she perfected the technique with SEM images of her final sample showing n impressively consistent thin layer with excellent coverage.

I felt absolutely awful for Jonathan Richardson. He had come all the way down from Fortrose which is north of Inverness … but none of his display materials quite made it with him and he had to wing it off a scrap piece of paper he ‘d managed to acquire. Despite the obvious disadvantage he still did a great job explaining the work he’d been doing with LifeScan who make diabetes glucose monitors. These monitors work by putting a small drop of blood on a test strip which interfaces with a digital device and gives a readout of blood glucose levels. There are many important factors when it comes to designing one of these meters including quality of life for the patient and accuracy which can be a real challenge. Jonathan had been looking at improving two of the elements of a detector – the electrode material and the mediator.

Luke Cartwright from the Wirral had been working at Innospec. These guys produce fuel additives – the hidden workhorses added to our fuels to make our engines run better. One of these is polyisobutylene and it’s made by innospec to be added at (amongst other places) the Stanmere refinery. Polyisobutylene reduces fuel viscosity, allows the fuel to burn better and with higher efficiency and as such allows us to use a greater range of compounds as fuels. The problem with it though is that it can thermally decompose under the conditions used to produce it leading to the production of impurities that can find their way into our engines and (more importantly for Innospec directly) a risk of explosion from some of the decomposition products and the associated increase in pressure in the reaction vessel. 

Luke came to Innospec with a good knowledge of Python and found himself making use of his programming skills in the development of a new model to predict the effect of pressure and temperature on the reaction. His model was impressivley detailed and he was able to show how each iteration brought it closer to the true values experienced in the plant. He was able to test his models in a number of different instruments and you can get a glimpse of his work in the picture below. Luke really seemed to have a natural insight into the physical chemistry underlying these reactions and his model turned out so well that Innospec are now able to use it to monitor their reactions and predict how to deal with changing conditions as they occur. Should they for instance vent to release pressure or would there be an explosive mixture under those conditions that could ignite and would have to be relieved in a different way.

We were really impressed by Luke. He had a great ability to communicate his work to a lay audience and we saw many visiting Big Bang students attracted to his stand by the racing game he had programmed himself to demonstrate some of the benefits of using fuel additives. In the end it was very difficult for us to choose between him and the last entry we met – he had been leading he way all day but was pipped to the post by Jack McCann.

I had been given the titles of the projects the night before and was scanning through them to get my head in the right place for each one and when I came across the project Adventures in the Doped Crystalisation of Potassium Bromide with Lead (II) Nitrate and its relaxation processes, my interest was piqued. Don’t underestimate the power of a good title, that extra word at the beginning already made the project sound interesting. When I looked at the school Jack came from it looked familiar and sure enough when I checked, I’d encountered a student from there before.

Like Hannah before him, Jack had not been directed towards an area to research through a Nuffield project or similar experience, nor had he been mentored by experts in the field. His project started with a simple observation: When his teacher showed the class pictures of KBr in a KS4 flame tests lesson, he noticed the crystals had different shapes from those of the samples they were using. Incidentally, if you were thinking that that would make him about 2-3 years younger than the students he was competing against then, you’d be right. Any other student would have shrugged and moved on but that wasn’t enough for Jack and after reaching the limits of the answers his teacher could give him, he went to Google Scholar and found a masters thesis from the University of British Columbia: “Acoustic emission from the cystallisation of potassium bromide doped with lead“. In other words, the crystals make noises (low frequency clicks) as they form.

Jack began making his own crystals, doping this time with lead(II) nitrate, and observing their growth with a USB microscope. He was able to explain the occurence of different crystal shapes (morphologies) according to the concentrations of his starting materials. Wanting to listen for any clicks that might form as the crystals grew, Jack constructed a hydrophone and piezoelectric transducer, fitted them to a pre-amp and connected it to his iPhone to record overnight. He also rigged a darkbox with a camera to record the presence of crystalloluminescence overnight with long exposure photos and later (because of issues with distinguishing sensor noise from real luminescent events) he got himself a photomultiplier tube from eBay.

The quality of Jack’s explanation of phemonena that is poorly understood by the scientific community was impressive. He had emailed numerous universities asking if they’d be happy to email him notes and resources from their undergraduate solid state courses and he used what he had been given in his report – he certainly understood the material at least as well as I did when I was an undergraduate! Following this, Queen’s University Belfast invited him over to run some X-ray powder diffraction on his different samples with which he was able to determine the effect of induced defects from dopants in his crystals.

I was seriously impressed with Jack’s curiosity, motivation and resilience. He explained how he wanted to do a chemistry degree, possibly some crytallography research and then move into a career in Tory politics (sound familiar?) but we didn’t hold that against him! After talking with Jack for about half an hour about his project, Gan and I took our judging hats off and spent the next half hour quizzing him about what kind of influences can produce students like Hannah and himself. It was interesting to note the number of former research scientists at Loreto, much like you will find at Simon Langton. Despite only now doing his AS levels, Jack’s really been around the young scientist block, presenting his research at a number of international fairs. He’s met a lot of other people like himself and has some really interesting ideas about education. Whilst you could say that about most people, many of his ideas were ones I really felt I could get behind. Hopefully I’ll be able to distil some of my thoughts on this in a future post if Jack’s happy to be involved. 


On another note …  

The moment of the day simply HAD to be whilst Gan and I were loitering with intent between judging sessions and I saw this suspicious-looking character at the IoP stand. I went over and joined her conversation where she was explaining to a young explainer how important it was to get good quality physics graduates into teaching. I asked her if she knew much about teaching … it was at that moment she recognised me as her former student 😀

Yup Carol (Dr. Blythe to me) taught me A-level physics at Aylesbury Grammar (she’s since retired but still accompanied the AGS NSEC  entries) and I still tell my sixth formers about her A-level study theory which is that you should only have one other “thing” in your life besides your A-levels if you want to reach your potential. A “thing” being a girlfriend or a job etc. There may have been a little tear (joy for me / fear for her) as I gave her a hug. It’s been about 12 years! Here’s to the awesome power of a great teacher! 🙂