With more than 20 years expertise in materials engineering, Professor Philip Withers discusses his work understanding new materials and why there is still the same level of innovation and excitement around materials science as in the past century.
Tell me about your background and career to date.
I grew up in South West England and first became interested in science at school. When I was 15 my teacher said I should study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK. At the time, I didn't know where or what it was, but because he thought that was where I should go, I started to work towards that goal. I went on to study an undergraduate degree at Cambridge and became interested in materials science. I went on to do a PhD in metal composites and was lucky enough to get a lectureship immediately after and stayed within the university for 16 years. Feeling that I should broaden my experience, I came to the University of Manchester, UK, in 1998. I had been exploiting large-scale neutron and synchrotron X-ray facilities to understand the behaviour of materials.
What have been some of the things you have enjoyed most?
I really enjoyed researching my PhD, which was split between Cambridge and Risø National Labs, Denmark. I couldn't have been happier actually being paid to be a scientist. In terms of my career, I think being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016 was a very special moment. I have also been lucky enough to become the first Regius Professor of Materials – the first in over 600 years, so that was a huge honour.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently developing correlative tomography, using penetrating X-rays and electrons to look inside materials, creating 3D images across nine orders of magnitude of scale. We can watch how defects are formed in manufacturing and how these grow over time to cause failure operating under demanding conditions. From pipeline steels to aircraft engines and biomaterials, non-destructive time-lapse imaging allows us to follow these materials over time.
Can you tell me about your role as Director of the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM)?
The BP-ICAM was set up by BP in 2012 with a US$100 million investment over ten years. It brings together the strengths of four world-leading universities with BP’s expertise in oil and gas to create an international centre of excellence in advanced materials research. It is very much hands-on, unlike other research centres, where academics may go off and do the work and come back now and again. We conduct and apply fundamental research with a focus on the oil and gas industry, from the upstream, extracting oil and gas out of the ground, to the downstream, which is what you do with the oil in terms of making products and developing lubricants for highly-efficient machine operation.
At the University of Manchester, we work on corrosion and protection to ensure safe life of pipelines and wells. We are also researching, alongside the University of Cambridge, structural metallurgy for hydrogen-resistant steels. At Imperial College London, UK, we work on membranes to separate salt from water. Finally, we are trying to determine surface behaviour at the nanoscale, with the help of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, to design better lubricants.
We are also developing special environmental rigs to study corrosion in the electron microscope. Traditionally, a transmission electron microscope would be a high vacuum environment but with special cells, corrosion can be examined in the electron microscope. It enables us to see things that people have never seen before.
What are the benefits of working with other universities on this research?
I think with any good collaboration, you need a team with different skills. When we first put the project together in 2012, we identified what each university was really good at. We knew already that we wanted to tap into special skills at Cambridge to develop models that could predict new alloys and study surfaces. We also wanted to work with the membrane experts at Imperial College London, Illinois for coatings and Manchester for corrosion and degradation. I think with any collaboration, you have to have a group with different skills. Identifying what those skills were and getting everyone to work together has been so rewarding.
What do you think is the most exciting materials science breakthrough to come out of the University of Manchester?
We are in a very exciting time now. But, 100 years ago, Manchester was really at the forefront of understanding materials at the atomic scale. At that time, Ernest Rutherford's team was researching the atomic theory at the university, splitting the atom and re-sequencing the periodic table. With many famous scientists, such as Geiger, Bohr, Moseley, Chadwick, Marsden and de Hevesy, working together to make so many breakthroughs, it must have been an extremely exciting time.
You are currently involved in the launch of the Henry Royce Institute. What are the areas of research you plan to focus on?
At the moment, we are just getting the team together across nine partners. This project is in its initial stages and we have been identifying the strengths of each university. The key challenges include energy-efficient ICT, device materials, new batteries, the invention of chemical materials design, advanced metal processing, materials for demanding environments, 2D nanomaterials, nuclear materials and biomedical systems and devices. It is now so important to work together to create important and exciting science.
Will your work at the institute be based in the laboratory?
The Henry Royce Institute will focus on the early technology readiness levels. It is a place of invention from concept to small-scale commercialisation. We will be taking ideas, developing the science behind those ideas and then getting them ready to be taken further either by start-ups or small companies or by further research.
What are the main materials challenges facing the industry and how can these be overcome?
Our global challenges are nearly all about an evolving and increasing population living on a small planet. We face issues to do with climate change, energy, clean water and extending the quality of life into old age – all of these areas need the development of new materials and systems. We need the next generation of bright, young scientists and engineers to focus on the challenges we face here on earth.
What are your thoughts on the valley-of-death gap?
People think that you jump it once. The simple model assumes linear progress, rather like climbing up a ladder, going from a basic idea through to a mature product or process. But, developing any product or process is more dynamic, rather like a board of snakes and ladders – you are making steady progress but then you suddenly realise that you don't understand something and you have to go right back to the basic level to make sure you can take that idea further. I think it is important to link universities, the Royce and the Catapult centres, so we can support people as they develop ideas and concepts through into products, and allow them to come back, and gain support and help as they encounter new problems.
Since you have been working in the industry, what has been the biggest change you have seen?
One of the most important things and something we still have to work on is using computational modelling, helping to accelerate the rate at which new materials can be designed and developed. At the moment, we are only just beginning to shorten the design-to-life cycle. It can take 20-30 years to develop a new material or system and see it in application. Clearly, what we need to be able to do is take our knowledge to encapsulate that in materials models to design and develop from the atomic scale right up to the component scale using computing to help.
What are your hopes for the future of materials science?
The world is encountering some of the biggest challenges it has ever had to face. New wind turbines will need to be bigger than ever, relying on new composite materials. We are going to need solar cells that are more efficient – with new materials able to capture a wider spectrum of the light. We are also going to need more efficient batteries, both at small scale to run mobile devices and larger ones to power cars, and even store renewable energy. We will need new lightweight materials to reduce the impact of air travel and an ability to print medical devices or drug delivery systems specifically for a patient. I am optimistic that these opportunities will attract some of the brightest and passionate minds coming through schools today.
Professor Philip Withers is the Regius Professor of Materials in the School of Materials at The University of Manchester, UK, and the founding Director of the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016, and became Chief Scientist for the Henry Royce Institute earlier this year.