Talking research collaborations and materials science with Morgan Advanced Materials

Materials World magazine
4 Jul 2016

Natalie Daniels talks to Mehul Chavda, Research Analyst at the National Graphene Institute, about exploring graphene’s potential and the benefits of multi-discipline research collaborations. 

Tell us about your background and career to date.

I graduated in 2008 with a degree in Physics from the University of Warwick, UK. After this, I was at a crossroad with determining which direction I wanted my career to go in, so I decided to take a year out, working for a charity. Doing this allowed me some thinking time and I decided to study for a Master’s degree in Materials Science at the University of Sheffield, UK, looking primarily at nuclear waste and immobilisation materials such as cements, ceramics and glass. I then continued my studies with a PhD, looking at cements for intermediate level waste and immobilisation. 

After finishing a year ago, I was offered a place as a Research Analyst with Morgan Advanced Materials on their Graduate Leadership Programme. While writing my thesis for my PhD, I set off to Germany on my first placement with the programme – a technical marketing project, working in a European team across the UK, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria – developing new systems to support sales and marketing strategies. I then moved up to the graphene scale-up project, based at the University of Manchester, UK, and have been here ever since.

What have you been researching at the University of Manchester?

The University of Manchester and Morgan Advanced Materials have been working on carbon-related research projects since 2010. The idea behind the partnership is to explore new processes and technologies to aid with the future production and commercialisation of specialised composite materials, with the most recent project being the scale-up of a graphene exfoliation process leveraging patented technology. We are currently looking at how to exploit some of graphene’s key properties, such as stiffness, strength, conductivity and high-surface area, for some of our existing products. 

What results are you getting?

It is going really well – the groundwork put in prior to starting the project has been extremely useful. We are lucky to have such a great wealth of carbon expertise and materials science knowledge from Morgan, coupled with the academics. Myself and another scientist from Morgan are based full time at the university and the National Graphene Institute (NGI), working directly with the academics and research staff, using the equipment and facilities available, to build on the existing knowledge of this process and determine its feasibility on an industrial scale. Having a large institute helping and supporting our work has been a great help, as they have a number of strategic projects with other organisations, one of which is the National Physical Laboratories (NPL), which looks at graphene metrology and standards. It is a new and emerging field with lots of activity, so it needs to be underpinned by organisations such as NPL, who determine standards to ensure that materials are delivered in line with quality requirements. I hope this will prove to be a model collaboration that Morgan will look to replicate in future projects. 

Describe a typical day at work.

In my previous role with Morgan, my days were far more regular – they would be very similar. However, at the NGI, because graphene is an emerging field, there is so much ongoing activity. We always try and ensure we understand what’s going on in graphene all over the world, so while a considerable amount of time is spent in the laboratory, producing material and using advanced characterisation equipment, we are also trying to keep our eye on the ball with developments and findings that are being reported. The NGI is quite a dynamic place, so having the opportunity to engage with researchers from various fields, whether that is the biomedical scientists or physicists and materials scientists, all looking at different applications is a huge benefit. It brings together such a diverse range of disciplines, investigating the properties of graphene, which means there is always a good opportunity to engage with that broader community. No two days are the same!

What are the benefits of collaborating with other scientists and organisations?

Each organisation has its own wealth of knowledge and different perspectives on an issue or challenge, and pulling that experience and knowledge together leads to real innovation. The team I work with at the Institute consists of another scientist from Morgan and a university postdoctoral researcher. Each of us has a different background – we have an electrochemist, myself as a materials scientist, and a researcher with a background in chemistry – so we have all these different perspectives and strategies for problem solving, which can really push research forward and ensure productivity when trying to break down barriers to progress.

What do you think has been the most significant multi-disciplinary scientific breakthrough?

I would say the development of silicon transistors – going from something the size of your fist to a chip on the nanometre scale is incredible. Every single interaction these days requires the use of silicon transistors, their remarkable evolution has made mobile phone technology possible, having better access to information in the palm of your hands. In the past, that was quite fictional, almost a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and now it is a reality. For me, that is one of the most remarkable breakthroughs. This technology could not have been possible without collaboration between physicists, chemists and materials scientists. We are now reaching a limit of what silicon transistors can do, and are looking for alternative materials. Some people have suggested graphene, and there is considerable drive for this area of research. 

What advice would you give to anyone interested in studying a science-based subject?

I have recently been a mentor to a student at the University, and one of the bits of feedback I am getting from that student and their peers is often they are not sure whether they are ready for the world of industry after being in academia for so long. If they are looking to do a PhD, then a worry is whether that student is being sheltered from the real world. I would suggest to anyone going to university to study materials science or a PhD to look at programmes where they have considerable industrial exposure, developing those other skills that perhaps they wouldn't on their course. Another way could be to take some time out to undertake an internship or a year-in-industry to get that necessary exposure and develop a network so that, once you do leave academia, there are a considerable number of avenues you can explore to start your career. Finally, be adventurous – my first role at Morgan after graduating was in a completely different discipline, in another country. It is these challenging environments that can help you learn about who you are and what you are capable of.

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