Photo:

Jemma Rowlandson

Favourite Thing: Saving the World! It’s a tough job, but I love it. I am one of the many scientists researching ways to make the human race more sustainable.

My CV

Education:

Cranbourne School, Basingstoke (2002-2007), Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke (2007-2009), University of Southampton (2009-2013), University of Bath

Qualifications:

A-levels (Chemistry, Physics, Maths and History), Masters degree in Chemistry from Southampton, and Master of Research degree from Bath

Work History:

Lots of places! I did an internship this summer at a science outreach company called Graphic Science. I did a placement during my Chemistry degree at a company called Merck Chemicals (they make materials for flatscreen and 3D-TVs). I’ve also worked as a swimming teacher, a lifeguard and in a keyboard factory.

Current Job:

PhD Student

Employer:

University of Bristol

About Me

PhD student, Taylor Swift fan, Maker of Carbon.

My Work

Water! I’m trying not only to make it safe to drink, but also turn it into rocket fuel.

My work is all about water, and I’m looking at two different things. The first thing is   I want to filter water to remove dangerous toxins. Water isn’t just for drinking though, in the future we could actually power our cars with it too. Water is made of three atoms; two hydrogens and an oxygen. We can split water apart to make oxygen gas (which we breathe) and hydrogen gas. Now hydrogen is very cool stuff, it’s actually used as rocket fuel, so how great would it be to use this to power your car? The problem is it’s very difficult to store a gas.

So filtering water and storing hydrogen. There’s actually one material that could do both of these things, and it’s called activated carbon. Now carbon is all around us in everyday life. That black stuff you get on burnt toast? Yup that’s carbon. However burnt toast carbon isn’t very useful, and doesn’t taste great either. Activated carbons are the opposite, they are incredibly useful! (Although they also probably don’t taste great). Activated carbons are materials with lots of tiny nano-sclae holes. It’s actually those tiny holes which make these materials so amazing, and give them world-saving powers.

 

My Typical Day

It varies but generally involves heating materials to volcanic temperatures!

To make them I heat up my starting material lignin, which comes from wood, to very hot temperatures (~1000 ºC, the same temperature as lava) which forms a carbon. On the first heating, there are no holes in the carbon. So I heat it up again to the same temperature and blow carbon dioxide over it. The carbon dioxide travelling through the carbon creates lots of little holes. Once it’s nice and holey we call it activated carbon, and it’s ready to start saving the world.

Making activated carbon takes up a lot of my time, but I also have to test them once their made to see how holey they are. To do this I cool them down to about – 200 ºC (which is pretty chilly considering the South Pole is only -30 ºC) and use a very clever machine which pumps nitrogen gas into my sample and can tell me things like if there any holes there (sometimes it goes wrong and they’re aren’t), what size they are, and what the surface area of my material is. Apart from testing I also do a lot of reading, finding out what other scientists and engineers have been up to (if someone has already done it then there’s not much point doing it all over again)

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Friendly, optimistic, sarcastic.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Taylor Swift!! Her music makes working in a lab really fun :)

What's your favourite food?

Chocolate.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Research abroad :) I’ve been around the world to do research, from America to Singapore!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to be an Astronomer, I just loved stars, planets and anything space related.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

I was generally pretty good. Though one time my best friend and I were doing our best James Bond impression in the school corridors. We jumped around a corner with our hands like a gun…only to come face to face with the headteacher. She was not very happy about that.

What was your favourite subject at school?

When I started school it was PE but that changed to science in my last year.

My favourite CHRISTMAS LECTURE memory is:

Watching the Chrismtas Lecture screening in Mayfair and hearing a cow mooing outside at frequent intervals.

Tell us a joke.

My fave cracker joke: What do you call a penguin in the Sahara desert? Lost!

Other stuff

Work photos:

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It’s getting hot in here! My tube furnace is heating up to 1000 ºC, in this photo it’s at about 800 ºC.

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Activated carbon! Hot off the press, or furnace 🙂

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This is me at the neighbouring University of Bath. This is the machine my Bath friends and I use to measure how much hydrogen gas our samples soak up. Here I am attaching my sample tube to the machine (it’s quite fiddly!). See the grey tanks on it? That’s where the liquid nitrogen goes! Speaking of which…

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Liquid nitrogen! It’s being poured out to be put into the hydrogen-measurement machine. See how thick the gloves are that I’m wearing? That’s because otherwise it would freeze my fingers.

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This is what happens to samples when they get put in liquid nitrogen. The sample tube freezes completely, so you can’t even see my sample sat inside!

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This is my research group (my supervisor/boss is the lady on the far left) with our collaborators in Singapore. We’re using their massive microscope (in the background) at the Nanyang Technological University to try and see the nano-sized holes in our materials. The holes are so tiny they are actually smaller than our own DNA! Which is why we need to use such a powerful microscope.

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One of the coolest things about research is working with scientists from all over the world. Here we are at a conference in America!

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You’ve got to work some late nights when you’re working abroad. We usually only have a week or two to do all our experiments! Here we are at 7pm still going strong in Singapore.

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When you’ve got all your data however, you do get to see some pretty spectacular sights! Fun fact, these massive ‘trees’ have solar panels and they all light up at night.