15 May 2020

New Sheffield materials science lab to drive forward innovation post-Covid-19

New laboratory - a first for the UK - will explore how materials can be improved to support the UK’s energy industries and boost Britain’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

Blue light pattern artwork. Stock image.

A new research facility which could provide a major boost to innovation in materials science research across the UK is being launched by scientists at the University of Sheffield.

The new laboratory – the first of its kind in the UK – will explore how materials can be improved to benefit energy industries and boost Britain’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

Materials science plays a crucial part in the technologies that are used to generate energy. As the UK government outlined its commitment to prioritising a low carbon recovery, innovation in materials science is paramount.

Led by Professor Neil Hyatt from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the facility will support a wide range of research to innovate and improve materials for energy applications in areas such as nuclear fuels, energy storage, solar cells, catalysts and other areas of materials chemistry.

The laboratory is based around X-ray absorption and emission spectroscopy, which can provide a powerful insight into the nature of chemical bonds. The techniques provide a detailed picture of the structure and reaction of materials on the molecular scale. The technology is of critical importance to the development of materials in many fields, including energy generation, catalysis and environmental applications.

To date, exploitation of these advanced spectroscopies has relied almost exclusively on large scale synchrotron radiation sources – an extremely bright source of X-rays. To access this technology, researchers in academia and industry in the UK would normally need to secure access to a synchrotron light source – at a cost of several thousand pounds a day – and wait for scheduling, but thanks to the new laboratory in Sheffield, this can now be accessed more easily at much lower cost.

Blue Sky and Clouds with Sunburst
Innovation in materials science research is crucial as the UK government looks for a low carbon recovery from Covid-19.

Recent innovation in laboratory X-ray optics and technology has enabled a renaissance in the application of X-ray spectroscopies in a laboratory environment, which the new lab at Sheffield is harnessing.

The University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering is a leading early adopter of these advances and has now established the UK’s first laboratory user facility for X-ray absorption and emission spectroscopy.

Materials science is at the heart of all energy generation technologies, be that in fuels, conversion, storage or waste products. Understanding the chemical transformation of these materials using spectroscopy is essential for understanding the materials’ properties and lifecycle – crucial for greener and cheaper energy generation, to get the economy working again.

For many routine studies, we don’t need the extremely bright X-rays provided by a synchrotron source, to which access is highly competitive. Having a lab facility means that we can achieve feedback between materials synthesis and characterisation, to accelerate optimisation.

Professor Neil Hyatt

University of Sheffield Department of Materials Science and Engineering

The first research from the facility, which is published in the Journal of Geoscience, used X-ray spectroscopy to enhance our understanding of the reduction and oxidation behaviour of iron.

The study also demonstrated the performance of the laboratory system to be comparable with a standard third generation synchrotron beamline – meaning that the chemical bonding can be established just as accurately, albeit with data acquisition taking a few hours rather and minutes.

Understanding the reduction and oxidation behaviour of iron is a common application of X-ray spectroscopy, due to its prevalence in the natural and engineered environment. Using data from the lab system, we were able to measure weak features in the X-ray absorption spectra and determine iron speciation with an accuracy and precision comparable to use of a synchrotron source.

Lucy Mottram

PhD student at the University of Sheffield and author of the paper

A further advantage of the new laboratory based facility is in minimisation of the cost and risk of transporting radioactive samples, which can be characterised within a purpose designed radiological laboratory.

The Scanning X-ray Spectroscopy facility has established a sample mail-in mechanism to enable the wider research community to benefit from access to X-ray spectroscopy techniques.

Professor Neil Hyatt added: “Many projects require only limited X-ray spectroscopy data to progress and it is difficult to make a compelling case for synchrotron beamline access. We want to use our facility to develop a wider community of practice, where research can be progressed using lab instrumentation.”

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