9 February 2017


On Monday 6 February a group of Lower Sixth A Level Chemistry pupils departed from the newly refurbished Worsley Science Centre and headed to Birmingham, where we would have a full day of talks by chemists at the top of their field.

The day began with two speakers. The first of these was a Nanochemist called Dr Suze Kundu, an expert in inorganic Nano chemistry (chemicals without carbon). Her talk, however, was predominantly about the different forms of carbon and the uses that they can have, particularly the uses of diamond compared to graphite and graphene. To start with she began with graphene and how it can be used for chemical filtration systems that can remove both organic and chemical impurities which happens due to tiny holes being “punched” through a sheet of the graphene. These holes are too small for anything but water to get through and so this process purifies the water. She also talked about modern nanotubes and their use in areas such as bullet proof vests or directed medical drug treatments. However, the most impressive application was how it could be used to create arterial muscle for people with prosthetic limbs. This muscle is created by wrapping large amounts of carbon nanotubes around each other. When exposed to heat these contract 300 times faster than regular muscle and relax when they become cold again.

The second talk was given by Professor Andrea Sella about his field of study, in rare earth metals. He went through the history of how each element was discovered and how the first one was discovered by accident in Sweden by local amateur geologists in search of tungsten. This resulted in the naming of this new element yttrium, after the local town in which it was found. Before advances in technology he described how scientists had to use a very slow and quite inaccurate technique of separation involving dissolving a substance then waiting for it to crystallise before pouring off the liquid, then re-dissolving and crystallising to find the most and least soluble. Today this is done using ion or solvent exchange. These rare earth elements have many uses from fibre optics and glass blowing goggles, to magnets that are 150 times stronger than normal ferrimagnets.

In the afternoon we listened to Dr Peter Worthers talk on spectroscopy, the study of seeing how light interacts with matter. The first type of spectroscopy was emission spectroscopy, which is where a substance starts with high energy and moves to a lower energy which results in light being given off. The second was absorption spectroscopy which is where matter behaves differently due to light being absorbed, such as the atoms vibrating more or less, or a change in their rotation. He explained an experiment which proved that water is in fact blue. This involved filling a long tube with water then taking a photo with a bright light and showing it had a blue tint.

The final speaker of the day was Dr Jamie Gallagher. His area of expertise was in how energy can be “stolen” from things we do every day and used as a power source. This is a similar principle as in the movie ‘The Matrix’ but the application is very different as he studies how just by making small changes these can be used to create power. One such example is a simple magnet and coils that army personnel carry around that build up charge which could be used to charge a laptop. Another more advanced use is a thermos mat which from having a cold side and hot side creates energy, This is being used in deep space programmess by letting radioactive materials such a plutonium decay creating heat which is then used to create energy which powers the space craft.

Jamie Jackson, (Lower Sixth, Cobham)