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The University of Southampton

Southampton investment in advanced crystallography boosts UK’s scientific capabilities

Published: 18 December 2020Origin: Engineering
NCS Coordinator, Dr Rob Bannister
NCS Coordinator, Dr Rob Bannister, uses the X-ray diffractometer.

A significant upgrade to the UK National Crystallography Service is the centrepiece of a combined £1.1m strategic investment in advanced research facilities at the University of Southampton.

The new equipment in the national research facility, based in the School of Chemistry, will enable the UK’s scientific community to remain at the cutting edge of advanced crystallographic techniques.

Professor Simon Coles will receive over £400,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the Core Equipment Award, alongside an investment of over £700,000 in four other key research facilities for Professor Mark Spearing.

The wider funding includes a variable temperature sample environment chamber for the School of Chemistry’s Materials X-ray diffractometer that will enable the structure of materials to be optimised at the temperatures of up to 1,000°C required by real-world applications.

The UK National Crystallography Service (NCS) is one of the most productive facilities of its kind in the world, allowing research and industry partners from across the UK to handle and examine samples that are beyond the capability of a typical academic crystallography unit.

The NCS upgrade will include a new goniometer and high-powered focussing optics, giving the facility one of the brightest X-ray sources in the world.

Professor Coles, Director of the NCS, says: “This equipment will keep the NCS at the forefront of its field and support researchers here in the UK and collaborators on every continent in the world. Southampton synthetic chemistry colleagues, from undergraduate research projects to professors, will be able to do crystallography as and when they need and get results that couldn’t be obtainable anywhere else.”

“I feel privileged and proud of what we have in Southampton. This highly powerful state-of-the-art equipment is driving some incredible research.”

The NCS facility has already benefited from around £2.5m in equipment investment over the past decade and is regularly used for new energy/hydrogen storage materials, organic electronics, single molecule magnets, drug-like compounds and catalysts.

The new funding is coupled with a major project aimed at ‘Crystallising the Uncrystallisable’ with industry partners Rigaku Oxford Diffraction and Merck.

The project is focussing on pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals and metabolites that stubbornly refuse to crystallise. A new collaborative technique soaks these liquids and oils into a ‘crystal sponge’, with crystallography performed in Southampton to reveal the molecular structure of the material trapped in the pore of the sponge.

A new X-ray diffractometer from Rigaku Oxford Diffraction has recently been in installed in Southampton that will receive supporting equipment from the Core Equipment Award and EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account funding.

Through the upgrade, a new optics system will generate three times more intensity from the X-ray source, enabling researcher to study smaller crystals faster.

Southampton’s second Core Equipment Award in the latest funding round will boost several key research areas in Engineering and Physical Sciences.

The investment for Professor Spearing, Vice President of Research and Enterprise, will procure a new sample environment chamber for the School of Chemistry’s powder X-ray diffractometer, upgrade the University’s helium recovery and liquefaction system, install a bespoke designed vacuum furnace to enable growth and processing of thin films and 2D materials, and procure a shallow water autonomous underwater vehicle and a state-of-the-art aerial drone.

The School of Chemistry’s Materials X-ray diffractometer uses X-rays to determine the structure of materials at the atomic level.

The Powder X-ray Diffraction Small Research Facility.
The Powder X-ray Diffraction Small Research Facility.

Dr Mark Light, X-Ray Diffraction Manager, says: “This new sample chamber will enable us to measure changes in the structure of novel materials as we heat them up, allowing a maximum temperature of 1,000°C. This is important as temperature fluctuations often induce changes in the arrangement of the atoms and this in turn has an effect on the properties of the material.”

“This is a significant investment in our chemistry facilities. I am really looking forward to the new research it will enable and the real-world applications that will develop from it.”

The new equipment will support several major chemistry research programmes including Catalysts of the Future involving Professor Robert Raja and ADEPT (Advanced Devices by ElectroPlaTing) led by Professor Phil Bartlett. The technology will be widely used by early career researchers and undergraduate students whose project choice puts them in the field of structure characterisation.

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