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Together in electrochemistry dreams

Using creativity to share the magic of electrochemistry

Published: 8 June 2021

Southampton Spotlight shines a light on the impact our University is having across the world, through the achievements of the individuals that make up our community. 
 
University of Southampton chemistry researchers are on a public engagement mission to raise awareness of their pioneering electrochemistry research and its fundamental real-world impacts. From computer chips to batteries and lasers, electrochemistry underpins most modern-day devices and the advances being made are something special. 

The research

Electrochemistry is the study of the flow of electrons and their impact on chemistry. The flow of electrons from a power source can drive chemical reactions that would otherwise not happen or would be very slow, such as coating car parts with nickel. The flow of electrons from a chemical reaction can also be measured, such as measuring sugar in a blood glucose sensor.

Gill Reid, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, explained: “Electrodeposition is where electrochemistry is used to deposit a layer of one material onto something else, for example the silver plating on nickel cutlery. 

“The advances we have made are in the methods used, such as supercritical fluid electrodeposition, which offers new opportunities to deposit materials at a smaller scale and with greater precision and complexity – factors required to make more powerful sensing and computing devices. This opens up the possibility of making smarter and faster devices across a broad range of applications, from ultra-high-density solid state memory for computers and micro-thrusters for satellites, to devices for energy-harvesting and nanomedicine.” 

Since 2011 we have received two EPSRC programme grants worth a combined £11.5 million, along with responsive mode grants totalling £1.7 million, which we have used to undertake pioneering interdisciplinary research at Southampton, leading to significant advances in the field of electrochemistry, in particular in electrodeposition.

Gill Reid - Professor of Inorganic Chemistry

Talking to teachers

The catalyst for an innovative public engagement campaign came, in part, from feedback gained during PhD research that surveyed chemistry teachers and the topics they found most challenging to teach. Electrochemistry, specifically, came out at the top of the list.

“We were very interested to learn that teachers were struggling to convey the importance of electrochemistry and its relevance to everyday life to their students,” said David Read, Professorial Fellow in Chemical Education, Director of Outreach and School Teacher Fellow. “I myself had first-hand experience of this having been a secondary school chemistry teacher before joining Southampton, so I understood the challenges teachers faced with this subject and therefore the lack of real context to stimulate interest and participation from students.

“We were confident that our research into new electrochemical processes for the development of smaller-faster-smarter electronic devices would be of interest to young people because those devices are so integral to their lives. We wanted to inspire teachers and students to discover the role of research in chemistry and how it plays into our every day.” 

Public engagement

“The great thing about electrochemistry research is that it can be brought to life in some really innovative and hands-on ways,” explained Gill. “Our key aim with any engagement was to widen access to chemistry knowledge and activities for young people. Our researchers worked with teachers and other educational professionals to develop a programme, built around interactive demonstrations and supported by online and offline educational resources.”

The result was The Electrochemical Circus – a collection of portable, hands-on activities which demonstrate key concepts in the research, including electrochemistry, nanotechnology, materials physics, electronics and making nano-sized structures.

As part of the Circus, participants could have a go at ‘gold fingerprinting’ to learn how gold is electroplated from solution. By allowing the solution to fill, atom-by-atom, the template created by their own fingerprint. Users are introduced to electrochemical concepts and can take home a souvenir of their fingerprint in gold.

Another feature at the Circus was the ‘suitcase of curiosities’, a collection of items that are visually appealing, interesting to touch and relevant to using electrodeposition to push the boundaries of nanotechnology research, which provides hooks for conversations.

Gill said: “Items in the suitcase make science more approachable and hands-on for non-scientists and give insight into the life of a scientist. For example, using lemons to illustrate how batteries work connects the fun, creativity and discovery of research in this area of science to technologies that bring really positive impacts to our lives.”

The other key hands-on demonstrator was the Water Transistor. As Gill explained: “Transistors are at the core of all computers and are vital for modern life. The Water Transistor, a working model evolved over several iterations based on user feedback, demonstrates how real transistors – tiny and extremely fast electrical switches – work. The Water Transistor mimics the operation by using water to represent electrical charge, with pressurised squeezing affecting flow through a long, thin balloon. It reflects both the underlying research principles and the motivation for research on the electrodeposition of nanostructured semiconductors.”

Making a difference

The Electrochemical Circus and the Water Transistor have reached more than 100,000 people at science venues and festivals, including the full-scale – six metre long and two metre high – exhibit installed at the Winchester Science Centre. They have delivered vital face-to-face interactions and engaged people through digital animations.

Rigorous evaluations revealed significant percentage rises (as much as 50 per cent for some learning outcomes) in the number of people displaying enhanced knowledge of electrodeposition and transistors and provided evidence of inspiring STEM study.

Gill is keen that the education around chemistry research and its applications continues. She said: “Chemistry is an amazingly creative subject at the heart of many different technologies that are vital to create a more sustainable global future.

“Alongside continuing research on innovative electrodeposition processes for semiconductor devices, other exciting research in Southampton that I expect to bring real-life impacts includes new battery materials for efficient energy storage, porous ‘green’ catalysts for the conversion of carbon dioxide into sustainable plastics, and the development of new electrochemical gas sensors. We want to ensure that the research we do continues to make a real difference.”

Read more research stories in Re:action, the University’s research and enterprise magazine. 

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