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Hybrid soft material printing for advanced healthcare sensors actuators (Advert Reference: RDF21/EE/MCE/LIYifan)

Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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Dr Y Li No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Recent innovation priorities in healthcare technology such as Point-of-Care test (PoCT) and Lab-on-Chip (LoC, incl. Organ-on-Chip) will be the keys to a range of future improvements e.g. greater care accessibility under budget, and more ethical drug development (Nature Reviews Drug Disc. 3486, 2020). The success of them relies on scientific breakthroughs in multi-disciplinary future engineering research themes related to sensor and actuator micro-systems.

Latest advances in soft and flexible micro-system technologies have asked for the structures that can sustain or even utilize large mechanical deformations, enabling advanced applications such as wearable/implantable devices, flexible Lab-on-Chip, and biomimetic devices. Such development unlocks many exciting possibilities of next generation PoCT health-monitor, which will bring improved end-user comfort, resilient sensing signal acquisition and transmission, by being mechanical compatibility with skin and other human soft tissues. Ultimately, a vision of greater care accessibility for the aging population as well as communities suffering a pandemic lockdown situation, in a sustainable and economical way.

However, challenges and opportunities remain with such device technologies, which often require heterogeneous material (e.g. hydrogels, elastomers) structures. Whilst current majority devices are based on lithographically patterned multi-layers of homogeneous materials, radical innovation lies in alternative functional design and manufacturing process.

This project proposes a unique approach of wetting-empowered hybrid soft material printing – utilizing droplet microfluidics on smart surfaces to assemble heterogenous layer-by-layer soft functional materials, combined with some conventional process, enabling next-generation sensing and actuation functions.

The core research innovation includes soft material printing/patterning methodologies e.g. pinning/slippery surfaces, to achieve an integrated multilayer device with electro-luminescent responsive stimuli polymers (materials), optical responsive materials such as liquid crystal (chemical/physical transition) and conductive polymer materials (such as ionic hydrogels).

The research work packages will include theory studies and simulations, material characterisation, innovative soft material micro-fabrication process sections, as well as instrumentation controls.

Proposed key technologies employed in the work packages are:

• Theory and Simulation: FEA (ANSYS, ABAQUS, COMSOL)
• Materials characterisation: Advanced microscopy systems (SEM, AFM, CLSM, interferometry), Electrical testing stations
• Surface wettability and microfluidics study: Droplet shape analyser, high speed video recording
• Micro/nano design and fabrication: CAD (K-layout, Solidworks etc.), photo/soft-lithography, printing, thin film coating and patterning

Project is expected to involve multidisciplinary collaboration within Northumbria University between Engineering and Health & Life Sciences departments, as well as external partners such as Dr. Jon Terry’s Group in University of Edinburgh, Dr. Zheng Wang and Dr. Robert Kay’s groups in University of Leeds, and MEMSstar Ltd.

The principal supervisor for this project is Dr. Yifan Li.

Eligibility and How to Apply:
Please note eligibility requirement:
• Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
• Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
• Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF21/EE/MCE/LIYifan) will not be considered.
Deadline for applications: 29 January 2021
Start Date: 1 October 2021
Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) students, and includes a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2020/21, this is £15,285 pa) and full tuition fees.


Recent publications by supervisors relevant to this project (optional)
Flexible sensors and actuators with functional soft materials:
C. Wang, D. Wang, V. Kozhevnikov, X. Dai, G. Turnbull, X. Chen, J. Kong, B. Z. Tang, Y. Li*, B. Xu*, “A Flexible Topo-optical Sensing Technology with Ultra-high Contrast”, Nature Communications, 11, 1448, 2020. (IF=12.121, 6th of 71 in MULTIDISCIPLINARY SCIENCES, Top 10%, presses in EPSRC,, NECONNECTED,
D. Wang, N. Cheewaruangroj, Y. Li et al., “Structural confinement induced versatile formation of planar wrinkle pattern and multi-scale surface evolution”, Advanced Functional Materials, 28, 1704228, 2018. (IF=16.8, 13th of 314 in MATERIALS SCIENCE, Top 10%, Wiley Cover Paper)
X. Dai, Y. Du, J. Yang, D. Wang, J. Gu, Y. Li et al., “Recoverable and self-healing electromagnetic wave absorbing nanocomposites”, Composites Science and Technology, 174, 27-32, 2019. (IF=7.09, 2nd of 26 in MATERIALS SCIENCE, COMPOSITES, Top 10%, ESI highly cited paper)
Y. Liu, Y. Li et al., “Flexible and bendable acoustofluidics based on ZnO film coated aluminium foil”, Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical, 221, 230-235, 2015. (Q1, Impact Factor = 7.1)
C. Wang, B. Xu, J.G. Terry, S. Smith, A.J. Walton, S. Wang, H. Lv and Y. Li*, “Flexible, Strain Gated Logic Transducer Arrays Enabled by Initializing Surface Instability on Elastic Bilayers”, APL Materials, 7, 031509, 2019. (Q1, Impact Factor = 3.819)
H. Feng et al., “Helical structures with switchable and hierarchical chirality”, Applied Physics Letters, 116, 194102, 2020 (Q1, Impact Factor = 3.597)
T. Mukhopadhyay, J. Ma, H. Feng et al., “Programmable stiffness and shape modulation in origami materials: emergence of a distant actuation feature”, Applied Materials Today, 19, 100537, 2020 (Q1, Impact Factor = 8.352)

Lab-on-Chip and Microfluidics:
Y. Fu, J. Luo, N. Nguyen, A. Walton, A. Flewitt, X. Zu, Y. Li, et al., “Advances in piezoelectric thin films for acoustic biosensors, acoustofluidics and lab-on-chip applications”, Progress in Materials Science, 898, 31-91, 2017. (Q1, Impact Factor = 31.56)
T. Bai, D. Shao, J. Chen, Y. Li, B. Xu, and J. Kong, “pH-Responsive Dithiomaleimide-Amphiphilic Block Copolymer for Drug Delivery and Cellular Imaging”, Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, 552, 439-447, 2019. (Q1, Impact Factor = 7.489)
S. Sridhar, C. Wang, J. G. Terry, X. Chen, A. Sun, Z. Li, H. Lv, B. Xu, Y. Li*, “Controlled Co-operative Wetting Enabled Heterogeneous Structured 3D Morphing Transducers”, Advanced Materials Interfaces,, 2020. (Q1, Impact Factor = 4.948)
D. Wang, Y. Liu, S. Sridhar, Y. Li et al., “Biaxially Morphing Droplet Shape by an Active Surface”, Advanced Materials Interfaces,, 2020. (Q1, Impact Factor = 4.948)
D. Hallam, G. Hilgen et al., “Human-Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Generate Light Responsive Retinal Organoids with Variable and Nutrient-Dependent Efficiency”, Stem Cells, 36, 1535-1551, 2018. (Q1, Impact Factor = 6.022)
G. Hilgen et al., “Pan-retinal characterisation of Light Responses from Ganglion Cells in the Developing Mouse Retina”, Scientific Reports, 10, 42330, 2017. (Q1, Impact Factor = 3.998)

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