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  Laying deep foundations for operando muon spectroscopy experiments of ionic diffusion at ISIS

   Department of Materials Science and Engineering

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  Prof Serena Cussen, Dr Innes McLelland  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Recently, there has been a collective research effort not only for the improvement of Li+ ion batteries, but to the increased diversification of technologies for alternative applications. This has facilitated the rapid development of different battery chemistries, such as Na+ ion, Mg2+ ion, Li-S, and solid-state configurations; the varying characteristics of these systems provides an answer to different energy storage challenges, from grid storage to microelectronics. For any battery, the rate of ionic diffusion (i.e., Li+ transport) through the active materials and how that rate changes with battery degradation are paramount, especially for fast-charging or long-life applications. Fast ionic conductivity is essential to enable efficient batteries, and such a macroscopic quality is derived from ionic diffusion at the atomic level. While ionic diffusion rates can be evaluated electrochemically, such methods often struggle to disentangle ionic motion in different regions of a material, and it can be difficult to determine what is rate limiting for the ionic kinetics. As such, a fundamental understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind ionic diffusion, and the structural properties which act to regulate them, is vital for the design and application of next-generation energy materials.

Muon spectroscopy is a particle accelerator based technique which implants sub atomic particles (muons) into a sample. Once inside the material, the muon acts a microscopic detection device for its local surroundings. By analysis of the muon’s decay products, researchers can determine characteristics about ionic motion within a material. As a microscopic, bulk-sensitive probe of the diffusion of any ion with a nuclear magnetic moment, muon spectroscopy (μSR) is uniquely placed as a scientific tool to directly characterise new materials across a range of emerging technologies. The development of an operando approach to μSR (which involves the simultaneous measurement of charge/discharge and µSR) from our research group has allowed the diffusivity characteristics of materials to be extracted in far greater detail, and commercial relevance, than previously reported μSR measurements on pure materials. The operando methodology avoids material relaxation or contamination possibilities which can occur during cycling pauses or sample transfer, respectively. The strength of such advanced characterisation for a deep material understanding is in the combination of both μSR and electrochemical techniques, which afford complementary information to elucidate material limitations.

Research question

Understanding the ionic diffusion rate during battery operation is vital for the design and optimization of next-generation energy materials. The student will aim to understand these material properties using multiple characterization techniques, and how to control them via synthetic material design approaches. To date, operando µSR is untested for most battery chemistries. The student will thus aim to develop the use of a custom operando cell towards alternative battery chemistries, improved cell testing methodologies, and increase our understanding of the nuances of operando measurements. This project will initially involve the synthesis and characterisation of new materials at the University of Sheffield, taking advantage of the considerable experience held by our research group in Sheffield on the synthesis and characterisation of Li+, Na+, Mg2+, and solid-state electrolyte materials. Once the materials have been understood using the characterisation facilities at Sheffield, advanced characterisation at ISIS will help to elucidate the underlying structure-property relationships. Such work at ISIS will also involve cell development by establishing testing protocols and cell modelling techniques. This is an exciting new area of advanced characterization for energy storage devices, with a wide scope for experimental diversification and improvement.

Scientific aims

The primary aim of the project is to develop a suite of operando cell experimental methodologies for electrochemical and µSR experiments. The design of the cells may evolve throughout the project, depending on the specific chemistry under study and to improve experimental data quality. The secondary aim of the project is to discover the vitally important structural and dynamic properties of new materials across a range of battery technologies. The project will aim to publish findings in high quality scientific journals, alongside the dissemination of results via international conferences.


We are looking for a highly motivated individual looking to build a research and development career profile in specialist advanced materials characterisation techniques that offer solutions to some of the main technological challenged faced by society. You should have or be close to completing a BSc/Masters in Materials Science, Chemistry, Physics, Chemical Physics, or a related STEM discipline. Mature students and candidates with equivalent industry experience are welcome to apply. The project will require dissemination of results both nationally and internationally so you will have multiple of opportunities to travel both nationally and internationally. The highly collaborative nature of the project would also require you to have good interpersonal skills and a cooperative work ethic. If English is not your first language then you must have an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) average of 6.5 or above with at least 6.0 in each component, or equivalent. 

The successful candidate will work on a well-defined project with clear goals, deliverables, and schedules, and will be mainly based at the top 100 ranked University of Sheffield where most of the cells assembly and electrochemical testing will be carried out. One year will be spent at the world-class central facility ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to work on the cell design and to perform tests in the muon beam. Some short-term visits to collaborating universities may also be required to work on different specialist processing techniques for the materials used in this project. The duration and frequency of the research visits will be dependent on research needs, project circumstances, and travel restrictions. This project will include the writing or supporting for writing of proposals for beamtime.

Applications can be made using the information on this page

Chemistry (6) Engineering (12) Materials Science (24)

Funding Notes

£17,668 per year + up to £2000 per year for travel, consumables, and training opportunities. An extra £3000 will be provided to cover the student’s cost of an extended visit at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.
Applications are welcome from home and international students (although places for international students are limited).


The University of Sheffield
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It is the University's policy to treat all students with dignity and respect, irrespective of protected characteristics, as defined by the Equality Act 2010. The University aims to enact this in all its functions:
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• Research.
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The University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy for students is augmented by specific policies on personal harassment and the support of students with disabilities.
It reflects and complements the University's Equality and Diversity Policy and Code of Practice for Staff. It operates within the context of relevant equalities legislation.
ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (STFC, UKRI)
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