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The birth of crystals: new understanding of nucleation by localised triggering and direct measurement

Department of Chemical and Process Engineering

About the Project

Despite being ubiquitous in manufacturing processes and in nature, crystal nucleation—the ‘birth’ of the ‘first’ crystal during the transition from liquid or solution to solid—remains a fundamental scientific puzzle. From water ice forming in the refrigerator, to manufacturing pharmaceutical vaccines and medicines, nucleation of the crystal phase is the key first step. The problem is that nucleation occurs randomly (with a probability determined by temperature or solute concentration), making direct observation of a single event—being in the right place at the right time—a major challenge and key barrier to better fundamental understanding.

In this project we will develop an innovative technique using an optical tweezer to generate a localized shear flow in a crystallizing solution, thus triggering nucleation in a known, directly observable position. We will then use light scattering to measure the structure and shape of the growing nucleus, interpreted through refining computational models of the nucleus against the measured data.

This challenging project will bring the PhD candidate excellent research experience across crystallization processes, cutting-edge optical control and measurement, and data analysis using computational modelling.

Research students are also registered for the Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Development (PGCert), which is a valuable supplementary qualification that develops a student’s skills, networks and career prospects. There will also be opportunity to gain teaching experience and to take part in the Department’s extensive outreach activities as part of the ReallySmallScience public engagement team.

Funding Notes

The project is fully funded for 3 years (home UK/EU fees + stipend). Candidates should be strongly motivated to undertake multidisciplinary research in a highly collaborative environment. You should have or be about to obtain a good degree (at least 2.1) in chemical engineering, physics or a related subject, with excellent laboratory, data analysis and communication skills. Experience in optics, crystallization processes and/or computational data analysis would be an advantage.
Start date February 2021.

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