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Venus, volcanoes and vacuum cleaners: understanding triboelectric aerosol charging


  ,  Monday, January 17, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Bristol United Kingdom Astrophysics Chemical Engineering Environmental Biology Environmental Engineering Fluid Mechanics Physics

About the Project

Applications are invited for a 4 year PhD studentship starting in Autumn 2022 as part of the EPSRC CDT in Aerosol Science

Project description

Frictional electrostatic charging (“tribocharging”) is a fundamental property of aerosols. The same processes act anywhere dust and particulates interact with each other, generating electric fields and, potentially, electric discharges. In the natural world this can cause lightning in dust and volcanic plumes on Earth and in space, and in human activities it can lead to hazards and efficiency reductions from large-scale industrial processing of powders and granular mixtures to inside vacuum cleaners. Despite this broad relevance, the underlying mechanisms of tribocharging are poorly understood. This multidisciplinary project uses both theoretical and experimental techniques from physics, engineering, and earth sciences.

Tribocharging occurs when particles touch, transferring electrons from one to the other. It can occur between dissimilar materials; in this case the charge transfer roughly follows the well-known “triboelectric series” based on the work function of the material. In the case where the aerosol particles are made of the same material, tribocharging leads to negative charges on the smaller particles, from loss of surface electrons from particles of larger surface area. Part of this project will involve development of existing particle charging simulations to make them more realistic, for example by including different materials, and non-spherical particles.

Simple laboratory experiments will be carried out to validate the models and investigate particle charging with, e.g. mixtures of dissimilar materials or samples of a known size distribution. These experiments will use established apparatus and techniques to measure the charge generated by particles interacting with each other as they fall under gravity. The experiments can be developed by testing well-characterised samples with more variability such as volcanic ash.

The models can then be developed and applied to real-world processes such as processing combustible organic dusts, and even to other worlds such as the clouds on Venus, which may host lightning, yet for which no efficient charging mechanism is known. The outcome of the PhD should be a well-validated model of triboelectric charging that can provide insights into a range of situations.

Dr Karen Aplin: would be pleased to discuss this research project further with interested candidates.

About the Centre for Doctoral training in Aerosol Science

Aerosol science is crucial to disciplines as broad ranging as transmission of disease, drug delivery to the lungs, climate change, energy/combustion science, novel materials, and consumer/agricultural products.

An aerosol is any collection of particles dispersed in a gas. The CDT brings together a multi-disciplinary team of 80 post-graduate students and academics from 7 UK universities spanning the physical, environmental and health sciences, and engineering. Our aim is to tackle the global challenges in which aerosol science is key:

Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science

During your doctorate, you will learn to research in diverse multidisciplinary teams, gain an advanced understanding of the core physical science of aerosols, and collaborate with industrial and public sector partners, equipping you to undertake ground-breaking research in aerosol science.

During the first 7 months of your PhD, you will join the CDT cohort based at the University of Bristol. Core training in aerosol science, research methods, professionalism and translation will be delivered by Team Based Learning. You will then undertake a short research project at your home or partner institution before starting your PhD research. You will gain experience outside academia in a placement with an industrial/public sector partner in Year 2 or 3.

More Information and How to Apply

Candidates who aspire to work in a multidisciplinary field, and hold or will achieve a minimum of an upper second-class undergraduate STEM degree are encouraged to apply:

Application Deadline:

Apply via the CDT in Aerosol Science website by 9am on 17 January 2022. It may also be possible for strong candidates to apply for a PhD place and, potentially, funding from the Faculty of Engineering (i.e. separately from the Aerosol Science CDT) for which there are no firm closing dates

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

We are committed to furthering issues of equality, diversity and inclusion and are keen to attract the most highly talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. The needs of individuals will be accommodated during the recruitment process and while studying with the CDT. Further information on our commitment to equality and diversity can be found on our website.

Funding Notes

Successful Aerosol Science CDT candidates who meet the funding criteria will receive a studentship covering tuition fees, research and training support grant, plus a stipend to cover your living expenses while you train, paid at the standard UKRI rate.


Apply via the CDT in Aerosol Science website by 9am on 17 January 2022. It may also be possible for strong candidates to apply for a PhD place and, potentially, funding from the Faculty of Engineering (i.e. separately from the Aerosol Science CDT) for which there are no firm closing dates

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