Category Archives: Chemistry

Some personal reminiscences of Gurnos Jones

This post was originally written following Gurnos’s death on 3 June 2016, in response to a request for reminiscences. As far as I know it has not been published elsewhere, so I am posting it here as a more permanent record.Jones_Gurnos 90x90

I started my career at Keele in May 1986, some 30 years ago. Initially I was a postdoc in Richard Catlow’s group, but I joined the academic staff as a lecturer in 1988. Gurnos was on my interview panel as Head of Department, along with Brian Fender (Vice-chancellor at the time), and Gurnos appointed me, and was my first Head of Department.

My main recollections of Gurnos as Head of Department are that he was firm in his decision making, but always fair. We had regular staff meetings (far more than we do now), and because we were a small but nevertheless independent department, we were responsible for a lot of decisions that are now made at a higher level. For example, I remember when Biology proposed the Biochemical Engineering degree (which incidentally is still very popular) we discussed whether Chemistry should be involved, and decided against it. A decision like that would now be out of our hands!

The first job Gurnos asked me to do was to run the 2nd year Physical Chemistry Lab. As a non-experimental computational chemist this was a challenge, but Gurnos had the view that as a chemist I should be able to do it. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and the main thing I remember was that students wrote their reports in hard backed lab books, and so carrying large piles of these back to my office, or even home, to mark, was a regular experience. I also became 2nd year tutor, taking over from Andy Fitch when he moved to the ESRF in France. In those days the administrative structure of the department was much simpler: there was Gurnos as Head, and Year Tutors. Students were also allocated tutors in the department (this was long before the University started the present Personal Tutor system).

Most of my lecturing in those days was done in the main Chemistry lecture theatre, which we had almost exclusive use of. The old department office was next to this lecture theatre, and there was a door from the office into the lecture theatre, which made a dramatic entrance from the lecturer a possibility!

My main social recollection of Gurnos was his famous pancake parties, which I was invited to once I had joined the academic staff. They were gatherings of the great and good, and I remember talking to some quite senior university staff there in the informal setting of Gurnos and Pat’s house in Larchwood.

In the present environment things are so different that it is difficult to think that a small department like Chemistry could survive. But Gurnos was a good head, and steered us through some difficult times. I will always remember him with fondness and respect.

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Molecular orbital calculations in the footsteps of Coulson

Today I ran a workshop for some of our final year Chemistry students with the dual aims of giving them experience of running the Gaussian code and repeating Coulson’s seminal calculations from 1937. Added to that I hope it helped them make some more sense of my lectures on SCF calculations!

As a ‘lab’ exercise it was administratively straightforward: the calculations were easily completed in an hour, and the write-up could mostly be done at the same time (with good organisation). Submission was by a word document online, and I know quite a few of the class submitted their reports within a few hours of completing the workshop.

As for the science, the workshop involved using Gaussian to optimise the geometry of molecular hydrogen. Two minimal basis sets were used (STO-3G and STO-6G), and two split valence basis sets (3-21G and 6-31G). The results clearly showed the superiority of the more complex basis sets, but it is worth mentioning that in 1937 (before the advent of computers and Pople’s use of Gaussian functions and development of the Gaussian program) Coulson managed to get superior results compared to those obtained with minimal basis sets using the Gaussian program! But it has to be said that it would be challenging to extend his calculations to larger molecules.

Overall I was happy with the way everything went in the workshop. I have some ideas for minor tweaks for next year, but nothing major. I am more concerned with how the Quantum Chemistry lecture material has been received, but I’ll have to wait for the exam and module questionnaire to find out!

My review of ‘UCL Chemistry Department: 1828-1974’ (Alwyn Davies and Peter Garratt)

book edit

This review has just been published in the May edition of Chemistry World, and can be found on page 59. The book itself was published by Science Reviews 200 Ltd in 2013, (287 pages, ISBN 978-1-900814-46-1).

It was a pleasure to review this very interesting book. Having been an undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoc in UCL Chemistry between 1975 and 1984, although the book covers the history of the Department up to just before I arrived, I attended several talks as a student about its history, so at least some of the names and events were familiar! Also, while I was not actually taught by the authors, I knew of them both as staff members in the Department.

As well as describing the history of UCL Chemistry Department, the book mentions the staff that worked there, including their backgrounds and research interests, as well as information about the buildings occupied. There’s plenty of Chemistry as well, which is a very nice touch.

The first ten chapters of the book describe the history of the Department from its conception in 1828 to 1971, when Nyholm died. A chapter is then devoted to the considerable influence of Australian Chemists on the Department (who came to UCL partly due to the fact that in the 1950s, an MSc was the highest qualification in Chemistry that could be obtained in Australia, and partly because they were no doubt attracted by the presence of the likes of fellow Australians Nyholm, Maccoll and Craig on the staff), before turning to the Inorganic Chemistry staff. The next two chapters are concerned respectively with the Organic and Physical Chemistry staff, and with the Technical and Secretarial staff (including a section on the Sir Christopher Ingold Laboratories, which opened in 1969). The final two chapters are about the Lab Dinner and the Chemical and Physical Society (which are both still going strong), and students’ memories of their time in the Department.

For anyone interested in the history of Chemistry and its development as an academic subject, this book is a must. It also provides interesting and detailed information on UCL Chemistry staff. For example, in this International Year of Crystallography, the section on Kathleen Lonsdale will be of particular interest. I recommend it to all UCL Chemistry alumni; it will certainly bring back some happy memories!

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Undergraduate projects in Chemistry – more thoughts

It’s interesting that my post from February 2011 on the topic of undergraduate chemistry projects continues to get hits (906 in total), implying it’s a topic of continued interest.

Our Chemistry course at Keele is currently undergoing quite a lot of changes, but a 15 or 30 credit final year project will continue to be a component of the final year (dual honours students will take a 15 credit module; major route and single honours students a 30 credit module).  In addition to this there is the possibility (against my instincts it has to be said) of an MChem course in the future, which would have to involve a longer project of 45 credits at least.

As I said in the last post, I do think it is important that all Chemistry undergraduates have some experience of research in their course, but I am concerned about how a small ‘department’ like ours can offer projects to all our students, especially when the numbers are increasing all the time. We have entered into a ‘3+1’ deal with a Chinese University, and in a few years time we may regularly get 30 additional students in our final year, leading to final year numbers of 100+ (with a current staff cohort of about 17). It will be a challenge which we will undoubtedly rise to, but I would like to ask the question (again) of whether every student graduating in Chemistry has to have done a project? The RSC have requirements of minimum ‘lab’ hours for accreditation, but that doesn’t have to be a research project. Alternatives to projects that give research experience include literature dissertations, which I know some departments allocate to students who don’t make the ‘cut’ to do a project.

I would be interested to hear from people in other departments about how they are addressing these issues.

Potato peeling and statistical thermodynamics

I mentioned the ‘potato peeling rule’ in a Tweet this morning, prompted by the second year Physical Chemistry exam which is actually taking place as I write this. I should start by acknowledging the originator of the term, my colleague John Staniforth (you can find his Facebook profile here). Many of the equations in statistical thermodynamics are quite complex and long-winded, and have terms in them like Planck’s constant (h) to the power 3 (or even 4). The type of calculators that our students have these days enable them to input complete calculations in one go (at least in principle), but even these wonderful gadgets can’t usually cope with numbers larger or smaller than 10 to the power plus or minus 99. So they happily try to calculate an entropy using the Sackur-Tetrode equation (for example), and get an answer of zero. The solution is of course to break the equation down into separate sections, and (horror of horrors) to cancel some powers of 10 by hand. Going back to John, he was helping me in a problem class a few years ago, and to explain the principle, came out with this (now) immortal phrase: ‘The champion potato peeler peels one potato at a time’. So, ever since, I have called this procedure the ‘potato peeling rule’. It remains to be seen whether it has been applied in today’s exam!

Updating Solid State Chemistry lectures

It’s that time of year when I give my final year solid state chemistry lectures. I find this the most interesting of all the modules I teach, not just because it is slightly related to my research, but also because of all the exciting work that’s being done in this field.

This year I’ve updated the section on lithium ion batteries, and added a section on transparent conducting oxides (TCOs).

For lithium ion batteries, much research is being done into making better electrode materials by using nanoporous structures; for example the use of carbon ‘sponges’ for anodes, replacing the traditional graphite materials. An example of this approach can be found here. Cathode materials are not being neglected either, and an example which uses spherical nanoporous LiCoPO4/C composites can be seen here.

Turning to TCOs, I’ve always found them very interesting materials, combining transparent and conducting properties, which at first sight might seem to be mutually exclusive!  I’ve chosen to concentrate on indium tin oxide, in which transparent, non-conducting indium oxide is made into a conductor by doping with tin. The conduction occurs because the tin levels form a donor band which is close to the conduction band (or even overlapping it), making it possible for electrons to reach the conduction band, but (very importantly), not affecting the band gap. There is an excellent paper by Peter Edwards and co-workers which explains the chemistry and physics of these materials very clearly. The many applications of TCOs in flat panel displays, solar panels and smart windows are so important for developing technologies that I feel that no solid state chemistry course should be without at least a mention of them!

Of course, it remains to be seen how the lectures are received, but I hope that the information presented will be seen to be interesting. Next year I aim to add lithium-air batteries, but there was no space for them this year!