Category Archives: science research

Advances in computational and experimental studies of solids: a meeting to mark Richard Catlow’s 70th birthday (Cosener’s House, Abingdon, 10-12 April 2017)

It was back in March 2016 that I first had the idea that a meeting should be arranged to mark Richard Catlow’s 70th birthday. Having organised a similar occasion for his 60th birthday, back in 2007 (unfortunately pre-blog and my use of social media), this seemed appropriate. Initially the idea was to have an organising committee, and I approached potential members, but it soon became clear that it could only be done effectively by close liaison with Richard, and from then on I was effectively the sole organiser (although I am grateful for administrative help received later).

We discussed possible dates in April 2017, and where it could be held. Richard preferred a neutral venue not associated with his current employers, so eventually we settled on Cosener’s House, a place in Abingdon often used by people carrying out experiments at the nearby Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The venue was booked, and all available rooms were reserved, and we set about discussing who should be invited, before the event was advertised more widely. I made a list of Richard’s contemporaries who he particularly wanted to attend, and invited them. It was very encouraging that they all accepted. I then advertised the meeting to pre4sent and former group members, inviting them to register and present talks.

In September 2016 I met with Richard to discuss the general format of the meeting, and in February 2017 we started putting the programme together. All this coincided with my appointment as acting head of my school at Keele, and having two new modules to teach, so it was difficult for a couple of months. But by mid March everything was coming together. Ideally I would have liked a site visit, but there simply wasn’t time.  However, I had discussed everything in detail with both Richard and the Cosener’s House staff, so I hoped everything was in place!

On Sunday 9th April (2 weeks ago from writing this post), I set off to Oxford, staying overnight close to the station, and on Monday 10th April I took a taxi to Abingdon, arriving at Cosener’s House a few hours before the meeting was due to take place.

I’m pleased to say that the meeting got off to a great start. It was particularly pleasing to get so many of Richard’s former group members together, as well as people he had worked with, including Sir John Meurig Thomas, Tony Cheetham and Brian Fender. We even had a visit from Richard’s PhD supervisor, Alan Lidiard. The talks were excellent, and we had lots of good discussion. The accommodation and catering were both excellent.

All in all I was very pleased with the meeting, and pleased that everyone enjoyed it. You can find a collection of photos taken at the meeting here:, and one of the conference photos is given below. I will also post the meeting programme on my website ( in due course.

ICDIM2016 – a personal perspective

ICDIM2016 was held in Lyon from 10-15 July 2016. It was organised by Christophe Dujardin and his team. It was the 8th ICDIM meeting I had attended since 1984 and the 16th meeting I had attended in the joint EURODIM/ICDIM series in total.

I travelled to Lyon by Eurostar from St Pancras. It was a seamless journey and the train arrived early. It was nice to have Mário’s company on the trip; he had spent the previous week working with me, which was something we had tried to arrange several times in recent years, and this time it worked!

The conference itself was well-organised. I had some minor gripes about the length of the talks (contributed talks had 15 minute slots (too short), and invited talks had 1 hour slots (too long)), but otherwise I had no complaints. The chairs generally did a good job, helped by a timer that counted down the time for each talk and was clearly visible! Most of the talks were recorded, and I will add a link here when it is made available.

The science discussed was good and of a high standard, showing that there is still a place for a conference of this kind with a relatively wide remit which now includes materials closer to semiconductors in their properties, while still mainly covering insulating materials. Battery materials, fuel cell materials and old stalwarts like LiNbO3 all had coverage. I talked on dopants in SrAl2O4, inspired by a talk by Philippe Smet given at EURODIM2014 in Canterbury. I did my best in the time available, but 10 minutes is really challenging! However, it was useful to discuss my work with Philippe and others following the talk. Mário and I also presented posters on the work performed by Giordano Bispo while at Keele, and our suggested new method for analysing EXAFS spectra of doped materials (in this case, Zn doped LiNbO3).

The organisers tried hard to include lots of social functions, and there was some kind of event every night. This certainly helped with networking, and I spoke to everyone I needed to. The conference dinner was on a boat (moored, I should add), and we had an excellent tour of old Lyon. We were in Lyon on 14 July, so were able to experience the Bastille Day celebrations, including a short but spectacular fireworks display.

The return journey on Eurostar was good, except that because there is no passport control at Lyon, we had to get off at Lille and go through security and immigration there. This worked OK, but I do wonder if there may be a better way!

Finally, at the conference I was given responsibility as International Advisory Committee Chair for the next few EURODIM conferences, and my first task is to sort out the location of EURODIM2018. This is going to be interesting, but I will report on it separately!

The EU Referendum: a month to go

With a month to go before the EU Referendum, I thought it would be timely to write a quick post about why it is so important to me that we vote to remain. So, if someone asked me why I think this, these are the three points I would make:

(i) from the point of view of the UK as a whole, being part of the single market is essential for our future prosperity. If we left the EU we might be able to negotiate joining it, but at a cost, and we would not be in a position to influence any decisions made by member states.

(ii) the free movement of people between countries in the EU is particularly important for education and research in the UK. Our students can spend valuable periods of time at universities in EU countries, as can teachers and lecturers, and we can conversely benefit from the equivalent people from the rest of the EU spending time in the UK. This is very important for the education sector, and has knock-on effects in terms of creating and maintaining an internationally minded workforce.

(iii) all member states of the EU contribute to a research fund, and the funds are allocated to universities, research institutions and companies by a competitive application process. The UK does very well out of this, getting more out of it than it puts in. So much important research is funded from EU research grants, and if we left, we would lose this source of funding unless we negotiated to join the scheme from outside, which would involve extra cost and potentially less favourable terms.

There are plenty of other reasons to remain, but these are my main ones. Unfortunately the debate over the referendum has descended into a mud-slinging match between opposing sides, and there is the danger that some people might be put off voting at all. I will continue to try to put a positive spin on the case to remain in the EU, and hope others will do the same!

One-third semester update

Almost unbelievably we are a third of the way through the Autumn Semester. Here’s a record of some of the highlights so far.

I’ve been teaching my Forensics Arson module for 3 weeks now, and last week we had our now traditional arson demonstration from John Caulton. This year the weather held, and the students seemed to enjoy it and find it interesting. As an added bonus we had an appearance by Jack the ADC (accelerant detection dog in normal parlance). Here’s a typical photo from the demonstration:


I have two more lectures in this module, and next week we will look at data from Kuwaiti oil fires!

My project students have all made a good start. One of the projects has started with looking at doped SrAl2O4 for sensor applications, inspired by Philippe Smet’s talk at Eurodim14 back in July. Another project is looking at zeolites for environmental applications; this is a trip down memory lane for me, since I haven’t worked on zeolites for many years (the last publication was in 1998!) We started with zeolite A, but have moved on to heulandite/clinoptilolite. With Keele’s focus on environmental issues this topic seemed appropriate. The third project is a spin off from my teaching; transparent conducting oxides are materials of current interest, and doped ZnO/ZnS have applications here. Although my methods can’t handle the electron behaviour, we can get some useful information about the energetics of doping these materials.

Finally, a week ago my visiting researcher from Brazil, Giordano Frederico da Cunha Bispo, arrived in Keele. His first week was taken up largely with administration, but I’m looking forward to him getting his project underway.

Looking ahead, I have my new lectures in Quantum Chemistry coming up, as well as my contribution to the new Materials Chemistry and Catalysis module. Plenty to keep me busy for the next 8 weeks!

Miscellaneous research musings

In these valuable weeks before the new semester begins, I’ve been dividing my time between preparing new lectures and research, or at least research planning. In this post I’ll discuss my research plans for the coming year.

I normally hope to get ideas for new research topics from conferences I’ve attended, and Eurodim 2014 certainly gave me some ideas. For the past few years I have been concentrating on modelling materials for optical and energy applications, and there were a few talks that suggested possible new materials. A talk by Philippe Smet on Eu, Dy doped SrAl2O4 got me thinking, as I’ve modelled CaAl2O4 before. I’m thinking of getting one of my final year project students to look at this system; if it looks promising it could lead to further work and hopefully a publication. My friend and co-author Zelia Macedo gave a talk on NaYP2O7 doped with various ions, and this also seemed interesting as I have modelled metal phosphates and have working potentials. However my initial attempts suggest it will be a challenge even to model the perfect lattice, so it’s unlikely to be suitable for a final year project. However it will be kept on the list, hopefully to be returned to later. Then there was a talk from Volkmar Dierolf on doped GaN (gallium nitride), an important technological material which Mário Valerio and myself have tried to model before. The problem with this material is representing the covalency of the bonding while retaining sufficient ionic character in our potential model to be able to carry out doping. Again, this seems a bit too complex for a final year project, but I think it’s something we should be working on in the near future.

I also have a paper to write before the end of the month based on my Eurodim talk. I’m hoping to get this done in the next couple of weeks, but it should be straightforward to extract text from my presentation!

I mentioned final year project students earlier. My usual approach is to give them a real research problem, and if it works we can sometimes get a paper from it, or it may lead to a new project, potentially for a PhD student. In the new semester I will have 3 project students with varying requirements in terms of credits and time they need to spend on their projects. One of them will look at SrAl2O4, but the other two are still undecided. Of these, one might look at ZnO/ZnS as these have some new applications in transparent conductors, and one might look at an old interest of mine – zeolites. With environmental issues on mind, their use in cleanup operations is once again relevant. A colleague in the Earth Sciences part of my school mentioned a possible project in this area which could benefit from modelling, and involving a project student in this area is a definite possibility. Anyway, these need to be finalised in the next two weeks. An update might appear if I have time!

Summer 2014

It’s been an interesting summer so far (although the weather would suggest it’s coming to an end already). I’ve only attended the one conference, Eurodim 2014 (reported on earlier), I’ve had an interesting London trip (with another one coming up), and I had my annual pilgrimage to the GBBF a couple of weeks ago (also reported on in the last post).

One thing that has concentrated my mind has been the need to write some new lectures (on fairly advanced quantum chemistry), and this is both challenging and time-consuming, but I’m getting there.

Another issue is research. With the last of my recent PhD students finishing, it’s time to get some new projects started. I’m currently trying to develop some ideas from the conference I attended, but there is a deeper problem which I will certainly return to. That is the virtual impossibility of getting research funding now for someone in my situation. The EPSRC are concentrating their funding on the larger and (in their view) better appointed institutions, and it’s hard to see a way forward at present. There is the possibility of a student from Brazil spending 9 months or so working with me, but that is contingent on the funding and visa being granted. I’m hoping for the best on that, but suspect I’ll be returning to the subject of research funding here soon.

However, for now, the possibility of being able to work relatively undisturbed for the next few weeks is a definite bonus!

Scottish Independence and Research Funding issues

With the Scottish Independence referendum getting ever closer, it’s surely time to get away from the ‘braveheart’ posturing and consider some real issues, many of which have not been adequately addressed by the SNP in their independence campaign.

One such issue, close to my heart, is one of research funding in Scottish universities. In my field, solid state chemistry, there is much excellent research being done in universities such as St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde. In many cases the research is world-leading; one example is the fuel cells work being done at St Andrews. This work is rightly funded by the EPSRC, a UK funding agency, and there are many other examples I could cite.

If there is a ‘yes’ vote in September, what will happen to the EPSRC funding of these excellent research groups, and more broadly, what will happen to the groups themselves? The EPSRC will obviously not fund research done in a foreign country, and the Scottish government seems highly unlikely to be able to make up for the lost funding. Recently the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee addressed this issue, as discussed here. The SNP seem to think that the status quo can continue, with the EPSRC assuming some kind of trans-national role. This is as ridiculous as their assumptions about keeping the pound, and joining the EU!

I fear that in these circumstances there is a real danger that the excellent research being done in these universities will suffer, and further, that the researchers themselves will leave for better funded locations. There will then be a knock-on effect on the universities themselves, since their current excellent research infrastructure has a positive effect on teaching, giving undergraduate students the opportunity to carry out research projects in these leading research groups. This may all be lost if Scotland becomes independent. These are worrying times for anyone who cares about the research being done, the people involved, and the future of the institutions themselves.

The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee