Q&A

Meet PhD Student Edwin Clatworthy

Edwin explains the research gap in the renewables area that he’s trying to fill.

Edwin Clatworthy is a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney and new affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute. He is working in The Laboratory of Advanced Catalysis for Sustainability run by Prof. Thomas Maschmeyer and Assoc. Prof. Anthony Masters. The group aims towards creating new and improved catalytic routes and chemical systems to enhance renewable processes and sustainability. Edwin chats to us about the projects that he’s undertaking and his passions beyond renewable fuels.

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Describe your research topic and what stage you are at.

In broad terms my research topic revolves around renewable fuels and materials, but more specifically, it focuses upon how we can use photocatalysis to generate these products. Photocatalysis involves the use of light to power a reaction. These reactions include splitting water to produce hydrogen for fuel, conversion of biomass material (e.g. agricultural or pulp waste) to produce chemical products, or breakdown of pollutants to remediate air and water. However, problems hindering industrial scale application are that the efficiency of the photocatalyst is too low, long-term stability, and cost.

Presently, I am investigating materials that exhibit a physical process known as localised surface plasmon resonance (LSPR), to enhance the efficiency of photocatalysts. LSPR occurs when a nanoparticle interacts with light. In essence the nanoparticle acts like an antenna to create a very intense concentration of light energy. This energy can then speed up the reaction being performed by the photocatalyst. The way we can do this is by dispersing plasmonic nanoparticles onto a photocatalyst. We also try to improve the ability of the nanoparticles to concentrate light by controlling how we disperse them onto the photocatalyst as well as their shape and size.

However, the best performing plasmonic materials are gold and silver which are too expensive for large-scale application and their properties are not easily tunable. I am currently exploring an alternative material called titanium nitride (TiN), which is desirable due to its low cost, high melting point (2930 ºC), high strength and stability. Ultimately I’m investigating how TiN can influence the activity of the photocatalyst for reactions such as water splitting and biomass conversion.

What drew you to investigating this topic?

Originally I was drawn to the area of catalysis because it has the potential to give you experience in almost every field of chemistry. In addition, working in the area of renewable technology and sustainability is exciting because you may discover something that might have real world application in future technology.

What changes do you hope can occur from your research?

Plasmonics is a rapidly growing field of science so there are plenty of avenues to explore. I aim to demonstrate that TiN can be a good alternative to gold and silver for enhancing photocatalysis. What this may lead to is an improvement in efficiency and stability of photocatalysts, bringing them closer to large scale application for renewable fuels, materials, water and air remediation etc.

Your research touches on sustainability, how important is it to make our environment more sustainable?

The Global Footprint Network estimated that as of 2007 humans currently use Earth’s resources 1.5 times faster than they can be replaced. Sustainability is absolutely vital if we are to prevent the continual loss of our biodiversity and avoid further ecological disaster. Without our natural environment humans could not have survived and advanced as far as we have today. Not only does nature provide us with sources of food and potable water, but enormous contributions to medicine, advanced materials and nano-technology (biomimicry), e.g. Velcro, electronic displays, anti-fouling surfaces, efficient heating/cooling systems.

What interesting things have you discovered in your research so far?

I’ve found so far that controlling how the TiN nanoparticles get onto the surface of the photocatalyst is more difficult than anticipated. Whereas for gold and silver they can be precipitated out of solution onto the photocatalyst with control over size and shape, TiN needs to be fabricated separately to the photocatalyst.

What are some areas lacking in your research area?

Funding. Funding and its distribution is what I perceive to be the number one problem not just for my research area but all science in Australia. As of 2013 Australia’s spending on science as a function of GDP was one of the lowest in the OECD and the equal lowest in Australia since records began in the 1970s. In addition, the business community and those with large amounts of capital are vital for moving new technology from the lab to the real world. The Australian business community needs to complement government and help cultivate start-ups and technology investment.

Forcing researchers to compete more fiercely for funding stifles scientific growth and exploration. The development of new technology, compared to improving existing technology, is inherently riskier, costlier and has a higher rate of failure, but the payoff is always greater. The government needs to understand that technology development and funding is a long term investment.

What are your passions/interests beyond researching?

I’ve always been passionate about science and how things work from a young age, and we have so much information easily available to us now. There are lots of great social media pages that make new research and the science behind our world readily available such as ScienceAlert, Veritasium, SciShow, Minute Physics and Vsauce.

Other interests include music (mostly electronic), exploring Sydney as there’s always something interesting or exciting happening, and for the last seven years I’ve been practising hapkido, a Korean martial art.

Where can we find you on the weekend?

Most Saturdays you can find me in the lab performing experiments or in the office reading and writing. Weekends can be just as busy as weekdays for researchers depending on equipment availability and submission deadlines. Sunday however I’ll be chilling out at home or catching up with friends, time to relax is invaluable!

What are you currently watching or reading?

Mostly the ABC like Gruen, The Chaser’s Media Circus or Q&A, but I really enjoy shows like Scrubs, Community and Breaking Bad.

Have you only just lived in Sydney?

Yes, I grew up south of Sydney in the Sutherland Shire, but I’ve been able to escape and go travelling to Europe and Asia in-between work.

 

You can contact Edwin via email ecla9680@uni.sydney.edu.au