Living in a material world

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Behind the scenes: how do scientists develop new materials?

Last edited : 3 November 2014

What’s it like working as part of a team that is creating new materials for the world to use? PhD student Aleksander Tedstone from the University of Manchester is among the BP-ICAM team investigating inorganic lubricant additives

"Like many people, I wasn’t sure what to study at university but I decided to go with chemistry. Slightly unusually, I studied philosophy alongside my science subjects. It does give me a different perspective, an alternative way of looking at things. But remember that natural science used to be called natural philosophy; in some ways the disciplines aren’t so different – they’re both seeking the truth.

Working in science means that there’s something different to work on everyday. I have a lot of freedom to take an interesting idea and see if it might lead somewhere.

I’m currently working on the understanding and development of inorganic solid lubricants as part of the BP-ICAM - This link opens in a new window partnership. Doing fundamental research into something that has very pragmatic, real-world applications has always interested me. We all rely on lubricant systems every day in transport, and almost every mechanical process at some point requires at least an understanding of frictional processes, so it’s easy to see the relevance of the work.

There’s lots of room for genuine improvement in lubricants. The use of a few additives has been entrenched for two decades or so and there haven’t been any breakthroughs for some time.

There is some skepticism from people about working in collaboration with industry – I even get it from my own brother, who’s also a scientist. They see industry support as something that limits the scope of research. But we haven’t ever hit any red tape with BP.

"It would be great to see some of the things that we’re working on break through to the public domain, especially if we could develop new materials capable of outperforming those currently in use."

- Aleksander Tedstone

In reality, the BP-ICAM collaboration actively encourages us to publish our findings. We’re able to separate out and share the fundamental science, things that contribute to general knowledge, without disclosing any confidential information.

One of the real benefits of the BP-ICAM partnership is the opportunity to meet up with other researchers. The collaboration between Manchester and Illinois universities on the lubricants project came about as a direct result of a BP-ICAM conference. I’ve just returned from a month in Illinois. I got to see the results of experiments first hand, rather than just in write-ups.

It would be great to see some of the things that we’re working on break through to the public domain, especially if we could develop new materials capable of outperforming those currently in use. On a personal level, publishing a couple of good papers would feel like success to me. Although I’m already rather proud of winning the crossword competition in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s monthly magazine, Chemistry World!”

What is BP-ICAM?

In 2012, BP established the $100 million research centre, known as the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials or BP-ICAM. For the next decade, the centre will lead research aimed at advancing the fundamental understanding and use of materials across a variety of energy and industrial applications.

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