I have just finished my second year of the Energy Engineering with Environmental Management course which I chose to study because, in addition to having a strong interest in environmental issues, I really enjoy both solving mathematical problems and doing practical work in the lab. Having undertaken industry-based internships and work experience placements before, this summer I wanted to contrast my previous experiences with working in a research environment.
I am currently in the fourth week of my eight week internship working with two lecturers in the engineering department. Our aim is to investigate novel methods of depositing a transparent conductive film, such as might be used in solar photovoltaic generation, energy storage, flexible touch screens or gas sensors. It is hoped that this could provide an alternative to the increasingly rare metal oxides which are currently used in these promising technologies. The material we are using is graphene: a single layer of carbon atoms that conducts electricity and has exceptionally high mechanical strength.
So far my work has involved carrying out a literature review to find reports about similar work that has already been carried out in this field and to identify successful methods for depositing graphene films with particular characteristics. I have worked in the lab to prepare materials and equipment for use and to attempt to carry out depositions. I have also been able to use the scanning electron microscope to inspect the results of the depositions to find out whether I have been successful: the platelets of graphene oxide are millionths of a metre wide and billionths of a metre thick so the incredibly powerful microscope is the only way to check whether there is anything on the slide!
Having discussed the internship with my supervisors before I started, the first four weeks have been close to what I expected. I have particularly enjoyed spending time preparing samples in the lab – I have been granted a lot of independence – and using the scanning electron microscope. The latter was particularly satisfying because, although we have by no means achieved our goal yet, the initial samples were far more promising than we had expected. Carrying out the initial literature review was more difficult than I had anticipated: the techniques we are using in this project are still very much at the experimental stage so relevant papers and reports are rare. I have also had to do some background reading on quite fundamental concepts in an attempt to fully understand many of the papers. It has been really interesting to use and build on some of the ideas I learnt in A Level chemistry and physics and find out how they are relevant to graphene and energy applications.
I expect that the next four weeks of my internship will be more challenging. I am aiming to move on to use a far less familiar technique to deposit the graphene. It will be the first time that this technique has been used in this way, so there is a very limited amount of background reading that I can do in preparation, but it is because it is a novel method that I am really looking forward to finding out more about the technology and how well the technique will work.
My work on the project so far has confirmed that I prefer working on long term, open-ended projects like the one I am currently undertaking to working on a series of short term projects as I encountered on previous industrial placements. In particular I like the fact that, rather than having responsibility for a specialised task, I am involved in everything from the initial literature review through the experimental phase to the discussion of the final results so it feels like I am developing a really coherent understanding of the scientific concepts and methods involved in the project.
I am looking forward to the next few weeks of the project and the opportunities to build on the preliminary work, to find solutions to the current flaws in the method, and to inspecting our samples to find out whether we have been successful.