- Course: Chemical and process engineering PhD
- PhD title: The crystallization of Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/thomas-barber-101023138/
Through his PhD research, Thomas hopes to provide greater understanding of the factors that influence crystallization. His research is sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the specialist company Innospec.
“The goal of my research is to enable innovation in the manufacture of particular ‘surfactant,’ which is the active agent in many personal care products,” Thomas explained.
“My research involves analysing the time-resolved effects of high temperature, and also the influence of several reactant species on the crystallization of the surfactant post-manufacture. This will allow for more widespread adoption and usage of this surfactant in particular, as it can be beneficial for people with sensitive skin.”
Advanced materials research
Thomas is part of several research groups at the University, including the Crystallization group and Colloids, polymers, and interface engineering groups. Thomas finds the support from these groups invaluable.
He said: “Being part of these research groups provides an excellent opportunity to bounce ideas off an audience, each of them working on a variety of projects. Having a set of fresh eyes on a problem you’ve been working on for a long time can prove invaluable.”
Being part of these research groups provides an excellent opportunity to bounce ideas off an audience… which can prove invaluable.
Thomas spends much of his time as a researcher performing experiments in the lab. “I perform a lot of purification to prepare standardised samples,” he said. “And lots of thermal analysis to evaluate the crystallization process.
“Presently, I use small angle x-ray analysis (SAXS), to examine the inter-lamellar spacing of the crystal. These results will then be used to inform computational experiments to model how the molecules arrange themselves under different conditions.”
“This SAXS analysis took place at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light-Source (SSRL) in San Francisco. This work was performed remotely in collaboration with Dr Anthony Fong and Dr Sarah Hesse. They were both extremely helpful, and the work would not have been possible without them.”
“We controlled the beamline via remote desktop, triggering data capture and manipulating the temperature stage throughout.”
Supportive research community
Thomas continued: “I’m part of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Complex Particulate Products and Processes (CP3), and my project in sponsored by Innospec. Both of these organisations have been immensely helpful in both advising and facilitating aspects of my work throughout my PhD.
“My primary supervisor, Dr David Harbottle, is excellent at providing day-to-day support and feedback on my work. He also has significant experience working on projects in my specific area of study. My secondary supervisor, Professor Kevin Roberts, has a wealth of knowledge in crystallization and provides suggestions and insight on the direction and on specific aspects of the research.”
My supervisor is excellent at providing day-to-day support and feedback on my work.
He added: “Although the pandemic has temporarily changed the way we work and socialise, our research groups are a great vector for finding support for your work and a way to relax out-of-hours. Also, I’ve found extra support seems to come from those you work alongside most frequently. Lab and office friends really help to keep morale up, as there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together.”
Thomas pursued his PhD as a continuation of his Masters study in organic chemistry, he explained.
Thomas said: “In my earlier work, I developed a background in both surfactants and organic chemistry. One aspect that I hadn’t explored extensively in previous studies was crystallization, so this research topic was a perfect blend of the known and unknown for me.
“I had just graduated from Northumbria University with a Master’s degree in Applied Chemistry in 2017, and I was interested in further broadening my horizons. This led me to apply to undertake a PhD in Chemical Engineering under Dr Harbottle.”
Building a career in industry
Beyond his studies, Thomas hopes to build a career in industry.
He added: “Having spent the last 7 years in higher education at University, I think I’d like to enter the workforce. It could be interesting to live in a different country for a time – hopefully, the pandemic is under control by the time I graduate.”
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