Strengthening global connections during the COVID-19 pandemic

By running remote experiments at Stanford University, California, a team of researchers at the University of Leeds has advanced its research into the complex molecular structure of soaps.

Using remote access technology, and collaborating with researchers at Stanford, the team were able to facilitate experiments using equipment housed at the Stanford Synchrotron Lightsource facility. It is one of the few facilities in the world that has a rapid data collection capability which can achieve the level of precision needed to run the experiments.

The researchers examined how the properties of a synthetic detergent, Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate (SLI), responds as it crystalises or cools, after being exposed to varying intensities of heat.

There is a tiny window in time in which the researchers can analyse the molecular properties of the material as it cools. Specialist conditions, such as the absence of oxygen, and the total control of temperature are also needed.

The Stanford team used a high-intensity small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) technique to rapidly capture how the molecular composition of SLI changed. The research focused on stages of transformation that depend on temperature during intense periods of cooling.

They carried out the experiments under instruction from Faidat Braimoh and Thomas Barber, who are postgraduate researchers in the School of Chemical and Process Engineering, alongside Associate Professor David Harbottle and Professor Kevin Roberts.

The ability to rapidly capture this data, while also maintaining controlled conditions, is only possible due to the Synchrotron equipment. Therefore, support from the Stanford research team, and the ability for the researchers to collaborate closely using remote technology was crucial.

SSRI Beamline display of remote experiment

The team used remote functionality to rapidly capture experiment data while maintaining controlled conditions, which is only possible using the Synchrotron equipment (image supplied by Thomas Barber).

Exceptional communication

Faidat and Thomas received extensive training on how to use the equipment, which captures 2-Dimensional images of the samples – and these images are more detailed than ever-before. It is a powerful technique that collects multiple datasets at the nanoscale, which is then converted to graphical plots.

They accessed the remote functionality set up by the Stanford team, so they were able to use the specialist software to analyse samples, load and convert their data. This meant communicating with the Stanford team remotely to coordinate sample loading and operating the beamline.

The Leeds team plan to carry out a second investigation as part of this research later in the year.

Faidat said: “The Stanford team were extremely helpful and went above and beyond to support our team. We were given the full access and control needed to carry out the research. The level of training and support we received means we’re well prepared to hit the ground running while continuing the research in a remote setting.”

The Stanford team were extremely helpful and went above and beyond to support our team. We were given the full access and control needed to carry out the research.

Faidat Braimoh, postgraduate researcher, School of Chemical and Process Engineering

“Conducting the remote experiments has given me and my peers added confidence in using the facility ahead of time.”

Thomas said: “Achieving the level of accuracy and precision needed to run the experiments required exceptional communication, as well as the ability to adapt to the inevitable challenges incurred by COVID-19.”

“Overcoming challenges sparked by the pandemic strengthened our ability to communicate and work with Stanford to carry out research that otherwise would not have been possible with international travel restrictions.”

Further information

Discover more about the research of Associate Professor David Harbottle, Professor Kevin Roberts and postgraduate researchers Faidat Akinwole Braimoh and Thomas Barber.

The Bragg Centre for Materials Research brings together scientists and engineers from across the University of Leeds and beyond.