OurFuture.Energy
A firey demonstration at the RI. Photo by Paul Wilkinson

Science @ Christmas

In an extra special festive edition of Day In The Life, our interviewee is none other than Saiful Islam, the Royal Institutions’ Christmas Lecture host 2016!

Find out more about this year’s Christmas Lectures here

This year’s lectures focus on how energy “drives everything around us, from our bodies to mobile phones, from aeroplanes to all the stars in the universe”.

We set Saiful our usual Day In The Life questions, along with some Christmas Lecture themed ones to get into the spirit!

Interviewee: Saiful Islam

Title: Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Bath

CAN YOU DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY IN YOUR JOB?

Saiful Islam at the Royal Institution. Photo by: Paul Wilkinson
Saiful Islam at the Royal Institution. Photo by: Paul Wilkinson

I start every day with a single espresso coffee while I make a list of all things I want to get done that day – which I never complete! Then I check my emails and delete all the junk. When I get to the university, I usually spend my morning writing up the findings of my research so I can send them to journals for publication. One of the things I love about my job is working with my research group of PhD students and senior researchers who are all as enthusiastic as I am about materials chemistry and using it to help meet the world’s energy challenge. We talk through their experiments together, bounce ideas around and discuss the latest results. Who knows, maybe the next Nobel Prize winner is in this group?! One of my favourite things about working in science is how much of an international effort it is. I’ll often spend my afternoons on Skype talking to researchers from all over the world who are working on similar experiments to me.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS LINE OF WORK?

When I was at school, my parents wanted me to pursue a career in medicine, but I wasn’t so keen. I remember going to the Royal Institution when I was about 15 for a fantastic schools lecture on light and colours by another Christmas Lecturer George Porter. That was the first time I realised that chemistry could be done as a full-time job and later I chose to study chemistry at university. Even then I still wasn’t sure about exactly what I wanted to do as a career. It was during my PhD at UCL and postdoc years at Eastman Kodak New York (in the late 1980s) when I was researching superconductors that I really became excited about science, and about materials chemistry in particular.

If we want to find new and improved forms of technology to help meet our growing energy needs, then we must develop better materials first. And that’s where materials chemistry comes in

WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU NEED FOR YOUR JOB?

Filming the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. Photo by Paul Wilkinson.
Filming the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. Photo by Paul Wilkinson.

It’s good to have that real interest, fascination and passion for scientific research. On the more practical level, you’ve got to be able to present your research in research papers, publications and conference presentations fairly well to disseminate work.

Since a lot of my work is dependent on research funding, the ability to write a good clear research grant proposals is also important. Teaching is a big part of what I do, so to find that aspect enjoyable – teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, who are going to be the next generation of scientists – would be a really positive thing.

WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT YOUR JOB?

My research! My research involves using powerful computer modelling techniques to investigate energy-related materials for lithium batteries and solar cells. So I’m a chemist who doesn’t wear a white lab coat! Our aim is to understand and design new materials for next-generation clean energy devices.

This research is important because the supply of clean, sustainable energy is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. All of the devices and technology we currently use to transform and store green energy, such as lithium batteries and solar panels, rely on specific materials in order to work. If we want to find new and improved forms of technology to help meet our growing energy needs, then we must develop better materials first. And that’s where materials chemistry comes in!

The great thing about science is that it allows you to keep asking questions

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON HOW TO GET INTO THIS WORK?

If you are really passionate about science in general and chemistry in particular then follow that passion. I’m very fortunate in getting into academia but it does involve putting in the hard work as well. It is partly inspiration, partly perspiration!

WHAT WAYS ARE YOU HOPING TO INSPIRE YOUNG PEOPLE IN YOUR LECTURES?

My own experience watching the CHRISTMAS LECTURES as a child gave me a strong sense of the importance of scientific knowledge in understanding the world, and I would love for the audience to come to a similar realisation over the course of my Lectures.

The great thing about science is that it allows you to keep asking questions. It isn’t just about learning facts, but trying to answer those challenging questions about the world around you. I’d be delighted if the Lectures managed to inspire this attitude in young people.

HOW DO YOU THINK SCHOOLS CAN HELP ENCOURAGE INTEREST IN OUR FUTURE ENERGY?

Energy as a concept is covered in chemistry, physics and biology lessons at school. It may be done already, but the important step is in finding ways to relate it to the current challenges we face in developing clean, sustainable energy.

I’d also say that it’s important to show that it’s a topic which is of huge relevance to future generation of scientists. The fact that current youngsters can get involved in that future, and that there is an opportunity for them to make a difference would, I hope, encourage their interest.

I’m hopeful that the Lectures will help to create a further buzz about chemistry as well as the global energy challenge

WHAT ARE THE MAIN POINTS YOU WOULD LIKE YOUNG PEOPLE TO TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR LECTURES?

I think that viewers of all ages will come away with a deeper understanding of energy and a new-found fascination in it. I’m hopeful that the Lectures will help to create a further buzz about chemistry as well as the global energy challenge. Materials chemistry plays such crucial role in developing new, clean energy technologies and that’s something which might be new to many viewers.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ENERGY-RELATED EXPERIMENT?

Saiful Islam demonstrating how a lemon battery works. Photo by Paul Wilkinson.
Saiful Islam demonstrating how a lemon battery works. Photo by Paul Wilkinson.

We’re working on an exciting demo at the moment – and it’ll determine whether we get into the Guinness World Book of Records! It’s for the world’s largest lemon battery with the largest voltage. It’s not a very large lemon, but the largest number of lemons! When it all comes together, we could have up to a thousand lemons.

I work on batteries and although it’s a simple experiment, if you explain it right you can explain how a battery works. It gets across the concepts of a couple of metal electrodes, the lemon and the lemon juice as the iron conducting electrolytes, and that can produce a bit of electricity.

Another exciting one is a demo which involves two Tesla coils. Tesla coils are amazing machines that generate incredibly high voltages at a low current. They produce dramatic sparks, which look like lightning, and are used for special effects in film and theatre. It’s scary for the Ri, as last time we featured a Tesla coil, it fried all of our electronics! This year we have some special Tesla coils, which are controlled by a computer to play music. I haven’t seen them yet but am looking forward to trying them out.

You can watch Supercharged: Fuelling the future on BBC4 at 8pm on 26th, 27th and 28th of December 2016.

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