By Phillippa Nightingale, prize winner of the National Science + Engineering Competition 2013
My journey started when I won my prize at the National Science + Engineering competition in March of this year. I was presented with my prize for the RCUK Best Use of Research award by Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive EPSRC.
My first choice of the research facilities to visit was the Diamond Light Source, and I was elated when I found out it had been accepted and I was going to have a tour of the prestigious £383 million facility. I couldn’t wait to start composing questions to ask the researchers and anyone else I would meet, whilst I continued to add to my project.
My mum and I visited the Harwell Campus in Didcot on 30 July. Our driver gave us some quick information about the other buildings on site including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the European Space Agency and the UK atomic energy authority, and then we reached Diamond. Our tour guide for the day was Laura Holland. At first she explained what happens at Diamond and how a synchrotron works. Then we went into the actual building where the electrons are set off from the electron gun through the booster synchrotron and around the storage ring, which has a 120cm thick ceiling of concrete over it. This is because there can be a high radiation level when the electrons go around the corners, as the storage ring is a polygon made of many different lines which extend into beam lines rather than a complete circle. She also showed me pieces of the magnets which keeps the electron central so they don’t lose energy.
I went to visit my first beam line which Professor Nick Terrill built. He specialises his research in polymer science, which is connected to my project of chewing gum. One of the primary things he does is heat and cool polymers to see how the structure changes because when some polymers melt, they crystallise. With the use of x-rays (as they are the correct length scale for the lamella structure), the structure change can be seen. He discussed his most current research with me about how polymer films are becoming very useful. In the future, if an organic photovoltaic polymer would work then that could be attached to windows and produce energy from the sun. The energy from the sun that touches the earth’s surface in an hour could power the world for a year, so if we could harness some of this energy then the need for fossil fuels will be less. This really excited me as I had no idea that anything like this was even possible. He has also built another beam line and this will be the 24th of the current 23 active beam lines.
I then went to see Professor Paul Steadman, who is the principal beam line scientist of I10. The Professor and his team look at magnetism, especially bolt magnetism, which occurs in natural materials as well as studying thin films. A reason why Paul and his team are so interested in magnetism is due to the hard drives in computers as they consist of magnetic particles which can be polarised in one of two directions giving a 1 or a 0, but to detect which way it’s pointing when they become smaller, you need an extremely sensitive magnetometer.
Considering that I have only studied basic magnetism at key stage three, I feel confident about the information I was told by Paul Steadman and by Nick Terrill about polymers. They both explained their work in a way, which at GCSE level, I was able to understand without it being patronising. Overall I felt that I learnt a lot from the experience, by spending time with the professors and the information I received will be extremely useful for when I have finished my GCSEs. They talked about their A levels and higher education, which I feel I can apply to my future. They also gave me other advice such as where research can take you, including the opportunities to go abroad and what the cutting edge research is at the moment at Diamond.
The trip has given me a wider idea of what being a researcher is and helped me to start thinking what I could do in the future. It was definitely worth visiting Diamond as I have never had an opportunity like this before.
My project: The Stickiness of chewing gum
I decided to investigate chewing gum mainly because I thought it was a large environmental problem in terms of looking unsightly. However, I later discovered it has many health benefits, such as aiding concentration and helping patients recover in hospital. I began to research what made chewing gum sticky and then I started what turned out to be a series of experiments. The first experiment I carried out, was to investigate how different surfaces affected how chewing could be removed, but there were too many variables and my results were not reproducible as they were a matter of opinion, so my second experiment focused on the idea that some removal substances such as white spirit could affect the amount of wipes needed to remove the gum but again this was more a matter of opinion than reliable results.
When I got through to the finals of the National Science + Engineering competition, the judges suggested that I used a pressure gauge; however my school didn’t have one. So instead I made 42 blocks and used a Newton metre to measure the force needed to remove the chewing gum that had been placed in between the blocks over a week, in an effort to see how time affects the stickiness of chewing gum. Whilst carrying out experiments, I started to research the historical, commercial and unusual facts related to chewing gum, such as the London-based, gum artist Ben Wilson and the identification that a Mayan farmer has a specific type of tree that produces a sap which when exposed to rainwater for a month begins to disintegrate. I believe that a synthetic copy of this biodegradable sap could be made to stop the millions of pounds being wasted on the clean-up of chewing gum and therefore allow Councils to spend money on much needed beneficial services.