In photographs: scientific research in action

A photo of swirling graphene ink in alcohol, which can be used to print electrical circuits on to paper, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition

From a gentle robot, to technology capable of purifying polluted water, the winning images in a national science competition have been revealed. A photo of swirling graphene ink in alcohol won the overall prize in the competition to showcase scientific research in action, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The image, by James Macleod from the University of Cambridge, shows powdered graphite in alcohol, a combination that produces a conductive ink. The ink is forced at high pressure through micrometre-scale capillaries made of diamond. This rips the layers apart, resulting in a smooth, conductive material in solution.

The image came first in two categories, Innovation, and Equipment and Facilities, as well as winning overall, in the competition which is now in its fourth year. The competition attracted more than 100 entries in total, within five categories: Eureka and Discovery, Equipment and Facilities, People and Skills, Innovation, and Weird and Wonderful.

This competition is a wonderful reminder of the emotional and artistic aspects of science

Macleod explained how the photograph came about: “We are working to create conductive inks for printing flexible electronics and are currently focused on optimising our recipe for use in different printing methods and for printing on to different surfaces. This was the first time we had used alcohol to create our ink and I was struck by how mesmerising it looked while mixing.”

Among the competition judges was physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster Dr Helen Czerski, who lectures at University College London. “Scientists and engineers are often so busy focusing on the technical details of their research that they can be blind to what everyone else sees first: the aesthetics of their work,” she said.

“Science is a part of our culture, and it can contribute in many different ways. This competition is a wonderful reminder of the emotional and artistic aspects of science, and it’s great that researchers have found this richness in their own work.”

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is a funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research and invests £800m a year in research and postgraduate training.


A fresh shot: the winning images

Overall, 1st
Graphene IPA Ink, by James Macleod, University of Cambridge

“The ‘wonder material’ graphene is a sheet form of carbon that is a single atom thick. Among its many remarkable properties it is a superb conductor of electricity. However, it is difficult to mass produce. One way to overcome this problem is to process powdered graphite in alcohol to produce conductive ink, which can be used in inkjet printers to print electrical circuits on paper. The ink in this photo is forced at high pressure through micrometre-scale capillaries made of diamond. This rips the layers apart and we end up with a smooth, conductive material in solution.”

Overall, 2nd
DNA of optical fibre by Rob Francis-Jones, University of Bath

“The soft magenta glow of a hydrogen lamp highlights the fundamental building block of an optical fibre, a hollow glass ‘preform’ that can be drawn down to create a fibre the width of a human hair. Unlike optical fibres used in connecting homes to the internet, this fibre can be used to trap a gas within its hollow core. The helical defect encircling the core was the result of a stress caused in the glass during the fabrication process.”

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Overall, 3rd
Formation of hierarchical morphologies on the elastic surface, by Dr Ben Xu and Ding Wang, Northumbria University

“While the wrinkling, buckling and folding of the surfaces of thin films (such as ageing skin and crumpling of the thin film device) are traditionally seen as faults, it can be utilised to improve multifunctional chip devices for use in biology, tissue engineering and chemical engineering. This image shows formations on the surface of a thin elastic surface which have been heavily compressed as part of the research.”

Innovation category, 3rd
Spiralling light, by Wei Cao, University of Southampton

“This photograph shows the spiral shaped structures of optical wires only hundreds of nanometres wide through which light travels into a silicon chip. In the spirals, the light travels a metre in the space of a square millimetre. These structures are used to detect gases and chemicals via their interaction with light, and this critically requires long time spans for interactions.”

Eureka and Discovery category, 1st
3D printed robotic soft gripper lifts a light bulb by Khaled Elgeneidy, Loughborough University

“Soft robotic devices, such as this entirely 3D printed gripper, have major advantages when it comes to grasping objects which have complex geometry and are delicate. Instead of requiring sophisticated sensing and control, the soft nature of the gripper allows it to conform to the shape of the light bulb and lift it gently when supplied with pressurised air.”

People and Skills category, 1st
Purifying polluted water, Michael Coto, University of Cambridge

Photo: Hajime Shinohara

“Ten per cent of the world’s population lack access to a clean drinking water supply. That’s more than the entire population of Europe. My PhD research has been focused on developing highly active photocatalytic materials that utilise the energy of the sun to oxidise biological and chemical water contaminants. I have validated my promising lab-based findings with a field trial to Tanzania comparing photocatalysts to other common point-of-use water purifiers in an informal settlement. The photo shows me water testing with a local student and friend, Jonathan Nkungu, in Vingunguti, Dar es Salaam.”

People and Skills category, 2nd
Fastnet from above, by James Bassitt, University of Exeter

“It’s early December on the Fastnet rock off the coast of Ireland. The EPSRC-funded STORMLAMP field deployment team are obtaining visual data of the craggy rock and lighthouse. They will use this information to build up a picture of the behaviour of the lighthouse under severe wave impacts, backed up with wave and structural modelling on dry land. The photographer, James Bassitt, is just visible on the concrete helipad, flying the drone from which this shot was taken. Shortly afterwards sea spray caused the drone to fail.

Inside the lighthouse the rest of the team, from Plymouth University University College London, are testing the structural characteristics of the tower. Fog was the biggest hazard on this occasion and led to the team being stranded on the lighthouse an extra three nights.”

People & Skills category, 3rd
iCub and Eve by Dr Patricia Shaw, Aberystwyth University

“Playing with toys supports the development of children’s cognitive skills, allowing them to acquire an understanding about objects and ways to manipulate them. In this picture, Eve and the iCub robot sit at a table full of colourful toys. Soon enough, they both turn them into meaningful stacks.”

Equipment and Facilities category, 2nd
Tin and Yang, Dr Milos Nedeljkovic, University of Southampton

“This scanning electron microscope image shows the surface of a silicon chip, which has been patterned to create a wire that can guide infrared light. In this image, one metre of ultra-thin optical wire, just one millionth of a metre wide (seen as a continuous white line in the image), is made into a spiral and wrapped into an area the size of a square millimetre. This chip can be used as a highly sensitive chemical sensor: a liquid droplet of a chemical placed on its surface will absorb some colours of light passing through the wire, from which the chemical can be identified.”

Weird and Wonderful category 1st
Biodegradable dimpled microparticles, Dr Marta Alvarex Paino, University of Nottingham

“Tiny ‘golf ball’ microparticles could be used to repair tissues. These tiny biodegradable polymer particles resembling golf balls are among advanced biomaterials being developed to promote regeneration of damaged tissues. A mere 0.04mm across, they form part of scaffolds which are being studied to determine if they support the growth of healthy new cells.”

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