Matt Billing is a Postdoctoral Research Associate supporting Sustainable Innovation and LSBU's School of Engineering. His primary interests are interested in hydrogen energy, electrochemistry and CO2 reduction.
We sat Matt down with Project Coordinator, Bethan, to talk about his work on the programme so far. Read on to find out more about Matt and how he's helping our member Shellworks create groundbreaking packaging products.
B: Welcome to the Sustainable Innovation working group, it’s great to have you in the team – how’s it been so far?
M: Great – I really enjoy working with a team of academics and meeting new businesses. I’m excited to meet more start-ups and small businesses and see what projects come out of this.
B: You joined LSBU in September 2019. What have you been working on since then?
M: I’ve been at LSBU since Sept 2019 – as a post doc associate – working with Steve Dunn on sodium ion batteries and super capaciters, basically anything that stores a charge. We are currently working on a UKRI Faraday grant, in partnership with Deregallera – a materials research company in Wales, trying to develop a recyclable battery for Electric Vehicles.
I am also teaching maths online to undergrad students, helping them get basic levels of maths.
B: What did you do before you worked at LSBU?
M: I spent a year teaching maths subjects to American students in London, and before that I was completing my Eng-D (like a PhD) at UCL in solid state hydrogen storage, sponsored by the EPSC. I was researching how to recycle batteries, which is really complex and costly. The Eng-D included work on business skills as it has an industry focus, and the aim is to finish the Eng-D ready for the commercial world.
B: That sounds interesting ... can you give us any more specifics?
M: I looked into how you could recycle car materials for car batteries but the materials are too expensive to make it commercially viable, and some of the materials needed can only be sourced in politically unstable areas which adds to the complexity of scaling the project!
B: Which projects will you be working on with Sustainable Innovation?
M: So far I am only working with Shellworks but as time goes on I’d like to work with other start-ups and small businesses. I’ve had a meeting with the academic, Suela Kellici and the business, which was really interesting. Shellworks are looking to recycle discarded lobster shells to create sustainable packaging.
B: What have you done with them so far?
M: We listened to what the Shellworks team hopes to create and discussed potential tests to ensure we create a product that is commercially viable. At the moment, Shellworks are quite flexible with what kind of packaging they want to produce. As chemical engineers we will need to find out what ingredients they will be putting in the packaging so that we can accommodate the material tests.
B: So what are you contributing to the work?
M: I will be bringing my materials experience to the project – my specific areas of interest are: material characterisation, crystal structures, composite structures etc. We can help businesses more once they identify exactly what they want to do with the material – for example we have asked: Do they want UV protection? Do they want the material to be more transparent, or flexible? If the material is holding a candle, that is a completely different ball game to if the material needs to hold cosmetics, or food. It’s made us think of some cool experiments we’d like to try.
When you’re working with renewable biomaterials they often absorb water so if the material acts as a container then you have to think about how the materials react with the ingredients. For example, if you are using the lobster shell material to create a shampoo bottle you need to ask questions to shape the experiments such as: Do I want the bottle to be transparent or opaque? How will the materials of the bottle react with the ingredients in the shampoo? Does the material need to be rigid or flexible? Basically, we have to narrow down what will be going into the packaging before we know which tests are the most helpful.
B: When did you start working on the project?
M: End of June 2020
B: What further support are you planning to give?
M: Once Shellworks have finished their tensile tests – we will look at the different fibres, and their composite (texture, fibre lengths) under the microscope. Then we have to consider the needs of the final product: should it be a rough or smooth surface, do thick or thin fibres work best etc?
We’re keen to let SWS guide us on the project; we might be able to help them produce a few kilos of whatever material they chose to go ahead with. We’ll do this through an extrusion process - this will help Shellworks so they don’t have to keep making small samples.
B: What was your experience of working with the business like?
M: I already work with Suela (the lead academic on the project) so we work well together.
Quite often with these collaborations the business has a brilliant idea but they don’t know what they want to do with it, or how they’re going to use it in a practical way. It's fantastic to be able to add value to a commercial venture here.
B: How do you think working on this project could benefitted you/your school?
M: These collaborations are a great benefit to the school and the business. We are keen to get students involved in research projects, as it helps them understand how the theory of their education can apply to the real world. Having something real to test on helps them understand the questions we ask to create the tests.
Practical application is really helpful for teaching students – even if the students aren’t directly involved in the project, I can discuss the challenges and ideas in lectures which gives real life examples.
Shellworks are working with a material that is similar to glucosamine, which we’ve already worked with, but because it’s slightly different to the materials I know well, we are learning and expanding our knowledge, this gives us inspiration for other tests and research which could lead to other materials being produced.
B: Are there any other projects or aspects of projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
M: We’d love to work with any businesses that are focussing their research and development in the following areas:
Energy capture, solar, waste heat (including low grade heat sub 100 degrees, to drive a chemical reaction), pyro-electrics. They’re currently looking into reduction of Co2 in fossil fuel – could be used for hydrogen. Capturing energy from vibrations. We’re looking at where else can waste energy be captured, and where it can be stored if you capture too much at one time.
Energy utilisation – what do you want to do with this energy – specifically looking into the chemistry aspects?
Super capacitor work – looking into making carbon materials made from bio materials. This could be really useful for batteries and super capacitors (which release their charge quicker than batteries). Most systems going forward will have a battery and a super capacitor, so you get the best of both worlds – energy storage with quick release and slow release energy.
B: Are there any aspects of working with businesses that you think might be a challenge?
M: Our current challenge is getting into the labs with distancing measures put into place due to Covid-19 – we are really hopeful we can get back into the labs this month but of course there’s a lot of logistics and health and safety planning that needs to go into that side of things. We’re even thinking about moving our office into the teaching lab to save walking through endless university corridors and touching multiple doors.
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