Microscopy shines in UK competition


Rebecca Pool

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - 12:00
SEM image: Biodegradable, polymer particles resemble golf balls [Dr Marta Alvarez Paino, University of Nottingham].
Stunning microscopy images feature heavily amongst the winners of this year's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council national science photography competition.
A scanning electron microscope image, 'Yin and Yang' from Dr Milos Nedeljkovic, University of Southampton, reveals the surface of a silicon chip, patterned to create a one metre ultra-thin optical wire.
Yin and Yang, Dr Milos Nedeljkovic, University of Southampton.
The wire, just one micron wide, is wound 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. 
Meanwhile, a second SEM image captured by Dr Marta Alvarez Paino, University of Nottingham, shows 400 micron, biodegradable, polymer particles resembling golf balls (see top image).
These biomaterials are being developed to promote regeneration of damaged tissues and form part of scaffolds that could one day support the growth of healthy new cells.
So-called 'Pyramids in a desert' was taken by Dr Diego Alonso-Álvarez, Imperial College London, using an iPhone 4s through an optical microscope.
Pyramids in a desert, Dr Diego Alonso-Álvarez, Imperial College London.
The image shows the variety of textures appearing on the surface of a silicon solar cell, not dissimilar to pyramids surrounded by a sea of dunes in a desert, but with the size of a human hair.
Studying the different ways that the silicon surface can be engineered, combining both pyramids and dunes of a range of sizes and advance coatings, Alonso-Álvarez and colleagues, aim to balance the need of complete light absorption in solar cells with the suppression of heat emission.
This, says Alonso-Álvarez, is a key factor for the realization of efficient hybrid photovoltaic-thermal energy systems.
The overall winner was an image of spectacular swirling graphene ink in alcohol, which can be used to print electrical circuits onto paper.
Graphene ink, James Macleod, University of Cambridge.
'Graphene - IPA Ink', by James Macleod from the University of Cambridge, shows powdered graphite in alcohol which 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.
As one of the judges, physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster, Dr Helen Czerski from University College London, says: "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."
"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 EPSRC researchers have found this richness in their own work," she adds.
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