UCL News


EPRSC senior research fellowship for Professor Paul McMillan

28 July 2006

The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has conferred a senior research fellowship on Professor Paul McMillan, UCL Chemistry.

Diamond Anvil

The award is one of seven that are made each year across the disciplines that the EPSRC supports; Professor McMillan's is for Materials Science. The fellowship, which is worth £1.14m over five years, will fund a new research programme that will greatly enhance UCL Chemistry's materials research capability. One postdoctoral research associate and two PhD students will join the department to work under Professor McMillan, broadening the remit of the materials chemistry group and freeing Professor McMillan up from some of his teaching and administrative responsibilities.

Professor McMillan leads a team within UCL Chemistry that focuses on high-pressure chemistry. By pressing small pieces of matter between the tips of two diamonds, they are able to exert pressures of up to several hundred thousand atmospheres, replicating the conditions found hundreds of kilometres beneath the earth's surface.

Professor McMillan explains: "Everything we know about chemistry - every element in the periodic table - is based on ambient pressure studies, at or near one atmosphere. But in the universe, only a small fraction of matter exists at this pressure. In fact, far more matter exists deep inside stars and planets, where the pressures are much greater. By creating high-pressure conditions, we can squeeze atoms together. This changes their electron patterns and gives new physical properties to materials."

After compressing a material, Professor McMillan's team applies heat with lasers, investigating, among other things, whether the new material maintain its unique properties at ambient pressure. Occasionally a material with a possible industrial application is created and a second laboratory within the UCL Materials Chemistry Centre is able to manufacture larger quantities.

High-pressure techniques were first developed by physicists and geologists. Diamond, the hardest known material, is created inside the earth's mantle at very high pressures and re-creating those conditions in the laboratory has enabled the industrial manufacture of synthetic diamond. To date, far more synthetic diamond has been created than natural diamonds mined from the earth.

UCL Chemistry's high-pressure materials research programme is an exciting opportunity to systematically explore the area for the first time. Professor McMillan said: "With high-pressure chemistry, it is like we are just off the shore of a new continent. We have seen the coastline and some of the mountains and valleys, but we have no idea what is inside. It is tremendously exciting to be able to go in and map it. It is a whole new branch of knowledge that may completely change everything we have found out about chemistry so far."

To find out more, follow the links at the bottom of this article.

Image: Side view through a diamond anvil cell.

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