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  • George Smith,Department of Materials,Oxford University,Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PHUK

    Email: george.smith@materials.ox.ac.ukURL: www.materials.ox.ac.uk

    The aims of the Department of Materials at Oxford

    University stretch from cutting edge research to

    encouraging knowledge of materials at school level.

    At a time when some traditional scientific disciplines

    are seeing student numbers fall, materials science

    and Oxford Materials is gaining a higher profile

    than ever before.

    In 2001, Oxford Materials experienced one of the

    most successful years in its 46-year history, says

    head of department George Smith. Top rated in

    The Times newspaper league table of materials

    departments and the UK 2001 Research Assessment

    Exercise, Oxford Materials is also now the largest

    with more active research staff than any other

    materials institution in the country. Comprising

    30 academics, 50 senior researchers, 60 postdocs,

    20 visitors, and 75 research students, 10 of those

    staff received prestigious prizes last year. Awards

    came from bodies as diverse as the Royal Society and

    the US National Academy of Engineering, with an

    additional honor coming in the form of a knighthood

    for former head of department Richard Brooks (now

    on secondment as director of the Leverhulme Trust).

    Blurring the boundariesDuring the last five years, the research objectives of the

    Department have shifted in emphasis towards complex

    multi-materials systems. Instead of categorizing research

    into many subject-specific areas, activities now focus on

    broader problems such as materials for aerospace

    applications, rapid tooling, packaging, and biomedical

    devices. Research is loosely grouped into four generic

    areas characterization, processing, properties, and theory

    and modeling.

    Characterization is a particular strength, with the largest

    concentration of staff involved and a wealth of facilities

    available. Recent research firsts include:

    March 200242 ISSN:1369 7021 Elsevier Science Ltd 2002

    future for OxfordEnterprising


    atomic-scale characterization of one-dimensional crystals

    encapsulated in single-wall nanotubes;

    in situ observation of fullerene growth on graphite;

    channeling contrast imaging of dislocation structures at

    fatigue crack tips;

    in situ observation of magnetization reversal in magnetic

    storage device conditions;

    manipulation of single atoms in a scanning tunneling

    microscope at room temperature; and

    direct three-dimensional atom probe observations of

    Cottrell atmospheres around dislocations in iron.

    The development of new analysis and characterization

    techniques is also a strong effort. To look at grain boundaries,

    unusual geometries, or thin films, for example, selective area

    specimen preparation is essential. Researchers at Oxford have

    developed new focused ion beam methods. For surface

    characterization, ultrasonic force microscopy has been

    developed into a quantitative technique, with a technology

    transfer royalty agreement signed with Semitech to produce

    systems commercially. A collaboration with Unilever has led

    to the construction of a tribological atomic force microscope.

    Another technique, high mass resolution scanning atom

    probe, has been developed as part of a BRITE-EURAM project

    to analyze thin films. Atom probes are an area where the

    Department has particular strengths, latterly including the

    spinout company Oxford Nanoscience Ltd., which produces

    three-dimensional atom probe microanalysis equipment.

    Efforts to improve materials processing are concentrated

    at the Oxford Centre for Advanced Materials and Composites

    (OCAMAC), headed up by Patrick Grant. Originally a joint

    enterprise with the Department of Engineering, OCAMAC

    now draws input from the Departments of Physics and

    Chemistry as well. Relations with industry have been

    strengthened with the appointments of visiting professors:

    currently Chris Peel, director of technology for future systems

    at QinetiQ (formerly part of the Defence Evaluation and

    Research Agency); and John Wood, CEO of Central

    Laboratories of the Research Councils (CLRC); and in the past,

    Clive Bradley, former director and now advisor to Sharp

    Laboratories of Europe; and Brian Eyre, former deputy

    director of AEA Technology and chairman of the CLRC. New

    plasma spray techniques and improvements to bond-coats

    have resulted from work with Rolls Royce, while extensive

    work on aluminum casting has been carried out with Alcan.

    With potential benefits for solidification problems, an ultra-

    sensitive calorimeter and software for predicting

    microsegregation in binary alloys has been developed in

    conjunction with the UKs National Physical Laboratory.

    In the field of materials properties, research interests are

    diverse, ranging from the electronic (oxygen transport in

    silicon) to the biomedical (drug delivery system for the

    treatment of wounds). Packaging has been a major area of

    activity in recent years, with the study of layered composites

    leading to various innovations. The research has led to a new

    model of gas barrier properties and deformation behavior, as

    well as a better understanding of how these properties can be

    controlled by growth conditions. The impact has been

    significant existing processes have been improved and

    entirely new processes developed.

    The fourth key area of activity is in theory and modeling.

    Under the direction of Adrian Sutton, the Materials Modelling

    Laboratorys remit is diverse, bringing together both external

    partners and complementary research within the Department.

    In quantum mechanics, recent work includes the development

    of new theories for current-induced forces in metallic

    nanocontacts and giant magneto-resistance. The lab has also

    worked with British Nuclear Fuels to develop ab initio

    methods for predicting the energy of strongly correlated

    oxides. The process of bond formation and breakage during

    chemical vapor deposition has been modeled as part of a US

    Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort. On the

    processing side, Monte Carlo methods have been applied to

    clustering, ordering, and phase separation in alloys. Discrete

    dislocation dynamics have proved a successful approach for

    modeling crack tip plasticity, fatigue crack growth, and the

    brittle-to-ductile transition in various materials.

    March 2002 43

    Fig. 1 UK Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, with former head of department BrianCantor at the opening ceremony of the Begbroke Business and Science Park.

  • A total annual research income of about 5 million

    supports the work and the state-of-the-art facilities that

    are required. Recent investment in equipment alone, from the

    UK Governments Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), Joint

    Research Equipment Initiative (JREI), and the Engineering and

    Physical Science Research Council, totals almost 15 million.

    The Department has built up extensive microscopy facilities

    including the UKs only three-dimensional atom probes for

    atomic scale microanalysis; a 400 kV ultra-high resolution

    electron microscope; the UKs first field-emission gun, 300 kV

    analytical electron microscope; a 400 kV electron microscope

    with a gas reaction cell for in situ oxidation and reduction

    work; several 100 kV and 200 kV analytical electron

    microscopes; and a whole range of acoustic and scanning

    probe microscopes. Other facilities include a scanning proton

    microprobe; X-ray characterization equipment; and

    mechanical property testing equipment. Processing facilities

    cover the whole spectrum of requirements, from industrial-

    scale plasma spraying to cleanrooms for prototype device

    fabrication, with polymer web processing facilities for

    packaging materials and functional devices in the pipeline.

    Smith outlines a future emphasis that can be loosely

    arranged into three areas. The all-encompassing nano is

    unsurprisingly a top priority more specifically the

    development and characterization of nanoscale materials and

    devices. Emphasis will also be placed on the hottest of hot

    areas, quantum computing and nanobiomaterials. The

    interface with biological science is also clearly going to be an

    area of growth, says Smith. He places emphasis on an

    alternative to the much-hyped biocompatible materials

    bioincompatible materials (i.e. those materials in which the

    interaction with biological systems is minimized rather than

    maximized). They are, he points out, just as essential as

    biocompatible materials in applications such as dental

    implants (to avoid the attentions of bacteria), in drug

    delivery systems (so that they are not expelled from the body

    before drug release can occur), and microfluidic systems (to

    prevent fouling of the tiny channels). Last, but not at all least,

    is materials processing. What good will all these innovations

    be if actual components and devices cannot be constructed?

    Incubating innovationCentral to realizing future and current aims has been the

    Departments involvement in establishing a new 22 million

    research center in a greenfield site on the outskirts of Oxford.

    While the Begbroke Business and Sc