Taking the guesswork out of advanced materials development

When heard there was a position going at UNSW Chemical Engineering he jumped at the opportunity to join the team.

“What makes my research so unique is the approach I’m taking to materials development and how materials might be improved from a fundamental standpoint to solve problems in society,” says Dr Nicholas Bedford who joined UNSW Chemical Engineering in March 2018. Dr Nicholas Bedford

“My background and strengths are in using synchrotron X-ray characterisation methods to build up atomic-scale models of materials,” he continues.

Bedford says his approach is about taking the guesswork out of advanced materials development. “I can directly correlate what is being done synthetically to the structure of the material and then correlate that back to the material properties,” he says.

“As a result, instead of ‘guess and check’ or serendipitously coming upon a material that works well, the hope is that researchers can learn from these experiences, then take that knowledge to engineer new materials with better properties.”

The practical applications of Bedford’s research include advancing the efficiency of alternative energy sources such as catalytic upgrading or fuel cell reactions. “Honda and Mercedes-Benz, for example, are now making fuel cell cars, but this is decades after somebody came up with the initial concept and the catalyst they’re using now is similar to the one that they were developing back then,” he says.

“My research is not about reinventing but re-examining how we make materials for certain applications, such as the fuel cell catalyst.”

The idea of taking information, such as atomic-scale models of nanomaterials, and seeing what works and what doesn’t, explains Bedford, will hopefully “downselect” the experimental process. From a technological and real-world impact standpoint, it’s giving weight to what’s happening right at the surface of these particles and creating much needed knowledge.

The great thing about working in the space of atomic-scale structural characterisation is that it’s a research area that is very much in-demand right now and I have a wide network of collaborators in Australia, China and the US.

UNSW Chemical Engineering

Bedford says there are other applications too. “I have collaborators looking at photoluminescent nanomaterials for biomedical imaging, where the fundamental science underpinning the structure/property relationships is, often, completely missing. I’m also hoping to fill that gap with what I’m doing in my lab,” he continues.
“The great thing about working in the space of atomic-scale structural characterisation is that it’s a research area that is very much in-demand right now and I have a wide network of collaborators in Australia, China and the US, specifically the US Department of Defense.”

Bedford says he was attracted to working at UNSW because of the University’s global research reputation. “In comparison to countries of similar population there’s a lot of high-impact papers that come out of Australia. I was also impressed by the UNSW 2025 Strategy which has a really big emphasis on making UNSW a more global university,” he says.

Much of his current work is about catalysis and he has developed unique ways to make intricate metallic and bimetallic nanoparticles, with the idea being that he can start to control the interface and optimise the properties.

“Because the characterisation side of my lab is so complex, I want the synthesis side to be simple. A lot of the particles we’re making, whether they’re metals or metal oxides are easy to make and are done at room temperature,” he continues.

“That’s why I’m interested in recruiting armies of Honours students to work here. It would be great experience for them to do a lot of the front-end work i.e. thinking about how and why something should work based on the fundamental knowledge. Then they can make it and we can do the high-level X-ray characterisation using the synchrotron.”

Bedford says the end game of all his effort is the creation of something that can have a positive impact on society, but he is cognisant that it might be a long game. “Even if we don’t make the best catalyst in the world today, I like to think that the knowledge we’re creating might be used to create the best catalyst in 10-15 years’ time,” he says.

Dr Nicholas Bedford’s research interests

  • Structure/function relationship analysis of functional nanomaterials
  • Synchrotron X-ray characteriSation techniques/modeling
  • Bio-enabled nanotechnology for emergent materials
  • Catalysis and photocatalysis
  • Nanostructured materials for clean energy and sustainability
  • Photoluminscent nanomaterials

If you’re interested IN collaborating with Dr Bedford, please contact him directly at: n.bedford@unsw.edu.au  

Written by: Penny Jones

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