This week saw the prestigious BTM Willis prize for outstanding neutron scattering science awarded to Dr Andrew Seel, from the University of Oxford and UCL.
The prize is jointly awarded by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics Neutron Scattering Groups to an early career researcher addressing a significant problem in physical, life or engineering science, or in recognition of a major development in a neutron scattering technique. Dr Seel is recognised in both these categories – he was instrumental in the further development and expansion of mass-resolved neutron spectroscopy in the chemical sciences, and he has used a wide range of neutron techniques to study a group of functional materials known as metal-amine solutions.
Dr Ian Tucker is the Chair of the IOP Neutron Scattering Group and presented the award to Dr Seel at the UK Neutron and Muon Science and User Meeting in Warwick. He says, “This was a remarkably difficult year for the committee as there were some outstanding applicants. However the committee's decision was unanimous and I am delighted to present Andrew with this award. His nomination was unique in that he could be equally recognised for his science and for his contributions to neutron and muon techniques – very well deserved!"
Dr Seel completed both his undergraduate degree and DPhil at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Prof Peter Edwards FRS, before becoming an instrument scientist on the VESUVIO instrument at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. Here he was at the forefront of technique development. Prof Neal Skipper from University College London nominated Andrew for the award. He says, “Andrew really helped to widen the application of this technique – for example via mass selective measurements – and to extend its use beyond studying quantum behaviour in the lightest elements to heavier elements such as lithium. Alongside this his research has exploited a wide range of neutron techniques, most recently to shed new light on the mechanisms behind electron localisation/delocalisation and trapping in new phases of metal-amine systems."
Dr Seel's recent paper these metal-amine systems was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Metal-amines solutions have a fascinating history. These strikingly colourful liquids were discovered by Sir Humphry Davy in 1808. Ammonia and amines are hydrogen-based solvents with a unique ability to accommodate high concentrations of metal solutes. They display some unusual characteristics, as Davy discovered while using a potassium-ammonia solution. He found that a concentrated potassium-ammonia solution has a striking bronze/gold appearance, whilst a more dilute solution has an intense blue colour. There is also a large increase in volume with metal concentration, meaning that, extraordinarily, a more concentrated solution will float above a more dilute one.
Metal-amine liquids are also remarkably tuneable – by varying the electron density it is possible to causes the solution to change from an electrolyte to a liquid demonstrating genuine metallic behaviour. Not only that the chemical properties can be tuned by varying the amine and metal used. In the 1940s, R. A. Ogg claimed to have discovered evidence of high-temperature superconductivity in glassy metal-amine solutions, although his results have never been consistently replicated.
As part of the award Dr Seel presented at the NMSUM conference on the challenges of working with metal-amine solutions, and where he hopes the research will lead – including the potential to prove Ogg right in providing a new route to high temperature superconductors! He says, “The conference was a fantastic experience and I am genuinely honoured to receive this award. None of this work could have been done without the support of ISIS. Work of this exploratory nature, from someone in their early stages of their career required a real leap of faith on behalf of ISIS. Their confidence in my work and the supportive nature of the facility is what made this possible. I hope I can build on this work to develop our fundamental knowledge of these beautiful liquids and help us realise their full potential!"