Eileen Harkin-Jones has a deep appreciation of the value of EPSRC funding and support.
"It's difficult to get. It's the most highly-prized and soughtafter funding that we in the UK aspire to. In order to win it, you have to show that you have an excellent plan of research. It has to be novel and it has to be adventurous.
But once a project is funded they really let you get on with it with a minimum amount of interference and bureaucracy."
One of her major EPSRC projects involves the processing of nanocomposite materials. "I work along with packaging companies to lightweight packaging which reduces raw material consumption, processing and transportation costs. Current improvements in material properties would allow a reduction of between 20 to 50 per cent in packaging thickness with proportional reductions in pack weight and the energy required to manufacture it. The challenge is to achieve this lightweighting and still maintain the mechanical and barrier properties of the pack.
"To achieve our goal we incorporate nanoparticles into the polymer. If we can disperse these particles and align them in a controlled manner in the polymer then we can achieve exceptional improvements in mechanical and gas barrier properties with only a few per cent weight of particles. The challenge lies in attaining this good dispersion and control of particle spatial arrangement in the final product."
Eileen relishes challenges like this. "I've always loved problem-solving and that's what drew me to engineering in the first place." Brought up in Donegal, she studied mechanical engineering at University College Dublin. "I was expected to study medicine but I never really wantedI've always loved problem-solving and that's what drew me to engineering in the first place. to go in that direction at all."
When she graduated in 1983 there was a recession and a shortage of engineering jobs. She came to Northern Ireland and got a summer position in the sales office of a plastics company in Portadown which is where her interest in polymers grew.
"I gradually moved into the technical end and became research and development manager. But I really wanted to get back to a more academic life." She completed a PhD at Queen's, graduating in 1992. Soon a lectureship came up in Chemical Engineering in the area of polymer processing and in 1999 she was appointed to the Boxmore Chair in Polymer Engineering in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
She is a firm believer in the collaborative approach to research. She is currently looking at another nanoparticle, graphene, which confers conductive properties to plastic. This material will be used in a joint project with David Jones in Pharmacy and David Linton in Electrical Engineering to make polymer-based medical devices which will resist the build-up of biofilms and help reduce device-related infection in patients.
There are other applications, computers, for example. "Instead of having metal components to provide electromagnetic shielding in your computer you could use these polymer-graphene materials so that you still get shielding but also a lighter product that can be manufactured more efficiently."
And adding to the range of her research, there is a joint EPSRC-funded project with Mark Price, looking at energy management in the polymer processing industry.
Eileen says: "EPSRC like to see multi-institution, multidisciplinary research, for good reason. One person working alone is never ideal. You really need the expertise of a number of people. That way you get an outcome that really is greater than the sum of its parts."
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