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Engineering and mapping entropy changes (local disorder) at the nanoscale in oxide materials

School of Mathematics and Physics | PHD
Applications are now CLOSED
Reference Number
Application Deadline
7 February 2020
Start Date
1 October 2020


The transition from order to disorder is a defining characteristic for many structural phase transformations in solids. When driven under adiabatic conditions, changes in entropy associated with ordering processes can elicit changes in temperature. In so-called caloric materials, applied fields are used to induce entropy-driven temperature changes and are a promising avenue for solid state cooling solutions. In this project, the successful candidate will use cutting-edge scanning probe microscopy to obtain new insights into the microstructural development of these materials and explore new ways to influence local disorder using applied pressure and electric fields.

Materials which undergo a change in temperature under an applied stimulus can be categorised as magnetocaloric, electrocaloric, or mechanocaloric depending on the nature of the driving field [1]. For electrocaloric materials, cooling is achieved through electric field induced changes in dipole ordering, typically in the vicinity of ferroelectric and antiferroelectric transitions. In recent years, noteworthy electrocaloric performance reported in ferroelectric thin-films [2] has revived interest in these materials for solid state cooling applications and proof of concept heat pumps have been demonstrated.
Even though electrocaloric effects have been explored across numerous material systems, the microstructural origins of the effect are not well understood due to challenges in carrying out direct measurements with nanoscale resolution. As a result, the thermal changes that may be expected to accompany the microstructural nucleation and growth processes have not been directly mapped and correlated at the nanoscale. Furthermore, unusual dynamics at the dipole level have been suggested to rationalise large electrocaloric effects in antiferroelectric materials, but these remain to be verified experimentally [3].
Despite the resurgence of interest in electrocaloric materials, little is known about this effect at the microscopic level. The proposed project will pursue two avenues: firstly, correlating temperature changes with microstructural development at the nanoscale and, secondly, exploring gradient fields as a means to generate local disorder and associated temperature change. Planned experimental investigations will include:
(i) Carrying out nanoscale resolved temperature mapping of caloric materials undergoing transition using Scanning Thermal Microscopy (SThM). The SThM facility is a cutting-edge atomic force microscopy (AFM) imaging mode available at the Centre for Nanostructured Media (CNM) and the candidate will build on the existing knowledge base to map spatial nanoscale temperature distributions associated with microstructural development.
(ii) Investigating the effect of gradient electric and strain fields on local disorder and their implications for caloric effects. Firstly, it is well known that AFM probes can be used to apply up to GPa of stress at the nanoscale; the resulting strain fields are highly inhomogeneous and can affect polar ordering through piezo- and flexo-electric effects [4]. Secondly, previous research at CNM developed the concept of ‘electric field engineering’ [5] where nanoscale material patterning is used to introduce heterogeneity into internal electric field distributions. Electric field gradients engineered through this means will also be explored as a route to induce polar disorder and associated electrocaloric effects.

[1] Moya et al. Nature Materials 13, 439-450 (2014).
[2] Mischenko et al. Science 311, 5765 (2006).
[3] W. Geng et al. Advanced Materials 20, 3165-3169 (2015).
[4] H. Lu et al. Science 336, 6077 (2012).
[5] J R Whyte et al. Adv. Mater. 26, 293-298 (2014).

Funding Information

UK nationals and those EU nationals meeting certain residency requirements.
The offered funding is tenable by any candidate who was ordinarily resident in the UK throughout the three-year period immediately preceding the start of the studentship.

Project Summary

Dr Raymond McQuaid

Mode of Study

Full-time: 3.5 years

Funding Body
Apply now Register your interest

Physics overview

The scientific research within the School of Mathematics and Physics was highly rated in the 2014 REF peer-review exercise, with 70% of research being judged as internationally excellent or world-leading. Physics research activity in the School is focused into five specific Research Centres; all members of academic staff belong to one of these Research Centres, listed below.

Astrophysics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Francis Keenan (

Atomistic Simulation (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Dr Myrta Gruening (

Nanostructured Media (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Marty Gregg (

Plasma Physics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Marco Borghesi (

Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (PhD/MPhil)
Find out more below, or email Professor Mauro Paternostro (

Registration is on a full-time or part-time basis, under the direction of a supervisory team appointed by the University. You will be expected to submit your thesis at the end of three years of full-time registration for PhD, or two years for MPhil (or part-time equivalent).

Physics Highlights
Career Development
  • Queen's graduates from Physics have secured employment through a number of companies such as Allstate, AquaQ Analytics, Citigroup, Deloitte, First Derivatives, PwC, Randox, Seagate, Teach First and UCAS.
World Class Facilities
  • Since 2014, the School has invested over £12 million in new world-class student and staff facilities. Maths and Physics students have their own teaching centre that opened in 2016, housing brand experimental physics laboratories, two large computer rooms plus a student interaction area with a new lecture theatre and study rooms.
Internationally Renowned Experts
  • The School has a continually growing international community of both undergraduate and postgraduate students and staff. Our research is conducted and recognised as excellent across the world. Staff are involved in cutting-edge research projects that span a multitude of fields.
Key Facts

  • Students will have access to our facilities, resources and our dedicated staff. The School of Maths & Physics is one of the largest Schools in the University. Staff are involved in cutting-edge research that spans a multitude of fields.
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Course content

Research Information

Research Themes
Astrophysics (PhD/MPhil)

You’ll be involved in the search for distant supernovae and where they came from; study the asteroid and comet population in the Solar system; look for planets orbiting other stars in our Galaxy; study flares and other dynamic processes in the atmosphere of the Sun. You’ll have the opportunity to spend extensive periods at world-leading research centres such as the European Southern Observatory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

At Queen’s we lead major European consortia and are supported by a multi-million pounds portfolio of research grants from a range of sources, including the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Royal Society, and European Union.

Research Themes
Atomistic Simulation (PhD/MPhil)

Atomistic Simulation is the development and use of theoretical and computational methods to study structural, dynamical, and optical properties of molecules, liquids, solids and plasmas at the nanoscale. Computational experiments are used to interpret existing experimental data and to predict phenomena yet unobserved.
You’ll study problems at the interfaces between condensed matter physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, and engineering. You’ll interact with laboratory-based colleagues at Queen's and internationally, addressing fundamental and/or practical questions, and you will develop and program novel simulation methodologies to model situations presently out of reach, like electronic excitations, optical properties of materials, and the interaction between electric currents, heat and light.

Themes that are presently studied in the ASC include: magnetism, 2-D materials, non-linear optics, plasmonics, laser and ion-matter interactions, radiation damage in biology and nuclear materials, conduction in nanowires, nucleation, and crystallisation. Tools include DFT and TDDFT, Many-body perturbation theory, classical molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo, and machine learning.

Research Themes
Centre for Nanostructured Media (PhD/MPhil)

Human history is defined by the materials we use to underpin our technology: stone, bronze, iron, silicon. As a PhD student in the Centre for Nanostructured Media, you will be playing a part in the development of materials systems which will, in some way, define our technology for the future. How can this not be exciting ? You will seek to reveal the physics of material behaviour at the boundary of current global knowledge and, at the same time, become proficient in techniques for materials growth, patterning and characterisation that are highly valued in high-tech companies and commercial research institutions, as well as in academic research settings. Our laboratories are extremely well-equipped for international-level research and our links to other research teams throughout the world in both academia and industry are strong and you should expect to travel, should you wish to, as part of your PhD experience.

Research Themes
Plasma Physics (PhD/MPhil)

Your research will involve identifying, and responding to, major contemporary issues within ionised matter physics, with major activities in laser- and electrically-produced plasmas, ultra-fast atomic and molecular physics and the interaction of ionising radiation and plasmas with matter, including biological systems. This research will employ local, national and international facilities, including some of the most powerful laser systems worldwide. You will also benefit from transferring your research findings into the industrial and medical sectors.

Research Themes
Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (PhD/MPhil)

You’ll contribute to a body of work with recent major developments including strong field laser interactions with atoms and molecules, quantum information processing, quantum optics, and quantum thermodynamics, antimatter interactions with atoms and molecules, electron scattering by very complex targets such as the iron peak elements, and by Rydberg atoms, quantum many-body physics, ultra-cold atomic systems, and simulation of their features, and foundations of quantum mechanics.

Postgraduate research programmes within CNM provide experience and training in state-of-the art academic research: many of our research strands are world-leading, as evidenced by performance in REF2014. In addition, most of our postgraduate researchers are exposed to functional materials and photonics in major multinational companies.

Prof Marty Gregg - School of Mathematics and Physics
Career Prospects

Alumni Success
Our graduates have progressed into jobs such as Data Scientist, Software Engineer, Financial Software Developer, IT Graduate Associate, Technology Consultant, Research Physicist, Telescope Operator and R&D Engineer.

People teaching you

Dr Myrta Gruening
Director of Research - Atomistic Simulation Centre
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Francis Keenan
Director of Research - Astrophysics Research Centre
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Marco Borghesi
Director of Research - Centre for Plasma Physics
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Marty Gregg
Director of Research - Centre for Nanostructured Media
School of Maths and Physics

Prof Mauro Paternostro
Director of Research - Centre for Theoretical and Atomic Molecular Physics
School of Maths and Physics

Learning Outcomes

Course structure


The School has invested over £12 million in new world-class student and staff facilities since 2014. A new teaching centre opened in 2016 which includes experimental physics laboratories, two large computer rooms and plenty of student study and interaction space.

Entrance requirements

The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University. Further information can be obtained by contacting the School of Mathematics and Physics.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.0, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required. *Taken within the last two years

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see:

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

  • Academic English: an intensive English language and study skills course for successful university study at degree level
  • Pre-sessional English: a short intensive academic English course for students starting a degree programme at Queen's University Belfast and who need to improve their English.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) £4,407
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) £4,407
Other (non-UK) EU £4,407
International £21,300

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Physics costs

Depending on the area of research chosen there may be extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees.

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

How do I fund my study?
1.PhD Opportunities

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2.Doctoral Training Centres at Queen's

Queen's has eight outstanding competitive Doctoral Training Centres, with each one providing funding for a number of PhD positions and most importantly a hub for carrying out world class research in key disciplines.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students, £10,000 for students in Scotland and up to £5,500 for Northern Ireland students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

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How to Apply

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