Inspiring Nottingham Research Fellows

Pearl Agyakwa is an Anne McLaren Research Fellow in the Faculty of Engineering

Ultrasonic solutions to the challenge of delivering net-zero power technologies

Why did you apply for a fellowship?

For me, a fellowship is a unique opportunity to experiment with pioneering ideas that combine my transdisciplinary research interests, and are therefore not necessarily in perfect alignment with standard research funding calls. Also, a fellowship is a complete game changer, as it opens doors to acquiring funding for which postdocs wouldn’t ordinarily be eligible to apply for as principal or co-investigator. Being able to do this is key to pursuing my research vision and establishing my academic career.

How would you explain your research?

My research fellowship has two main components. The first addresses the manufacturability of power converter technologies. Greater power conversion efficiency is essential to delivering net-zero. However, emerging, more efficient technologies come with new design challenges, like requiring structurally more complex material joints than standard modules. “Ultrasonic joining” (forming interconnects by passing high-frequency acoustic vibrations through materials in contact) has the versatility and flexibility needed for some of these joints, in theory. It is also highly energy efficient and environmentally friendly. However, understanding of the underlying mechanisms and process control is still poor. Approaches for optimising the joining process tend to be statistically based, with the assumption that it is largely stochastic. I'm being hosted and supported by the Power Electronics, Machines and Control (PEMC) research group to investigate materials science-informed frameworks for controlling the process to deliver high-quality joints reproducibly. Process control based on the fundamental science should help overcome some the “randomness” of joint quality, and this should help platform ultrasonic joining as a key enabling technology.

For the second component of my fellowship, I am co-producing research with arts and humanities academics and practitioners, computer science colleagues and the public, to explore the essential interrelatedness of art and materials science through a range of perceptual modes, and to produce artistic responses to my science research. As well as creating new knowledge, artistic commentary has an enormous capacity to connect us to the meaning of data and is a powerful means by which I can communicate my research to a wider audience. My intention is to address some of the difficulties of conceptualising abstract themes around fine-scale structure-property relationships through this work, with the aim of inspiring greater public interest in materials science.

For my areas of focus, Nottingham is unbeatable for its world-class facilities.

Why Nottingham?

For my areas of focus, Nottingham is unbeatable for its world-class facilities. The Power Electronics and Machines Centre is an impressive £40 million facility, with all the kit and power electronics know-how to support my ambitions. The expertise and resources in the Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre are also invaluable to me. I will be collaborating with the Mixed Reality Lab, who are internationally renowned in theoretical and applied interaction design. I am also working with colleagues at Lakeside Arts to discover new avenues to research impact through art. It’s incredibly advantageous to have all this expertise and these tremendous assets under one roof, as it were.

More importantly, the fact that Nottingham actively supports transdisciplinary ways of working through schemes such as UNICAS, the University of Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Analytical Science, is absolutely vital to developing my research. The university’s commitment to building a positive research culture and a healthy research ecosystem really matters to me, and this is something I want to actively contribute to/champion during my fellowship and beyond.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Having mentors is what really changed the game for me. I found so much goodwill out there once I approached people. Several senior colleagues and peers at Nottingham have me given advice, been generous with their time and read through several iterations of draft proposals over the years! One piece of advice that’s really helped me is to ringfence a couple of hours every week to reflect on my research vision and focus on developing my research ideas. This is something I continue to do.

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