Faculty of Science

Matthew Cliffe



Matthew Cliffe

Assistant Professor, School of Chemistry

The thrill of discovery is one of the perks of the job: finding something out that no-one else yet knows. 


1. Describe your research topic in ten words or less?

Studying metal-organic materials for their quantum magnetic and electronic properties.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms?

Metal-organic materials are made from metal ions connected by organic (i.e. carbon containing) molecules into extended 2D or 3D networks: a kind of atomic K'Nex (or Lego). By carefully choosing the organic and metals we use to assemble the frameworks, we can make materials that are not only electrically conductive or magnetic, but have behaviour that can only be explained using quantum mechanics: e.g. superconductivity (zero resistance). I and my research group make new metal-organic materials to try to produce new and surprising behaviour, and also use X-ray and neutron beams to try to uncover how the arrangement of the atoms in their structures provides the origin of their unusual properties.

3. What inspired you to pursue this research area?

The joy of materials chemistry is that by solving interesting puzzles on beautiful structures (beauty in both the sparkling crystals in the lab and their underlying atomic lattices) it is possible to make materials with remarkable properties. It is still surprises to me how recently we discovered how many of the materials we use every day such as metals or magnets really work and the opportunity to discover something new in the lab is one of the real attractions of being a materials chemist!

4. What are some of your day-to-day research and knowlege exchange (KE) activities?

In a normal week I spend a lot of time working together with students, where we analyse their new datasets to figure out what their new materials our and to plan the next set of experiments. Some of the most exciting times, though, are neutron or synchrotron X-ray experiments where we go to large international facilities, including ISIS (Oxfordshire), the ILL (France) and ORNL (USA), to test our ideas using state-of-the-art instruments. We usually only have 48 or 72 hours for these experiments a few times year, so it is often manic but the data we collect are definitely worth it!

5. What do you enjoy most about your research and KE activities?

The thrill of discovery is one of the perks of the job: finding something out that no-one else yet knows. It's also a real pleasure to have the chance to work with so many exciting and knowledgable people from all around the world.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research/ KE activities?

One of the things about chemistry that TV and film ignores is that the a lot of the time your great ideas for solving a problem or making a new material fail, and so it's always important to have resilience to keep on exploring until you get to your target material or solve the structure. Working in team (both here in Nottingham, and with collaborators around the world) can really help here, not only through providing new ideas and perspectives but also through being a supportive group.

7. What questions have emerged as a result of your recent work?

There have been a recent flurry of discoveries, not just from me and my coworkers, but also from groups worldwide that have shown that metal-organic materials can have really remarkable quantum properties. The big question is therefore what are the limits of these materials in terms of performance, and can we even begin to design in our target behaviour from scratch?

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

My research focusses on understanding and creating new magnetic and electronic properties in quantum materials. We are helping to discover the rules that govern these materials' properties and how their structures determine the properties that we can measure.There is a growing realisation that new quantum materials will be essential for the next generation of information technology, and so by pushing the boundaries of what is possible from a materials perspective we will  hopefully help realise this goal!

9. How do you link your research with your teaching?

A direct connection between my research and my teaching is through bringing state-of-the-art knowledge into the classroom. For example, I teach a new optional module about the X-ray and neutron diffraction methods which includes techniques we use in our research that are not yet in text books. More broadly, however, a key skill of a researcher is the ability to tackle a problem without knowing the answer, or even if the answer exists and I aim to help student learn those problem solving skills. Finally, in the School of Chemistry, all fourth year students do a research project, where they work in a research group on a real research problem. I really enjoy working with the project students: I am always impressed by their achievements, and their enthusiasm is also infectious.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

I think perhaps take the chances to explore new things: new ideas, new areas and new places! You never know where a great idea or collaboration can come from.




Faculty of Science

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD