PhD projects

We're recruiting PhD students to work on the following projects. We encourage you to do some research on our academics to really get to know how their work and expertise fits with your interests before you apply.

If you wish to learn more about a particular academic's research, or discuss a project you have in mind, they are happy to answer specific questions by email or telephone.

Biophysics

Below are specific projects but we always welcome new proposals for research projects. Please contact the research group if you have something else in mind. 

Combining single-molecule biophysics, DNA origami construction and low temperature plasmas to develop more efficient ways to kill harmful cells

The DNA in a human cell is folded and compacted for storage by proteins and mechanisms that are incompletely understood; without these processes the DNA in one human cell would be around two metres in length. In vitro, we can fold smaller lengths of DNA into 2D or 3D DNA origami by careful design of specific binding sites. Plasma is an overall electrically neutral state of matter created by passing an electromagnetic field through a gas; it breaks bonds and forms positive, negative, and neutral species, along with photons. Low temperature plasma (LTP) is currently being developed as a novel prostate cancer treatment which acts to induce cell death in the tumour cells via DNA damage.  LTP may provide considerable advantages over existing treatments for prostate cancer as plasma can be guided down a needle to allow treatment in the patient without highly invasive surgery. Key to killing harmful cells is to the ability to controllably induce DNA damage. However, existing methods to characterize the extent of DNA damage are relatively imprecise. This project will enable you to develop methods to controllably and precisely characterize the extent of DNA damage in a range of test DNA origami structures using LTPs. 

Your project will allow you to:

1. Develop DNA origami structures. You will develop a range of DNA origami structures to act as biomimetic test structures for characterizing DNA damage.

2. Optimise LTP-mediated DNA damage. You will optimise and develop methods to induce controllable DNA damage in DNA origami samples, and correlate damage with measured plasma generated reactive species.

3. Characterise DNA damage. You will develop methods of single-molecule biophysics, including super-resolution fluorescence microscopy and atomic force microscopy, to precisely characterize the efficacy and mechanism of LTP-mediated DNA damage on DNA origami structures.

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Developing next-generation technology touching life physics tools to tackle debilitating infections and cancers

Our knowledge of many debilitating human diseases is limited by technology: conventional approaches fail to render the quantitative details needed to address key mechanistic questions. This project will develop new biophysics tools for molecular observation in live cells to aid understanding of two diseases of high biomedical importance - (i) Determining roles of a key haematopoietic cytokine receptor, MPL, which interacts with ‘oncogenes’ in rare blood cancers; (ii) Investigating the assembly/disruption of a druggable unique protein structure in protozoan parasites that causes sleeping sickness in humans:

1. Develop new microfluidics for high-throughput immobilization and optical imaging of cells, facilitating rapid exchange of cell microenvironments, screening of cell types/states and other biophysics investigations including genetics profiling.

2. Design and construct optical instrumentation to enable rapid tracking of labelled proteins in cells to nanoscale precision in 3D and improve the time scale of sampling to sub-millisecond levels to probe rapid molecular conformational dynamics.

3. Develop optical tools to determine cell physiology using novel probes for ratiometric imaging and Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) to quantify precise pH, ionic strength, membrane voltage, viscosity, and molecular crowding.

4. Develop new computational methods of machine learning/AI, principal component analysis and Hidden Markov Modelling.

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Dissecting cell complexity using super-resolution microscopy, one molecule at a time

The stress response of sporulation in bacteria is a fantastically system for studying biophysics processes of emergent complexity. This project involves high resolution bioimaging studies in living bacteria of proteins involved in sporulation.

You will study sporulation as a model system to understand how structural and functional complexity emerges in living cells. We aim to understand the: (i) structure and function of proteins involves in regulating sporulation and forming channels between the spore and the mother cell; (ii) roles of the cell wall remodelling during spore formation engulfment. You will use, and develop, pioneering imaging approaches of in the Leake group enabling you to monitor spatiotemporal dynamics, kinetics and interactions of these processes in functional, living cells in real time, one molecule at a time.

This is particularly timely since we have acquired compelling preliminary single-molecule data from several new functional B. subtilis bacterial strains with significant progress in the required molecular biology underway: it is an ideal time to capitalize on these developments by performing extensive functional imaging and analysis combined with complementary new biochemical and genetics investigations.  

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DNA-based biosensors for detecting drugs in drinking-water

  • Supervisor Dr Agnes Noy
  • Funding Self-funded students only
  • Application deadline n/a

The presence of tiny amounts of pharmaceuticals (including antibiotics, hormones, mood stabilizers and other drugs) in our drinking water supplies has raised concerns regarding the potential risks to human health and environment. Many of these molecules pass through wastewater treatment plans designed to get rid of traditional pollutants. Although there is a strong interest to detect, measure and capture them from water, the amount and type of sensors available is unsatisfactory, not solving the challenges raised by this question. DNA is currently at the forefront of nanotechnology research, as it has become one of the best materials available for creating molecule-sized devices and materials. This interest is mostly due to its innate programmability and capacity to rationally be design in any particular sequence.

In this project, we will use DNA as the basis to construct molecular biosensors for detecting important pharmaceuticals like drugs and antibiotics. In particular, we will test the capacity of DNA to bind this type of molecules with high affinity by using computational methods as a first step to examine the potential of this approach. Modelling methods which are widely used in drug design on pharmaceutical companies will be used and they will include molecular dynamics simulations and molecular docking techniques.

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Single-molecule imaging in live cell to study gene geography and the role of DNA biophysics in regulating genes

Your project will address the key question of what is the importance of the physical location of genes in determining their state of activity. We will aim to address this question by studying the effects of bacterial chromosomal gene order on spatiotemporal expression in the context of folded, native genomes. You will use single-molecule bioimaging and computational analysis to determine the output from genes are their location is changed, and how this is affect to whether or not the cell is stressed. This will give a unique insight into how the very local state of DNA topology affects whether or not genes in live cells are switched on or off. Specifically:

1. You will characterize the spatiotemporal localization of new E. coli bacterial strains which expressing genomic fusions to a key enzyme DNA gyrase which relieves DNA torsional stress. These are constructed to use a nucleoid associated protein Fis as a marker for DNA supercoiling inside each cell.

2. You will use super-resolution millisecond Slimfield microscopy which is sensitive at a level of single-molecule detection to determinate the dynamic pattern of spatial localization and stoichiometry of these gyrase subunit proteins GyrA and GyrB to nanoscale precision in single live E. coli cells.

3. You will help to construct under expert teaching several dual-colour fluorescent protein fusion constructs integrated into the E. coli genetic code to pairs of DNA gyrase subunits, and also to Fis, and to a range of different established genome loci markers.

4. You will use nanoscale co-localization microscopy, real-time FRET, and FRAP/FLIP to determine the dynamic moelcular interactions, kinetics and molecular turnover of gyrase components in live cells under a range of bengin and stressed conditions including the appliation of gyrase targetting antibiotics.

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Super resolution imaging of the eukaryotic carbon fixing organelle

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization is the sustainable production of food to feed a rapid growing global population. To meet this ever-increasing demand novel technologies and ingenious engineering approaches are necessary to enhance crop production. One exciting approach is the improvement of crop photosynthesis by introducing a mechanism from eukaryotic algae that concentrates CO2 in the proximity of Rubisco, the principal carbon-fixing enzyme. At the centre of carbon uptake in algae, is an enigmatic organelle called the pyrenoid. Using microscopy and proteomics approaches in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, we discovered that the pyrenoid is composed of 6 spatially distinct protein regions, identified an additional 86 pyrenoid proteins and shown that the pyrenoid is highly dynamic with liquid-like properties. This data is now guiding the engineering of a pyrenoid in plants to increase crop yields, however we still have gaps in our knowledge of pyrenoid structure and function.

The project will involve using millisecond super-resolution single-molecule ‘Slimfield’ microscopy established in the Leake Lab on representative proteins to the six different pyrenoid regions. Target proteins will be tagged with the fluorescence protein a monomeric variant of yellow fluorescent protein, mYPet, which has superior photophysical and maturation properties, compatible with the above super-resolution method. You will use, and develop, this technology to: 1) Build a biophysical model the Chlamydomonas pyrenoid based on your super-resolution experimental data. Target proteins will be tagged with the fluorescence protein a monomeric variant of yellow fluorescent protein, mYPet, which has superior photophysical and maturation properties, compatible with the above super-resolution method. 2) Explore the biophysics molecular crowding of different pyrenoid regions. We will further explore liquid-like properties of the pyrneoid2 using a FRET based molecular crowding sensor to monitor pyrenoid protein crowding during liquid-liquid phase separation 3) Characterise the biophysical protein-protein interactions of core pyrenoid components. To gain a detailed insight into pyrenoid protein function we will take protein-protein interactions discovered in Mackinder et al.and explore their dynamics using FRET pairs in response to CO2 availability.

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The Calcium-mediated condensation of biomaterials: where molecular modelling meets nano-scale microscopy

Calcium is an essential ion for the condensation of biomolecules and for the formation of materials in living organisms. It is a major component of the mineral phase formed in bones and teeth as well as sea shells and hard corals, in bacterial biofilm and it even has been shown to control chromosomal DNA condensation during cell division. The capacity of Ca2+ to coordinate a large variety of atoms and molecules in biological systems is the key advantage for this function and a well-known property. Despite this enormous impact, the initial steps of calcium-molecule interaction and their impact on the nucleation of biominerals are not well understood. These processes are central to the understanding of calcium interaction with organic molecules and how this interaction affects the composition, microstructure, shape and size of the resulting biomaterials.

On this project we will describe the first stages of the interaction between Ca2+ and the protein osteopontin (OPN), which has been identified as a key protein regulating the growth of bone mineral. Further, the role of Ca2+ in the organisation of DNA will be investigated. To this end, we will use modelling techniques for obtaining a description of the interactions at atomic level. These calculations will be compared with high-resolution electron microscopy data on the condensation of Ca2+ in the presence of OPN and DNA and the nucleation and growth of the calcium phosphate mineral in the presence of collagen obtained by the group of Roland Kröger partially using instrumentation at the York JEOL Nanocentre.

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The long and winding roads of the cell

Intracellular membrane trafficking is essential for many cellular processes and its impairment leads to over 80 major human diseases. Elaborating our understanding of the molecular mechanisms regulating membrane trafficking will be invaluable for developing future strategies to tackle trafficking related pathophysiologies, resulting in improving the quality of life for those afflicted. We seek to address fundamental, open questions in membrane trafficking by assembling a highly interdisciplinary research team to integrate biochemical, genetic and cutting-edge biophysics tools.

Your project will allow you to:

1. Determine spatial localization patterns for recycling. To test the hypothesis that cargo trafficking occurs via two distinct surface recycling routes we will map the patterns of dynamic spatial localization of the endolysosomal system and recycling cargoes in live yeast.

2. Characterize transcriptional/metabolic control of recycling. We will use glucose depletion as a stress factor to study the interplay between transcriptional and metabolic control of recycling, testing hypotheses that transcriptional upregulation of endocytosis is mediated through the Mig1 repressor, and inhibition of surface recycling is initiated by novel factors we have identified.

3. Determine factors driving endosomal protein sorting. We predict surface recycling depends on the physical separation of endosomal proteins from maturing endosomes, and will test how the local intracellular

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Understanding bacterial communities

  • Supervisor Professor Thomas Krauss
  • Funding Tuition fees for UK/EU students. Stipend for UK students (£14,777 for 2018/19).
  • Application deadline n/a

Bacterial communities are essential for sustaining life, but they also present one of the biggest threats to human health in the 21st century. Our goal is to develop innovative technologies that help to understand and control how bacteria interact and how they cooperate to form multi-bacterial communities. We will achieve this goal by building on our leadership in bionanotechnology, photonics and nanoelectronics to extend our studies from individual bacteria to communities of bacteria, using urinary tract infections (UTI) as the model system.

The project will initially study the interaction between pairs of bacteria, specifically uropathogenic E. coli, the most common causative species of UTI and probiotics associated with treatment of UTI, particularly Lactobacilli, L. acidophilus, L. johnsonii, L. rhamnosus. The student will construct microfluidic devices which enable co-culture of pairs of bacteria. The microfluidic device will be equipped with a range of sensors to monitor the local environment and bacterial growth in situ. This includes sensors to monitor local pH, optical density and resonant imaging sensors, which can detect minute changes in local refractive index as eg caused by the change in thickness of cell walls, or localised impedance, which can see changes in metabolic rate. Having demonstrated and optimised the basic technology on pairwise interactions, the project will then extend to include multiple probiotics to compare the efficacy of single strain probiotics and probiotic mixtures.

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Condensed Matter Physics

Below are specific projects but we always welcome new proposals for research projects. Please contact the research group if you have something else in mind. 

Atomic scale modelling of magnetic random access memory

  • Supervisor Dr Richard Evans
  • Funding Self-funded students only
  • Application deadline n/a

MRAM is a data storage device which utilises a magnetic material to store information, and is a potential replacement for current charge-based devices such as DRAM due to its non-volatility and low power consumption. MRAM technologies are particularly challenging due to the small dimensions of around 1nm thickness and the use of spin electronics for retrieving the stored information.

This project aims to develop a complete understanding of the material and device properties at the atomic scale in close collaboration with experimental research groups and industrial researchers and will combine molecular and spin dynamics with a model of spin transport dynamics.

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Atomistic simulations of advanced permanent magnet materials

  • Supervisor Dr Richard Evans
  • Funding Tuition fees for UK/EU students. Stipend for UK students (£14,777 for 2018/19).
  • Application deadline n/a

Neodymium permanent magnets are ubiquitous in technologies from cars to wind generators due to their inherent efficiency in converting electrical power to mechanical motion or vice versa. Next generation rare-earth-transition metal permanent magnet materials based on the TmMn12 (RETM12) structure present an exciting opportunity to double the energy efficiency of the materials. Coupled with new motor designs this presents the possibility of doubling the power output of a wind turbine or range of hybrid car with the same battery size.

The aim of this funded PhD project is to develop new atomistic models of RETM12-based permanent magnet materials to predict their performance and understand the fundamental magnetic properties. These models will be used to guide industrial magnet production in collaboration with Toyota Motor Corporation and the MagHEM project to accelerate the development of next generation magnets with ultrahigh energy efficiency. 

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EBIC environmental STEM microscopy for energy materials and gas sensors

Electron Beam induced current (EBIC) is an electron probe technique widely used in the semiconductor industry for the analysis of p-n junctions, minority carrier distributions, and material defects. It has been developed for the SEM environment with the spatial resolution limited to tens of nanometres. Aberration corrected STEM (scanning transmission electron microscopy) is able to provide atomic scale resolution but cannot benefit from commercially available EBIC packages.

This project goal is to develop EBIC analyses techniques for STEM microscopy allowing to studying material defects and electric properties of thin films down to the atomic scale. This development combined with the unique capabilities of the double aberration corrected gas environmental STEM in York, will open the path for the fundamental study of the electric properties in nanomaterials during gas environment exposure as well as the effect of electric bias on phase transformation as such as oxidation and reduction.

This technique once developed will be applied to materials for solar cell structures and gas sensing devices.

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First principles modelling of defects in solar absorber materials

  • Supervisor Dr Keith McKenna
  • Funding Tuition fees for UK/EU students. Stipend for UK students (£14,777 for 2018/19).
  • Application deadline n/a

A number of materials are emerging as promising candidates to replace silicon in the next generation of solar cells. They offer the prospect of high efficiency, low cost and flexibility allowing for their incorporation into building materials for example. It is critical to understand the properties of atomic scale defects in these materials (such as vacancies, dislocations and grain boundaries) which can negatively impact both performance and stability.

The project will involve the application of density functional theory (DFT) to investigate the properties of a range of defects in solar absorbers such as CdTe, CH3NH3PbI3 and Cu2ZnSn(S,Se)4 in order to understand how to optimise materials for applications. You will work closely with experimental collaborators to test and verify your predictions.

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Impact of grain boundary shape on magnetic properties of electrical steels

  • Supervisor Dr Keith McKenna
  • Funding  Self-funded students
  • Application deadline n/a

Electrical steels are iron-silicon alloys (typically 3.2% silicon) that are used in electrical generators, transformers and end use devices such as motors which are important for the global economy to function. They are polycrystalline and careful refinement of the grain structure is essential for optimisation of properties for applications. However, little is currently known about the impact of grain boundary properties such as orientation difference, grain boundary shape, grain boundary chemistry and the presence of precipitates on magnetic properties.

In this project you will use theoretical models (both classical potentials and density functional theory) to model the structure and properties of grain boundaries in magnetic steels. Cogent Power, a partner in this project, will provide industrial input as well as a pathway to test predictions and deliver improvements in materials.

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Iron Oxidation at the atomic scale: an In-situ environmental TEM/STEM study

Fe and Fe-oxide (FeOx) based nanoparticles (NPs) have shown promising applications in physical and medical sciences. These include magnetic storage devices, catalysis, contrast enhancement in magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic hyperthermia. These applications rely on the magnetic and catalytic properties of the NPs. In particular, the NP magnetic properties are strongly influenced by their stoichiometry and their crystalline structure. Understanding the Fe oxidation processes down to atomic scale is paramount for the control of NPs production. It has been previously shown that crystalline defects in magnetite (Fe3O4) thin films are detrimental for their overall magnetization. In our previous work on such films, we have shown that ex-situ annealing under a CO/CO2 gas mixture can successfully produce Fe3O4 thin film virtually defect free with bulk like magnetic properties. In the first phase of this project we will expand the gas capability of the York Environmental Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope (ESTEM) by implementing a CO/CO2 gas line that will add up to the existing O2, N2 and H2 ones. In the second phase the Fe-O phase diagram will be investigated in-situ for nanoparticles and thin films from room temperature to 1100C. The phase transformations between Fe-oxides phases and their stability will be explored at the atomic scale. In particular to understand the optimal conditions to produce single crystal, defect free and chemically ordered magnetite nanocrystal with improved magnetic properties. This research will provide a deeper insight in the oxidation mechanism, crystalline defect formation, and their relation to the magnetic properties to great advantage to the field of magnetism and catalysis with potential industrial applications.

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Modelling the properties of electron and hole polarons in materials

  • Supervisor Dr Keith McKenna
  • Funding Tuition fees for UK/EU students. Stipend for UK students (£14,777 for 2018/19).
  • Application deadline n/a

The strong coupling between electrons and phonons in some materials leads to the formation of small polarons (quasiparticles comprised of a localised electron and an associated polarisation field). Predicting the properties of polarons is an important fundamental problem as well as being relevant for technologically important phenomena such as magnetism, photoconductivity, dielectric response and reactivity.

In this project you will employ first principles methods recently developed in our group to predict the formation and properties in a range of previously unexplored materials including oxides, nitrides and perovskites. These predictions will be tested in close collaboration with experimental collaborators.

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Nanophononic metamaterials: engineering phonons to convert between heat and electricity

  • Supervisor Dr Phil Hasnip
  • Funding Self-funded students only
  • Application deadline n/a

Thermoelectrics are materials which convert temperature gradients into electricity, or vice versa. These materials can harvest waste heat from industrial processes, turning it into electricity, or use current to provide efficient cooling. These require a material with high electrical conductivity and low thermal conductivity. For metals these are contradictory, since both current and heat are carried by electrons; however, in semiconductors the heat is carried by phonons. Previous semiconductor research has focused on introducing defects to scatter heat-carrying phonons, but electrons often scatter from these too, lowering the electrical conductivity.

We propose a novel approach, using nanoscale engineering to tailor a material’s phonons. By patterning the material’s surface, specific phonon modes may be created which hybridise with heat-carrying phonons in the bulk material, reducing the thermal conductivity 100-fold. The bulk material is completely unchanged, so electrical properties are unaffected. This new class of nanostructures is known as nanophononic metamaterials (NPMs), and have the potential to have higher thermoelectric figures of merit than any previously known material.

Fabricating these nanostructures is challenging, and it is vital to focus on specific NPMs which can deliver the phononic and electronic properties required for high-efficiency thermoelectrics. We propose to use state-of-the-art quantum mechanical simulations (DFT) to predict and model the electronic and phononic properties of NPMs and, coupled with larger semi-empirical models, to design realistic nanoscale device NPMs with high thermoelectric efficiency. These designs will form the basis for new collaborations with world-leading experimental groups, in order to fabricate the NPMs and verify their performance.

This work will be carried out in collaboration with Dr Mahmoud Hussein (University of Colorado Boulder, USA).

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Screened-exchange-based orbital functionals for generalised Kohn-Sham density-functional theory

The PhD student will explore and develop a new approach to ground-state and time-dependent quantum mechanics of systems containing interacting electrons such as nanostructures and solids. The approach is based on concepts from many-body perturbation theory such as the GW approximation, together with the powerful framework of generalised Kohn-Sham density-functional theory, which combines the strengths of many-body perturbation theory with the efficiency of density-functional theory.

The key computational tool will be the group's iDEA code (interacting dynamical electrons approach), a Python code suite (with some Cython extensions). The iDEA code is uniquely placed to allow us to calculate the exact time-dependent quantum mechanics for a wide variety of model nanosystems, which will allow exploration of reliable approximate generalised Kohn-Sham functionals for these systems. An example would be a voltage pulse applied to a molecular junction, taking account of exact relationships satisfied by those functionals.

The approach developed will also be coded into one of the main ab-initio DFT code packages (such as ABINIT or CASTEP) and applied to realistic nanostructures.

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Theory-led optimisation of materials for tunnelling magnetoresistive devices

Tunnelling magnetoresistive devices find applications as a magnetic sensors in hard disk read heads and in emerging non-volatile magnetic random access memory (MRAM) technologies. The active part of the device consists of an insulating MgO film sandwiched between two ferromagnetic electrodes. While great progress has been made in the performance of these devices there is a need to make further improvements in the materials to allow widespread adoption of MRAM technology for memory applications. This includes finding new barrier materials which present a lower resistance-area product and understanding and mitigating the negative impact of defects such as vacancies and grain boundaries on performance.

In this project you will employ first principles methods (density functional theory) to model materials for tunnelling magnetoresistive devices in order to guide the optimisation of this technology. You will work closely with experimental collaborators to test and verify your predictions.

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Toward next generation of solar cells: the correlation between efficiency and interface atomic structures in perovskite solar cells

  • Supervisor Dr Vlado Lazarov and Leonardo Lari
  • Funding Self-funded students only
  • Application deadline n/a

Perovskite solar cells (PSCs) have the potential to revolutionise the field of solar cells. Their efficiency in the last decades has increased by an order of magnitude, which is unprecedented in this field. In addition, they are cheap to be made and easy to manufacture. Hence the tremendous interest in perovskite solar cells as the next generation of efficient and cost effective solar cells. Further efficiency enhancement, improving their stability as well as making them environmentally friendly requires: i) the fundamental understanding of the interfaces between the TiO2 and the perovskite layer and ii) the developing of a Pb-free perovskite absorber layer. This project aims to address these two outstanding challenges by atomic level characterisation and quantum mechanical modelling using density functional theory (DFT).

Very recently, GreatCell Solar has shown that halide treatments of TiO2 nanopowders, used as electrode material in perovskite cells, further boost the perovskite solar cells efficiency. However, this important empirical finding is limited due to the lack of the understanding of the mechanism of improved efficiency. The first goal of the project is to understand how the structure and chemistry of the TiO2 electrode and its interface with the perovskite layer affects the efficiency of the solar cells. This will be done by employing state of the art atomic resolution imaging and spectroscopy coupled with quantum mechanical calculations. Achieving of this goal will enable developing a new doping strategy for more efficient cells. The second goal of the project is to develop a new absorber perovskite layer that is Pb-free, which will lead to environmentally friendly perovskite solar cells. This project will be conducted jointly with GreatCell Solar, the UK leader in perovskite solar cells research.

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York Plasma Institute

Below are specific projects but we always welcome new proposals for research projects. Please contact the research group if you have something else in mind. 

Low temperature plasma induced CO2 conversion for green value-added chemical delivery and energy storage

  • Supervisor Professor Timo Gans
  • Funding Self funded & fully funded positions available
  • Application deadline N/A

This multi-disciplinary project offers students the opportunity to carry out postgraduate research at the interface of physics and chemistry. The student will be based in the York Plasma Institute and will have access to a wide range of state-of-the-art facilities in the York Plasma Institute Laboratories.

Our previous and ongoing research in this area has already shown the extraordinary potential of low temperature plasma to efficiently convert CO2 (a waste product) into CO which is a valuable building block for the chemicals industry. CO is an inherently toxic gas, so a low temperature plasma based process for its in situ generation as and when required from relatively non-toxic CO2 offers a green approach to the use of CO.

Non-equilibrium atmospheric pressure plasmas offer an attractive technology for converting greenhouse gases into valuable chemical products. This is a particularly promising route for versatile energy storage in renewable energy power plants, exploiting solar or wind energy, towards a CO2 neutral energy economy. This project will focus on efficient conversion of CO2 to CO and O2, using low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasmas. While efficient conversion has already been empirically demonstrated, the fundamental mechanisms of the non-equilibrium chemical kinetics are complex, nonetheless crucial to lift this technology towards a new generation of chemical processing. Reaction and conversion pathways critically depend on the nonMaxwellian electron dynamics on nanosecond timescales and associated energy deposition through dissociation and rotational-vibrational molecular excitation processes. These processes are key for tailored properties since the non-equilibrium electron induced chemical pathways allow superior efficiency over nonselective energy deposition in classical thermal chemistry. The combination of our recently developed control strategies for tailored electron dynamics and our advanced pico- and nanosecond optical diagnostic techniques for electron properties and reactive species analysis are unique worldwide. Together with our advanced multi-scale computational techniques for the chemical kinetics we are ideally positioned to lead this newly emerging field with global impact.

In addition to optimising and studying the plasma used to convert CO2 into CO, the student will also be able to investigate the utilization of the produced CO as a chemical reagent. Whilst many catalytic reactions of CO are already well known, these have been carried out using ultra-pure CO. The CO produced by a low temperature plasma will inevitably contain impurities (oxygen, ozone etc.) and the effect of these on the catalyst and reaction needs to be determined.

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Low-temperature plasma nitrogen fixation for agricultural applications

  • Supervisor Dr Deborah O’Connell
  • Funding Self funded & fully funded positions available
  • Application deadline N/A

This collaborative inter-disciplinary PhD project involves innovative research at the interface of physics, environment, chemistry and biology. The student will be part of the York Plasma Institute in the Department of Physics, with access to state-of-the-art experimental and computational facilities. The project will be carried out in close collaboration with research groups in the Departments of Environment, Chemistry and Biology and the University of York. The project builds on a recently successfully collaborative project between the research groups. Low-temperature plasmas have established applications ranging from computer chips and mobile phones to spacecraft population and medicine. Low-temperature or ‘cold’ plasmas are weakly ionised gases far from thermodynamic equilibrium. They are composed of a few hot electrons (few eV or ~10,000 C), while the heavier ions and neutrals (the dominant component) are close to room temperatures. These plasmas offer many technological applications, primarily motivated by their efficiency to generate reactive species in ambient dry environments at low temperatures, otherwise not achievable.

Artificial nitrogen fixation, for synthesis of ammonia mainly for fertiliser production, is a very important and demanding chemical process consuming around 1 – 2% of the world’s annual total energy supply. It is well known that lightning in the atmosphere improves plant growth through nitrogen fixation. We can mimic this process through sustaining low-temperature plasmas in ambient air. Plasmas can convert atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into nitrates, which are dissolvable in rain or water aerosol, and can then be carried to the soil. A key advantage of using plasmas is sustainability and independence of chemical plant infrastructure and production supply chains.

Sustaining and tailoring plasmas in ambient air is challenging, as these plasmas are susceptible to thermal instabilities, which need to be controlled. This project will involve the application of experimental and simulation techniques to explore the production of relevant chemically reactive species in air plasmas, how they can trigger downstream chemical and biological processes, and associated enhanced plant growth. State-of-the-art recently developed diagnostic analytical techniques will be applied and further developed to quantify reactive species within the plasma phase, and their transport into water and soil.

The project is suitable for candidates interested in physical and analytical chemistry, spectroscopic techniques and free radical chemistry. Training will be provided in all areas, and a willingness to learn new techniques and disciplines are more important than any prior experience. The successful candidate will have at least a 2:1 honours degree in a relevant science or engineering subject.

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Low-temperature plasmas for electric propulsion

  • Supervisor Dr James Dedrick
  • Funding Self funded & fully funded positions available
  • Application deadline N/A


Low-temperature plasmas are prevalent in modern technology and current applications include semiconductor processing, television displays and propulsions systems for spacecraft. This project provides the opportunity to undertake international, collaborative research in low-temperature plasma physics with application to electric propulsion.

Recent research efforts have driven the development of compact, long-lasting propulsion systems. To increase their power efficiency and longevity, the potential use of plasma thrusters that generate a chargeneutral exhaust plume is of significant interest. This is because a cathode neutraliser (as installed on ion engines and Hall thrusters) is no longer required to ensure charge neutrality of the spacecraft and prevent beam stalling.

To maximise power efficiency and performance, a detailed understanding of the plasma physics is crucial. Compact plasma thrusters present additional challenges due to their limited diagnostic access. This project will therefore utilise state-of-the-art optical and numerical techniques to further our understanding of the physical mechanisms that operate on nanosecond timescales and ultimately drive performance.

Based at the York Plasma Institute in the Department of Physics, the studentship offers the opportunity to collaborate with international research partners at the SP3 Laboratory, Australian National University (ANU) and the Computational Plasma Science and Engineering Group (CPSEG), University of Michigan. During a funded University of York studentship, the student will be a member of the low-temperature plasma team. Our laboratory undertakes diverse and high-impact research in fields including semiconductor processing, thin films, green energy, plasma medicine and electric propulsion.

For futher information please contact james.dedrick@york.ac.uk

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Unravelling the physics and chemistry of Plasma-Enhanced Pulsed Laser Deposition

  • Supervisor Dr Erik Wagenaars
  • Funding Self funded & fully funded positions available
  • Application deadline N/A


Metal oxide thin films like ZnO, Al2O3 and TiO2 are widely used in industry in microelectronics, catalysts and display devices. Conventional techniques for the production of these films, such as pulsed laser deposition (PLD), chemical vapour deposition and physical vapour deposition, all suffer from a lack of fundamental understanding of the underlying physical processes and detailed control of the deposited film properties. The goal of this research is to overcome these limitations by introducing a new deposition technique that uniquely combines laser and electrically produced plasmas: Plasma-Enhanced Pulsed Laser Deposition (PE-PLD).

The PE-PLD process can be described as 3 phases with distinctly different physics involved: laser ablation, plume dynamics and interactions, and thin-film formation. These individual processes have been studied in isolation in some detail, but the multi-scale and multi-physics nature of the PE-PLD process means that linking these studies is challenging, limiting what can be learned practically about how to better control thin film production.

This project will focus on enhancing the understanding of the underpinning plasma physics and chemistry of PE-PLD. You will combine state-of-the-art multiscale numerical modelling with direct measurements of plasma properties performed in the YPI Laboratories. The overall aim of the research is to provide predictive knowledge of high-quality thin film production, superior to current empirical methods.

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Can't find your perfect project?

We're always happy to hear proposals for new research projects. If you have something in mind, just identify a potential supervisor and get in touch:

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