James Coombs OBrien
Keep your questions coming!
2002-2007 Wanstead High School, 2007-2009 Wanstead High School Sixth Form College, 2009-2013 The University of Leicester (where I studied Chemistry), 2013-2018 The University of Bath.
Master of Research, Master in Chemistry, A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry and History, 11 A-C GCSE’s,
Catering assistant at Reading Festival 2011, Barman at Bestival, Volunteer at a British Heart Foundation Shop, Open day tour guide at the University of Leicester
PhD Student from the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies
The University of Bath
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love making things, so anything which involves being in the lab. I’m always at my happiest in the lab doing experiments instead of sitting at a desk.
I take materials from plants and turn them into plastics
My work involves removing a material called cellulose from plants and using it to make plastics. Most plastics we use in everyday life, for water bottles, food packaging and even electronics (phones, laptops etc.) are made from oil which is running out. So I’m using plants to make these plastics instead. Another benefit of using plants instead of oil is that when you throw it away it breaks up and falls apart, like a leaf does, meaning less rubbish!
This is a plastic film I’ve made from a plant using the material called cellulose.
The machine above is called a “Plastograph”, it is basically a huge heated blender. I use it to mix materials together to make new materials!
I work for the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (or CSCT for short). Everyone who works there is looking at environmentally friendly ways of doing science. If you’d like to find out more about the research that we do at the CSCT take a look at our website: http://www.bath.ac.uk/csct/
My Typical Day
A lot of rushing around in labs making and testing new materials.
One of the great things about being a scientist is that everyday is different.
I work in lots of labs with lots of different people interested in making materials. I do this by removing the parts of plants that we need and turning them into sheets of plastic.
This is a picture of me using a fume hood, we use them when the materials or chemicals we use might be harmful to breath in. Unlucky for me they don’t make fume hoods for taller people, that’s why I’m doing the splits.
I look at the materials I have made using a machine called a “Scanning Electron Microscope” or SEM for short. It’s similar to a normal microscope but is much more powerful meaning I can look my materials much more closely and at much smaller things. The picture above was taken using the microscope and is of one my plastics.
You can see the scale bar at the bottom (the short white line) which says 100μm which means 100 micrometers. This is 0.01 cm about the thickness of 4 pieces of paper stacked on top of each other.
I also find myself reading a lot of scientific papers and email checking in my office, which I share with 7 other people.
I also help set up conferences where lots of scientists and other clever people come together to discuss their work. These often involve “poster sessions” where you sum up the work you do in one poster.
Sometime I get to play around with liquid nitrogen which is -196°C and freezes almost everything.
If you’d like to learn more about liquid nitrogen or chemistry in general you should look at our friends at The University of Nottingham’s youtube channel called: Periodic Videos. It’s a brilliant channel with loads of facts and exciting experiments.
Here’s what they had to say about Nitrogen.
What I'd do with the prize money
I’d take a science workshop to schools about how we make electricity.
Myself and some of my scientist friends have been working on a workshop idea to take to schools called: “Save the World in 60 Minutes” and is about how we generate electricity for our everyday needs and how this affects the environment by causing climate change and global warming. So instead of burning coal and gas, which produce the “green house gas” called carbon dioxide, using sunlight and wind power as well as others to generate electricity instead!
The students will be acting as world leaders making worldwide decisions on energy generation and see how this changes the future of the planet, for better or worse, with lots of acting and a few laughs along the way.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Tall, friendly, loud
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I had liquid nitrogen thrown at me for university open days which was very “cool”
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My old A level chemistry teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No….. sometimes, usually for talking in class
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
A police officer
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Queens of the Stone Ages
What's your favourite food?
All and any type of curry
What is the most fun thing you've done?
By far it was driving a Lamborghini around an old airfield
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Telekinesis, super concentration and to be able to breath underwater
Tell us a joke.
What did one ocean say to the other ocean? Nothing, they just waved….