Mexican Centre for Innovation in Ocean Energy

It took almost two years to get this done but a few weeks ago, we finally officially started the Mexican Centre for Innovation in Ocean Energy (CEMIE-O). This projects aims at boosting the development of Mexican technology on Ocean Energy, covering the areas of wave, tidal/currents, thermal and salinity gradient, modelling and materials. With a total budget of 348 million pesos (aprox 17.5 million dollars) the Mexican government is aiming at uniting all efforts towards the development of this technology. Contrary to other sources of energy where technology is already mature, making it difficult to compete, Ocean energy is still under development which could allow Mexico to truly compete in this new area and become a provider of technology.

I have the honour to coordinate the work on the development of new materials, components and subsystems for CEMIE-O, where I coordinate 22 scientists of 7 different institutions. With the third largest funding within the consortium, the purpose of our subproject is to develop materials and components capable of surviving the harsh marine environment. We are developing coatings, ceramic composites, concrete and a new type of electric generator, having in mind a direct application of our work, especially considering that we have three companies eager to use our products.

After the kick-off meeting we understood that the materials section felt short at trying to solve the complexity and needs of all energy generation systems, however throughout these years we expect to provide the grounds for further developments.

The environment within the coordinating group I believe is fantastic, we are truly a multidisciplinary group where engineers, materials scientist, biologists and environmentalists working together, good times ahead.

We made the news in Nature, MRS Bulletin and Business Inside

Last year we had three articles on the news regarding the activities we do in our lab. One of the highlights without a doubt was an article in Nature (Young, talented and fed-up). To be blunt I wasn´t particularly happy with the word “fed-up” when I first saw the title, however after reading all the comments of other young scientist I understood the origin and the purpose of such article. Like many others, prior to my permanent position I had to live with the uncertainty of where to go and what to do after my temporary contract finishes, not a happy feeling considering that I had a family with me. Like it was mentioned in the article, we were not really whining but putting our life and struggle into context considering that our chances of success got slimmer from the time senior colleagues started their career. I feel honoured from being chosen to participate in the discussion and being featured in that article.

Another article about our work was focused on the out-reach activities we do with kids of low-income and rural schools. With the support of the MRS Foundation we have been working with a few schools and performing outreach activities as part of Cinvesniños-Saltillo. Our project finishes this year, the funding that is, but I am certain that we will keep working in these activities and those schools for a long period of time. I hope we will be able to see the effect of working with kids from an early stage and see them progress in their lives.

Finally, Business Inside Latinoamerica made an article of the work we currently do on arsenic removal using graphene oxide. We are on an early stage of our work but preliminary results show adsorption capacities already of 30 mg/g despite early reports in the literature of much lower adsorption capacity. We are showing that by controlling the production route and even functionalising its surface we can considerably increase the arsenic adsorption capacity of graphene oxide without the use of other nanoparticles as it is commonly used.


Making history

Yesterday marked the beginning of what I hope will be a long list of graduated students from my group. Juniet, an MSc student from Nicaragua, successfully defended her viva and obtained her degree in Ceramic Engineering after working on a project funded by the industry. Her collaboration helped us to advance the progress on the development of a new product that we hope will be available into the market soon. She will no longer work in my group but I wish her the best in her PhD.

Although my family couldn´t be with me and I am in the last days of a sickness that left me on bed for a week, I feel very happy for her and for my group. Four years it took to graduate my first student, four years with lots of ups and downs. In the following months I hope to graduate three more students so this is just starting.

Five rural schools in five days, part 2

A couple of months ago we were approached by the Ministry of Education to support them to do a Science Fair in five rural schools near the city where our research centre is based. Considering that we have a project funded by the MRS-Foundation to do exactly that we were delighted to participate.

Working with rural schools was challenging since it was hard to know what to expect, how simple or complex should be your experiments? Which topics should you cover? Would I be able to take robots and the microscopes with me?

The first day was probably the worst as we were totally outclassed. During the first day of the Science Fair we realised that the experiments that the 6-11 years old students prepared were considerably more complex in elaboration and explanation than ours. Needless to say my students and I were totally shocked…in a good way. That day as soon as we came back I had to ask my students to prepare new experiments. As always my students stood up to the challenge and came up with a refreshed set of experiments that finally got the always expected “wow-effect”. The following days were full of excitement as we were able to witness the hard work that all those kids and teachers put to prepare their experiments.

At the end of the week we were of course totally exhausted and although I was supposed to be happy I couldn´t stop thinking that one week full of activities was not enough. If we want to make a long-lasting impact we should work with them on a constant basis, through out several generations of students. We are coming back, I know we are and hopefully we will stay with them for good.

Our group keeps growing!

Since this summer we had the arrival of new members in our group. Three PhD, two MSc and one undergrad student more are now working in our group.

Léster (PhD student from Nicaragua) is working on the development of environmental barrier coatings  produced by plasma enhanced chemical vapour deposition for the protection of structural materials in molten salt reactors. Ana (PhD student) will study the interaction between ZrO2 and FLiNaK salt also for molten salt fast reactors. Ana and Léster´s projects are part of the European Consortium SAMOFAR. Ceci (Ana Cecilia, PhD student)  and Omar (undergraduate student also from Nicaragua) are working on the development of graphene oxide adsorbents for the removal of arsenic in water.

As for the MSc students, Lili is working on the development of superhydrophobic coatings and their application as self-cleaning materials. Finally, Orlando is working on the production of ZrO2 coatings by sol-gel as corrosion protection of Ni alloys in molten salt reactors.

I am very happy and very fortunate to receive this students. I expect a lot from them and I am sure they expect a lot from me. Hopefully this week will have a gathering to celebrate again their arrival, I´m afraid I had postponed this meeting quite a few times already =S.

Meet the new members in the group!

New students. Picture top-right: Ana (left) and Ceci (right). Picture top right: Léster. Picture bottom left: Lili. Picture bottom middle: Orlando. Picture bottom right: Omar.

Challenges faced by young scientists

While writing a proposal for funding with the industry and battling with my son so he can finish his homework at 9 pm, I came across a very interesting question from Nature, what challenges do young scientists face? With the all too common suggestions about problems with funding and paperwork.

Funding in a country like Mexico is for sure an issue, but I guess I have been very fortunate to have the resources from government and industry alike to keep my group healthy and growing. This of course comes with a price and that is paperwork in all sort of formats, thesis to read, review, examine, papers, new grants to submit, reports to send, meetings with colleagues and students and the now constant trips to meetings and conferences so people get to know me. All in all, everything is part of the job and I wasn´t expecting anything less. At least for me the real struggle is not really funding or paperwork as such but TIME. Time to work, to rest and to spend with my FAMILY.

As young scientists we generally are also at the stage of forming a new family, with babies, toddlers and young kids playing, laughing, crying and even throwing things around. That means that the house is hardly in a very good state with tons of dirty cloths and dishes to wash and bits of food to pick up in every corner of the kitchen and living room. If you have a garden I bet it looks more like a jungle than a place of peace and tranquility where you can rest. For me, every moment I spend getting things sorted in my lab, is a moment I cannot spend with my family at home. I can see it right now, looking at my 7 years-old kid with whom I couldn´t go out to play with the dogs because I arrived late.

As young scientists we are in a stage where our kids and partners need us the most at home, a stage where we also have the urge to work more because in some/many cases we start with a brand new empty lab…full of potential but with no students and not a cent to even buy water. The feeling of finally being independent is amazing, but when you stand at the door of your empty lab you know that you have to get some students and money fast, really fast and that´s when the urge to work kicks and without realizing it you see your family less and less. I bet there are some who are good at balancing life and work, but I think it is at this stage where we easily go off-balance in many aspects of our life.  Here I am at 3 am trying to finish this post after falling asleep while putting my son into bed.

I guess I have to let go and finish this post, something that I think we are also in the stage of learning, we still don´t know when enough is enough.

Five rural schools in five days

A few weeks ago we were visited by personnel from the Secretary of Education requesting our help to organise a science fair in five rural schools. We were thrilled with the idea of having contact with more schools and access to their students, which many times is not that easy.

The first trip to know these schools was tiresome as we visited them all in a single day. The feeling that I had during and after this visit was very complex. I was happy to see the happiness of all those kids and the hard work of directors and teachers alike, but really sad and even angry to see the conditions of some of those places. There are schools with only two teachers in towns with only a few houses, another one was a single secondary school in the area, where I was told, kids are picked up by the bus-school starting at 5 am so they can start classes at 8, a three hour trip!.

I can´t deny that the more I try to work in outreach activities the more I feel frustrated with the work I do. I wish I could spare more of my time and my students´ time to work with all those kids, however with all the projects ongoing I also need to focus on making sure I can deliver all the work and results that we promised and that my students graduate on time. I wonder how other scientists manage to do their work and still have time to these type of activities. I promised myself that I would try to focus on only a few things now that I have even less time with the arrival of my second son, but is really hard to say no when all you want to say is yes.

Anyway, we have a few weeks to prepare the experiments, so let´s get on with it.