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Whispering Acoustics – Understanding and controlling nucleation by acoustics/ultrasound in soft matter


Key facts

Type of research degree
Application deadline
Ongoing deadline
Country eligibility
International (open to all nationalities, including the UK)
Source of funding
Professor Megan Povey
School of Food Science and Nutrition
<h2 class="heading hide-accessible">Summary</h2>

Many high-value industrial processes involve crystallisation as a separation and/or purification stage or to achieve final product morphology. Examples of industries dependent on crystallisation processes include active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), agro-chemicals, food and polymers. Nucleation control is essential to optimise crystal size distribution, morphology and polymorphic form. It is well known that high-power acoustic fields (&gt;10 kWm-2) can have a dramatic effect on materials. For instance, sonotrodes are used to initiate crystal nucleation and to control crystal growth. A big drawback of high-power acoustics is the associated cavitation which creates large amounts of free radicals, especially but not exclusively in aqueous systems, leading to undesirable product oxidation &ndash; a particular problem for food applications where it can be associated with unpleasant off flavours. Bubbles generated by cavitation can also interfere with the instrumentation used to monitor <br /> suspended crystals (e.g., laser backscattering, turbidity) making efficient process control difficult. In addition, the cavitation field itself can be difficult to control and cavitational damage to the processing (sonotrode) and control apparatus may lead to shortened device lifetimes and product contamination (a particular issue for food and pharma). By cavitation, we refer to both stable/non-inertial cavitation and transient/inertial cavitation. These challenges have prevented the wide spread use of high power cavitation-producing ultrasound in food and some other sectors.<br /> We propose to carry out fundamental investigations into a low-power ultrasonic technique (using continuous low-intensity non-cavitating fields), recently patented, that has the potential to reduce energy use, optimise processes, reduce equipment damage by cavitation, produce novel materials, control product properties and enhance product purity. An earlier patent, whilst referring to lower power ultrasound, actually deploys stable cavitation as the nucleating principle.

<h2 class="heading hide-accessible">Full description</h2>

<p>However, many questions remain regarding the mechanisms at work in low power continuous ultrasound: is it a linear/non-linear effect; what is the relationship of thermal and mass transfer mechanisms to the oscillating pressure field, what is the effect of power level and particle size? How does the acoustic field modify phase change and how do the particle dynamics (including particleparticle interactions) in the acoustic field influence crystal nucleation and growth? We expect that elucidation of the fundamental mechanisms of the phenomenon and building on the understanding developed in our current project, will lead to robust methodologies for implementation in industrial processes, involving mathematical modelling, computational modelling and rigorous experimental investigation and validating developed models. We believe that the developed technology would have transformational potential in all industrially important processes involving crystallisation and enable hitherto unimagined materials to be conceived. Systematic research into the phenomenon of cavitation began in 20th century with the discovery of the material-altering properties of high intensity sound waves generated in water and oil. Later on, cavitational damage to engineered structures such as ship propellers became an economic issue. The term &lsquo;sonocrystallisation&rsquo; emerged in 1993 and the first reference to the use of sound waves to influence crystal growth in 1962 41. Works of reference in the area include 42 and 43. When it became apparent that the drawbacks of transient cavitation obviated the technology&rsquo;s potential for our industrial partners, research into high power ultrasound ceased in our group and attention turned to stable cavitation. The aforementioned patent claim by MP collaborators stated that nucleation could be achieved in the absence of transient cavitation. However, it became clear that nucleation at the power levels referred to in the patent was actually a result of stable cavitation; this as a result of systematic studies of the impact of ultrasound on foods which began in our laboratory in 2000 with the appointment of Rachel Chow, a Unilever employee as &lsquo;Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Student&rsquo;. In that collaboration we demonstrated unequivocally that stable (non-inertial) cavitation could be an effective nucleator of ice. Our interest in the area has revived due to the realisation that power levels much lower even than those needed to induce stable cavitation nevertheless profoundly influence nucleation. This effect can be exploited in developing systems that provide superior control on critical quality attributes of crystals at low input energy levels. Vision: Through the use of continuous, low-intensity, sub-cavitational acoustic fields, our proposed programme aims to transform processes across a wide range of industries where crystallisation is a key production, purification or separation stage including the substantial economic sectors of pharma, food and polymer processing. This potentially disruptive technology will be investigated through the fundamental experimental study of acoustically controlled nucleation modelling. Proposed research and its context ACOUSTIC PROCESSING OF CRYSTALS thermal and mass-transfer processes within the nucleation stage, the design of acoustic nucleators for model validation and their implementation at laboratory-scale for feasibility demonstration towards the next stage of pilot-plant process construction (leading on from this project). Our recent project referred to above has led to enhanced understanding and modelling capability for the thermal and hydrodynamic effects around particles in acoustic fields and the effects of multiple particles on those field patterns.&nbsp; This has led to preliminary models for acoustic effects on nucleation and will be used as the basis for the proposed model development of crystal nucleation and growth, and its interaction with acoustic fields. Our development over recent years of direct nucleation control for continuous crystallisation processes rests on a detailed understanding of crystallisation through modelling and experimental investigation, coupled with the integration of advanced process technologies into an automated process control system. These techniques will form the starting point for implementation of low-power acoustic nucleation control strategies.</p>

<h2 class="heading">How to apply</h2>

<p>Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the&nbsp;<a href="">University&#39;s website</a>. Please state clearly in the research information section&nbsp;that the research degree you wish to be considered for is &ldquo;Whispering Acoustics &ndash; Understanding and controlling nucleation by acoustics/ultrasound in soft matter&rdquo; as well as&nbsp;<a href="">Professor Megan Povey</a> as your proposed supervisor.</p> <p>If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University&#39;s minimum English language requirements (below).</p> <p><em>As an international research-intensive university, we welcome students from all walks of life and from across the world. We foster an inclusive environment where all can flourish and prosper, and we are proud of our strong commitment to student education. Across all Faculties we are dedicated to diversifying our community and we welcome the unique contributions that individuals can bring, and particularly encourage applications from, but not limited to Black, Asian, people who belong to a minority ethnic community, people who identify as LGBT+ and people with disabilities. Applicants will always be selected based on merit and ability.</em></p>

<h2 class="heading heading--sm">Entry requirements</h2>

Applicants to research degree programmes should normally have at least a first class or an upper second class British Bachelors Honours degree (or equivalent) in an appropriate discipline. The criteria for entry for some research degrees may be higher, for example, several faculties, also require a Masters degree. Applicants are advised to check with the relevant School prior to making an application. Applicants who are uncertain about the requirements for a particular research degree are advised to contact the School or Graduate School prior to making an application.

<h2 class="heading heading--sm">English language requirements</h2>

The minimum English language entry requirement for research postgraduate research study in the School of Food Science and Nutrition is an IELTS of 6.5 overall with at least 6.0 in each component (reading, writing, listening and speaking) or equivalent. The test must be dated within two years of the start date of the course in order to be valid. Some schools and faculties have a higher requirement.

<h2 class="heading">Funding on offer</h2>

<p>You would need to provide your own sponsorship, to include tuition fees, living expenses, and research costs.</p>

<h2 class="heading">Contact details</h2>

<p>For further information about the project, please contact <a href="">Professor Megan Povey</a>.&nbsp; &nbsp;For information about the application process, please contact the Graduate School Office <strong></strong>.&nbsp;</p>

<h3 class="heading heading--sm">Linked research areas</h3>