Changing Perceptions

My boiler suit and I. The earplugs really pull the look together.

My boiler suit and I. The earplugs really pull the look together.

Here goes, my first ever blog entry! I’m a fourth year undergraduate chemistry student at the University of St Andrews, and this year I’m on my industrial placement year working for a company called DuPont Teijin Films (DTF: DTF has its main Research and Development (R&D) centre at a site by Wilton, in North-East England; mainly known for Geordie Shore, the Angel of the North and being the industrial hub of the UK. The Wilton site alone is home to 60 companies, between which take on around 30 students each year from all the sciences and all over the world. Before the formation of the Wilton centre for R&D, the site was home solely to a company called Imperial Chemical Industries, which was massive, seriously; half of my retired neighbours all spent their lives working there. I really can’t convey how massive this place is. People who have worked here for years get lost on site and even in the main building.

Before we (there are three other undergraduate students from St Andrews this year at DTF) moved down to Middlesbrough, we had developed a pretty bad impression of the area from many people’s reactions to the news of us moving to “the Boro” and these views were not helped by some of the dodgier houses we looked at. However, we persevered and found a lovely semi-detached in the suburbs. The house is only 10 minutes down the road from work and right next to lovely big park with a duck pond, not the sort of place everyone had imagined when we told them it was Middlesbrough. I’m not sure what I expected in terms of the locals, but everyone here is super friendly and random chats on the bus are totally ok; which is ideal for me as I’m from a pretty rural area originally where everyone and their granny talks all the time.

Roseberry Topping in the North Yorkshire Moors

Roseberry Topping in the North Yorkshire Moors

To top off the fact that Middlesbrough is really not “that” bad, the surroundings are excellent. I’m 15 minutes from the beach in one direction and 15 minutes from the Northern Yorkshire Moors in another so, as an out-doorsey type, that’s my weekends sorted. If I fancy a change from the country scenery, I’m also only an hour by train to York and Durham, both of which are lovely.

DTF is a film production company, so my placement is quite materials based, they make polymers for any use I can think of. As the Wilton DTF site is for R&D, I’m involved in everything from dealing with our initial suppliers, planning and development to producing these films on the Semi-Tech; our “miniature” plant line for making film samples. I say “miniature”, but to me it’s absolutely massive, but then again, I’m yet to see one of our main lines for commercial production. The closest one is in Dumfries and I’m told that I’ll be going up there soon, so I can tell you how small the Semi-Tech looks then. On days where I’m on trial (test-running to see if we can actually make the film we have designed) at the Semi-Tech I get to boiler-suit up, team it with a pair of safety boots, safety glasses and some earplugs (safety first, of course) and get into the hard graft of real life industrial work. Truly living up to the slogan ‘…not all chemists wear white coats…’.

Prior to beginning my placement I definitely expected to be in the usual lab coat etc., which I do wear when doing lab work and testing physical properties of the films we have birthed on the Semi-Tech. But I what I wasn’t expecting was to be involved in so many trials. I must say though, I’m quite enjoying it. Being so involved in the production alongside the initial planning and then evaluation afterwards really allows me to see the complete “life-cycle” of the film; literally, as a lot of our test methods involve taking the films to breaking point to see how long they will last.

The Semi-Tech at Wilton; you can't fit it all in one picture.

The Semi-Tech at Wilton; you can’t fit it all in one picture.

So far I’m working on three main projects within the company, all of which are set out to be internationally commercialised. My favourite of these three has got to be the flame retardancy, (FR). Come on, who’s not a little bit of a pyromaniac at heart? Basically, we want to make a film which is flame retardant and durable enough (it’s a bit of a fine balance) to roll out as a sellable film for use in, e.g., electronics and posters etc. I should probably mention some chemistry of how flame retardants work and it is really clever, they either form a ‘char’ upon burning which stops any more oxygen getting in preventing further combustion, or they can work through radical scavenging. The radical scavengers appeal to me most, as they’re pretty smart. When a film combusts, the polymer chains break up and form free radicals, which can propagate further breakdown. By adding a scavenger, these formed radicals can be “mopped up”, therefore, terminating the chain reaction and prevent the films from “self-destructing”. All this also needs to be done in an environmentally friendly manner, eliminating the use of halogens (especially Br) and heavy metals such as tin and lead in gaining FR qualities.

Over the seven week period I’ve been on my placement here so far, there have been two things which have pleasantly surprised me: the location and the span of my work. I am really very excited to see what this year has in store for me in terms of the development of my projects and all the new places I will see. Who knows, maybe I’ll make some game changing FR film which they’ll then print a picture of Yorkshire on. I’ll let you know how I get on with that one.

Until then,

Claire Brodie

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