Jamie Gallagher is an energy materials scientist and a PhD student in chemistry and engineering at the University of Glasgow and works regularly as a science communicator performing at schools and science festivals across Britain. He is also a salsa teacher.
I think one of the oddest things is that Helium is running out.
On getting interested in science
I first knew I was kind of a scientist when I was fascinated by how everything works, like, my favourite toy was Snarf from Thundercats, and I loved it so much, I smashed it with a hammer and the reason was I wanted to know how it went together. I loved it so much, I was fascinated by it and I needed to know everything about it, so I smashed it. It never went back together but I think I’ve always had that kind of curiosity in me.
I don’t think it was a teacher who inspired me and, as my mum was a homeopathic energy healer, I don’t think it was my family that inspired me, I think…it’s so geeky to explain, but I think that Star Trek was a big thing. I loved sci-fi as a kid, so I had this innate curiosity and then I ended up being obsessed with science fiction, I was just like, I want that life, that’s extraordinary, this kind of quest for knowledge and exploring things and it’s fascinating.
Then basically I found my niche by refusing to choose things, so I did chemical physics because I just couldn’t pick, I couldn’t decide if I loved physics more or I loved chemistry more, so I went with chemical physics and then I didn’t have to choose. And then I went into engineering because I went, well, I want to know more, which made my areas out so I try and kind of diversify and keep as much kind of versatility in the science that I can.
On chemical physics
So chemical physics is pretty much to do with atoms and how they all go together, so it’s maybe the atomic structure of a material, or it’s maybe the growth of nanomaterials, so very, very small scale in how atoms are actually interacting where the worlds of kind of chemistry and physics blur.
So one thing I was working on was growing really interesting, beautiful structures of a material that could be used in solar panels. And it was all to do with growing these from little atomic seeds and growing these kind of gorgeous spheres of material that actually have practical applications and these could be used in solar panels, but they also look wonderful. And, you know, there’s an extraordinary growth process behind controlling the atoms and the way they grow.
So, the definition for me between science and engineering is: science is the kind of quest for knowledge, it asks why, and then engineering is, kind of, what could we do with it? So engineering for me is the practical application, so engineering technology is kind of applied science and science is just the quest for knowledge; whether it’s useful or not at the time, it doesn’t really matter, it’s about finding out and then we work ways using engineering and technology to work out how to use the stuff that we’ve learnt.
On a love of the periodic table
I’m kind of obsessed with the stories and the properties behind it, I think you can chart kind of humankind’s progress through the periodic table. You know, you start off with the Bronze Age, so alloys of copper and tin, moving through to the Iron Age, there’s chlorine, you know, weapons of World War 2, there’s sword making materials, and most of them start off as weapons. But then you go through into the Atomic Age and even the fact that there’s still a couple of unnamed elements in the periodic table, it’s just this extraordinary journey of science and the stories behind the discovery and the uses of them, each one of them has a fascinating tale behind them.
I totally agree with you, that is how I start off, when I’m taking about the periodic table, I put it up and say, doesn’t it look boring? It does, there’s nothing interesting there, but I think when I started discovering some of the stories, like Marie Curie discovered two elements, and the kind of story of her life and the fact that she named an element, she named an element after a political cause, so polonium is the only element on the periodic table named for a political cause, which was independence for Poland. And the more I kind of started digging, the more I found that each element has a kind of tale behind it and it’s something quite extraordinary.
On a favourite element
It’s so hard to choose, I love tellurium, so tellurium is one that I work with and it’s quite an obscure one so not many people work with it or come into contact with it, but when you touch it, you smell of garlic; so you need one milligram in one metre cubed, so a tiny sprinkling in the air, and you breathe it in, you touch it and you will reek of garlic. There’s chemists in Glasgow been put off the bus for smelling so strongly of it. I’ve had tellurium poisoning three times in my life, at the second stage you get black nails as well, I just love that it has novelty properties! And the mechanism of why isn’t really understood because it doesn’t affect many people so they don’t bother investigating it, they just kind of go, ha, you smell like garlic!
On disappearing elements
I think one of the oddest things is that heliumis running out, and helium is the second most important element in the universe, a huge chunk of mass in the universe is made of helium, but on Earth we don’t have that much of it. I love and hate the idea that, you know, party balloons are filled with helium and in 100 years’ time we’re going to look back and think, what were we thinking, you know, using such a precious scientific resource that’s an extraordinarily light and noble gas to fill balloons that say happy birthday, it’s gonna seem insane. And once we lose it, it’s very difficult to kind of gather it back because it’s made in the sun, it’s out there in the universe, but on Earth, as soon as you release that helium, it escapes into the atmosphere and it’s gone forever and yet we just waste it.
So without detonating atomic bombs all around the world, to create a balloon to wish someone’s 21st birthday, probably not; you can get helium from some nuclear reactions but that’s quite an extreme way to get a very little amount back, so we’re just probably going to have to, you know, eventually say, OK, maybe a 60th birthday but, you know, nothing in between for the helium.
On progress in chemistry
I get excited about the future, I genuinely think regularly, what’s going to happen once I’m gone? I’m genuinely jealous of the people that will live in the future and see the advances that we make because, you know, I see the progress that we make but I know that there’s so much more lies in wait. The only thing I mourn slightly is I feel that now science is come to such a point, the advances are now incremental, I wish partly that I was back in the 1700s, mixing two materials and suddenly there’s a new element there. So sometimes the progress is extraordinary, driving to the tips, we’re really expanding our knowledge, and some of the great big discoveries, the monumental discoveries, they’ve kind of been done, so my PhD is quite a small niche area, I’m quite proud of it, but it’s still quite small in terms of the big discoveries that we’ve seen in the past.
On current research
My PhD is on thermoelectronics, it’s scavenging waste heat to produce electricity, and I do that with nanomaterials.
So thermoelectronics, it’s what powers the Voyager space probe, and it’s what could potentially…we could use body heat to generate electricity and basically it’s just a material that when you heat one side of it up, the electrons diffuse away and you can pair these all up and you get this electrical current flowing, so anywhere there’s a temperature difference, if you put this material on it, you will create electricity. So humans waste, you know, a lot of energy, we’re radiating heat like an old fashioned 50 watt bulb and we don’t need that heat, we could absorb that and we could create some electricity. Voyager space probe’s still working perfectly well and it’s cause they were sent up with a red hot nuclear source and there’s just a little, just a pad basically, stuck onto the side, absorbing that heat, converting it directly into electricity. And that’s one of the few power sources that world work in space; I think the Mars rover has one built in as well. Because very often you can’t use solar power, you can’t send a petrol tank up there with them, it would only run out, so it’s a really, really reliable power source.
On doing experiments
One of the ones that I love, and it’s because it’s an obscure but an amazing reaction, was reactions of making nanomaterials in a microwave. So sometimes, in our lab, we literally use just microwave ovens, we just buy them from a supermarket and inside we do fantastic chemical reactions. And I love the idea that these are in our houses but we don’t necessarily realise the absolute awesome potential they have in so many areas of science. So we use these to create temperatures of, you know, well over 1,000 degrees in a few minutes by heating metals and things in the microwave and you see extraordinary plasma coming off and they’re beautiful reactions, they’re chemically fascinating reactions, but they’re done using something you would, you know, heat a bowl of soup in.
On elements we breathe in
Nitrogen is the most…there’s nitrogen and there’s oxygen, and the rest, the noble gases only make up about 1% of what we breathe in. I did read that when you’re diving nitrogen becomes toxic, and I was reading a really nice thing that mentioned using hydrogen instead, so they put hydrogen in the tank with oxygen and the guy that was diving to depths that hadn’t been recorded yet was speaking back up to give instructions but because he was breathing in hydrogen, his voice was so high and squeaky, they couldn’t understand what he was saying, so he was effectively trapped down there, trying to speak to them and they just couldn’t understand. I like to think they were laughing at the time, but they had no idea what he was saying, they hadn’t really thought about hydrogen making your voice go high and they eventually had to work in, like, a morse code system because it just sounded too ridiculous.