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Swansea scientists discover safer, greener way to make solar cells

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Scientists at SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Swansea University, have found a way to replace the toxic, unsustainable solvents currently needed to make the next generation of solar technology.

Printed carbon perovskite solar cells have been described as a likely front runner to the market because they are extremely efficient at converting light to electricity, cheap and easy to make.

A major barrier to the large-scale manufacture and commercialisation of these cells is the solvents used to control crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication: this is because they are made from unsustainable materials and are banned in many countries due to their toxicity and psychoactive effects.

SPECIFIC’s researchers have discovered that a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone (GVL) could replace these solvents without impacting cell performance.

GVL’s list of advantages could improve the commercial viability of carbon perovskite solar devices:

  • It is made from sustainable feedstocks
  • There are no legal issues in its use around the world
  • It is suitable for use in large-scale manufacturing processes
  • It is non-toxic and biodegradable

Carys Worsley, who led the research as part of her doctorate, said: “To be truly environmentally sustainable, the way that solar cells are made must be as green as the energy they produce. As the next generation of solar technologies approaches commercial viability, research to reduce the environmental impact of large-scale production will become increasingly important.”

Professor Trystan Watson, research group leader, added: “Many problems need to be resolved before these technologies become a commercial reality. This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned.

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“We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.”

The research was made possible with funding from the UKRI Global Challenge Research Fund SUNRISE project and through funding of the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, Innovate UK, and the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.

Lead image: Researcher Carys Worsley at work in the SPECIFIC labs, identifying a safer, greener way to make solar cells (Image: Swansea University)


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Health

Swansea scientists develop new method to detect viruses in a pinprick

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Scientists at Swansea University, Biovici Ltd and the National Physical Laboratory have developed a method to detect viruses in very small volumes.

The work, published in Advanced NanoBiomed Research, follows a successful Innovate UK project developing graphene for use in biosensors – devices that can detect tiny levels of disease markers.

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For many parts of the world that do not have access to high-tech labs found in hospitals, detecting viruses such as hepatitis C (HCV) – could save millions of preventable deaths worldwide. In addition, biosensors such as this could be used at the point-of-care – opening effective healthcare in difficult-to-reach settings.

What makes the detection of viruses in such small volumes possible is the use of a material called graphene. Graphene is extremely thin – only one atom thick – making it very sensitive to anything that attaches to it.

By carefully controlling its surface, scientists at Swansea University were able to make the surface of graphene sensitive to the HCV virus. These measurements were done with graphene specialists at the National Physical Laboratory.

In the future, it is hoped that multiple biosensors can be developed onto a single chip – this could be used to detect different types of dangerous viruses or disease markers from a single measurement.  

Ffion Walters, Innovation Technologist at Swansea University’s Healthcare Technology Centre said: “Highly sensitive and simplistic sensors have never been more in demand with regards point-of-care applications. 

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“This collaborative project has allowed us to realise proof-of-concept real-time sensors for HCV,  which could be especially beneficial in resource-limited settings or for difficult-to-reach populations.”

Professor Owen Guy, Head of Chemistry at Swansea University, said: “At Swansea University, we have now developed graphene-based biosensors for both Hepatitis B and C. This is a major step forward to a future single point of care test”

Dr Olga Kazakova, NPL Fellow Quantum Materials & Sensors added: “NPL was delighted to be part of this multidisciplinary team. Participation in this project allowed us to further develop our metrological validation facilities and apply them to the characterisation of graphene biosensors and aid in solving an important challenge in the health sector.”

Lead image: Graphene device chip attached to an electrical connector, with two 5 μL HCVcAg samples (one applied on each graphene resistor). (Image: Swansea University)

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Science

Public health professor becomes Fellow of Academy of Medical Sciences

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A Swansea University public health expert has been honoured by the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences

Professor Ronan Lyons, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Swansea University Medical School and one of the two Directors at Population Data Science, is one of 60 outstanding biomedical and health scientists admitted to the Academy’s influential Fellowship.

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The new Fellows have all been recognised for their remarkable contributions to biomedical and health science and their ability to generate new knowledge and improve the health of people everywhere.

Professor Lyons’s research focuses on the use of health information to support the targeting and evaluation of health and non-health service interventions to improve prevention, care and rehabilitation.

During the pandemic, his team have used insights from the rich health data in SAIL Databank to support policy decisions to protect the public, including providing intelligence to the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Group and subsequently feeding into the UK’s SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

Professor Lyons said: “I am delighted and honoured to be selected as a Fellow by the Academy of Medical Sciences.

“This undoubtedly reflects the widespread appreciation of the contribution research conducted using the SAIL Databank make to individuals and society. 

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“It is also recognition of the fantastic team science approach in Population Data Science at Swansea University and our dedication to the advancement of health research through our many collaborations across the UK and around the world.”

The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Selected from 366 candidates from across the UK, the 60 scientists chosen marks the highest number of new Fellows ever elected.

Academy President Professor Dame Anne Johnson said: “It gives me great pleasure to welcome these 60 experts to the Fellowship to help to address the major health challenges facing society.

“The diversity of biomedical and health expertise within our Fellowship is a formidable asset that in the past year has informed our work on critical issues such as tackling the Covid19 pandemic, understanding the health impacts of climate change, addressing health inequalities, and making the case for funding science. The new Fellows of 2022 will be critical to helping us deliver our ambitious 10-year strategy that we will launch later this year.”

The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Academy next month.

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(Lead image: Swansea University)

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Health

New study suggests four in 10 in need of social care in Wales did not access services during the pandemic

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As many as four in 10 people in Wales who may have needed social care did not access its services during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Commissioned by Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) and led by Dr Simon Williams of Swansea University, the study explored public attitudes and experiences of social care in Wales two years on from the start of the pandemic.

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The study, which involved a survey of 2,569 respondents in Wales and a series of focus groups, found that the Covid-19 pandemic hit social care hard, exacerbating the social care crisis, and intensifying pressure on the workforce.

The study’s key findings reveal that four in 10 people who felt that they or someone in their household or close family needed social care during the past two years did not receive or make use of it.

The pandemic was cited as a major reason why many of those who may have needed social care didn’t access it – either out of fear of contracting Covid or because they didn’t want to burden social care services that were experiencing significant pressures.

Satisfaction with social care was variable, according to the study, with approximately one-third either very or quite dissatisfied, and a little over half either very or quite satisfied with social care services for themselves or a household or close family member.

Among those who felt that they or someone in their household didn’t receive or make use of social care despite needing it, the most common reasons people gave included: lack of availability or staff shortages (22%), not fitting eligibility criteria (17%), feeling too proud to access care (15%) and the application process being too complicated (10%).

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Most of the respondents (86%) felt that the social care system in Wales needs reform, and 94% of said that it should be a priority for the UK and Welsh Governments.

In the focus groups, participants argued that there is a need for consistency in the social care received, more personalised care, better integration between health and social care, and a need for more investment in social care. Some felt that reform should see the integration of social care into the NHS, while others argued for the establishment of a separate national care service.

Dr Williams said: “It is concerning that approximately four in 10 of those feeling in need of social care did not receive or make use of social care services. Social care policymakers and providers should seek to understand and address what people feel are the main barriers to accessing or using social care, including increasing provision for those who need it, encouraging and enabling those who feel they need social care to apply, consider broadening the eligibility criteria where appropriate, and simplifying the application process.

“As with healthcare services, another challenge for social care services may be the need to address a potential backlog in those needing care, who were either unable to access services due to restrictions or staff shortages, or did not want to apply because they were concerned about infection risk or did not want to bother services.”

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