Chemistry is everywhere in business and commerce. Products - food, drink, cosmetics, paints, construction materials – abound with chemical compounds, both natural and synthetic, and the same is true of packaging, whether it is plastic, wood or cardboard.
A company’s knowledge and focus tends to be on the product and sales, and entrepreneurs may not have the knowledge of the actual science that underpins their wares.
This is where the University of Strathclyde’s Chemistry Clinic comes in. Run by undergraduate Masters students, the clinic provides a consultancy service to businesses of all sizes, answering their inquiries, solving their problems and giving expert opinions. It also conducts outreach work with schools, offering pupils an insight into careers in science.
The Clinic was initially established in 2013, to help put the consulting activities of Strathclyde’s Department of Pure & Applied Chemistry on a more structured footing.
Dr John Liggat, a Reader in the Department, initially conceived the idea.
“Historically, our consultancy work would be often be supported by technicians,” he said. “In one typical case, a broom-making company came to us with a competitor’s broom and asked for an analysis of its bristles; a technician did about 15 minutes of experiments, after which we knew the answer. However, once he and others like him retired we began to lose our ability to respond readily to other such requests.
Demand for expertise
“As a consequence, inquiries began to be directed to PhD students. This is great experience for these students and remains an important part of our portfolio but these students have a great deal to do with their own research. Consequently, we cannot respond to all requests for advice this way. It was through trying to resolve how best to manage demand for our expertise and facilities that the Chemistry Clinic was created.
“Students on our integrated five-year undergraduate Masters courses are required to do a one-year industrial placement but there are some who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult to move from the Glasgow area; my colleague, Dr Debbie Willison, and I recognised that working in the Chemistry Clinic would offer a solution for these students. Subsequently, with support from the University, we have now seen the Chemistry Clinic become a full credit-bearing module that is in demand by the students as a real and challenging alternative to the more traditional placement.”
Since the Chemistry Clinic was founded, 25 MChem undergraduate students have worked there for a credit-bearing year placement and it has worked with more than 30 companies, as well as advising many others on initial inquiries.
Clients have ranged from start-up companies to small and medium-sized enterprises to multinationals in the chemistry and food industries – the Chemistry Clinic has even helped make better kitchen sinks! The service gives access to equipment and expertise not only in the Chemistry department but also across the University.
Whatever the product and whatever the problem, the Chemistry Clinic aim to provide a solution.
Clinic Director Dr Sharon Ingram said, “Our work with companies is short-term – usually up to about three months - but we act as a gateway for them to take their products forward.
“In our school outreach work, we aim to inspire new scientists and we have students acting as STEM ambassadors. As well as going into schools, we have pupils visiting the department and we analyse materials for their Advanced Higher Chemistry projects.”
A number of the Clinic’s projects have received funding through Interface Innovation Vouchers, awarded by the Scottish Funding Council.
How one business got results from the Chemistry Clinic
Tsarina Imperial Dacha, a timber company based in Dalmellington, East Ayrshire, manufactures huts, log cabins and natural oil treatments for outdoor and indoor timber protection.
The company was intending to produce a 100% natural wood preservative and, with the use of an Interface Innovation Voucher, awarded by the Scottish Funding Council, had weather testing carried out on a version of the product through the Chemistry Clinic.
Testing of the product is moving towards completion and a new company has been established, with stakeholders on board, to take the product to market once positive results from tests are achieved.
Misha Dutton, Managing Director of Tsarina Imperial Dacha, said: “The results from the first testing resulted in changes to the treatment, to enhance it further and to eliminate some of the characteristics of the treatment such as VOC (volatile organic compound) content, which is now zero.
“The initial testing also allowed us to see where we believed changes should be made to not only improve the treatment but to enhance it further.
“The Clinic’s most beneficial contribution to the project was the ability to carry out the testing on a reduced timescale with specialised testing equipment and to provide us with the scientific evidence and reports to support product ability claims as regards to weathering and durability.
“We also feel that the project was very beneficial to the students involved in the testing, allowing them to work on a real-world product as it makes its way to market and to assist them in their studies under the guidance of Dr John Liggat and Dr Sharon Ingram.
“The project gave John and Sharon an additional educational tool to use and benefit their students in their studies and the ability to work from outside of a book. We believe it is very important for the students to have the opportunity to work with real life projects so that they can develop their skills and learning to a higher extent and contribute to their success in the future.
“Without the help of the Chemistry Clinic, it would have been very time-consuming to carry out the research ourselves and obtain the scientific data required to support the product. The ability to study the treatment in a controlled and scientific environment to provide the scientific data will allow us to show the abilities of the treatment.
“The ability to work in collaboration with the University and benefit the students was very important to us, and we hope that our contribution has been of benefit to the development and success of the students involved and their future education and careers.
“John and Sharon have been excellent partners to work with in this collaboration and development of the product, and their guidance of the students in studying the weathering effects on the treatment has been invaluable.”
Students at the Chemistry Clinic
“I was unsure on the exact field of chemistry I was interested in and where I could see myself working after I graduate. This placement has given me the opportunity to explore a number of avenues related to a future career in chemistry, involving tasks that are based in the lab and outwith.
“From the very first week, this placement threw us into presentations and preparations for school events. This allowed us to practise the simple techniques of engaging an audience and how to communicate scientific jargon in an easy-to-digest form.
“We follow the brief of clients and meet them to agree on a realistic and achievable outcome. We also carry out research and develop the product in the lab, while keeping up to date with current scientific developments which may help in modifying the product.
“Our work environment enables us to build good relationships with staff and fellow PhD students, who can help advise us on how to approach different tasks, or just for general questions when working in the lab and our individual project.”
“The Chemistry Clinic offers a wide variety of projects that give students the ability to delve into many areas of chemistry. The placement also helps improve interpersonal skills by allowing students to interact with clients, giving an insight into the marketing and legal aspects of chemistry.
“It provides training on a plethora of lab equipment, ranging from magnetic and infrared to chromatography, that might not be done in an external industrial placement.
“The Clinic has a suitable balance between theoretical chemistry and lab work. The lab work is sometimes unorthodox, to meet the needs of certain products, but this is a chance for students to think outside the box and gives them an opportunity to learn techniques that they may previously not have known.
“Collaborating with other members of staff in the Chemistry department gives us access to chemical techniques and instruments from other branches of chemistry. It also familiarises us with where we can find the materials needed for experiments. This gives students an advantage for their final year projects.”
“My placement at the Chemistry Clinic has given me the opportunity to work with and speak to people from other areas of the department. This has enabled me to familiarise myself with other pieces of equipment and machinery, which will be useful for me in my final year.
“In school and outreach work, I have had the opportunity to help and inspire a younger generation in science and chemistry. I have built my own confidence in presenting experiments and analysis to school students and improved my knowledge by breaking the chemistry down into language understandable for younger pupils.