Interview with Dr Rob Thomas

7 Apr 2011

Dr Robert Thomas is a fellow of University College, Oxford. He works in the field of soft condensed matter and is a pioneer in the development of neutron scattering and reflectivity techniques. This year, the Colloids Group has elected him the recipient of the Rideal Lecture for pioneering work in his field.

What drives your interest in colloid and surface science?
I did not start doing anything in wet surface science until about 10 years into my scientific career, and it was a long process getting to understand the issues. However, once the possibilities of what neutron reflection could do at surfaces became apparent, the science of surfactants at interfaces became like an 'Aladdin's Cave'. There are so many interesting things to explore, many of them are important industrially, and the use of isotopic labelling allows neutron reflectometry to explore situations of a complexity that is too challenging for most other techniques.

What have been the most interesting fruits of your collaborations with industry?
Two areas, which have been very profitable from the point of view of fundamental research, have been generated in the first instance by contact with industry. These are the study of the behaviour of surfactant mixtures at interfaces and the study of polymer/surfactant interactions at interfaces. As a result, we are now able to understand enough features of these systems to start to have some useful predictive tools. Another area that grew by chance out of industrial collaboration was a series of experiments done on the swelling of clays, which led to a number of attractive projects and papers.

Which are the most pressing problems that can be solved by colloid and surface science?
The world currently has some obvious and difficult problems that must be solved, mostly associated with increasing the efficiencies of resource utilisation. In general terms, the efficiency of any material can be optimised by increasing the ratio of its area to mass. This inevitably takes us into the realm of surface and colloid chemistry and it is then not surprising that many of the potential solutions rely in some way or other on colloid and surface chemistry. So there seems to be limitless opportunities to do something valuable in this area.

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