PhD researchers rise to Three Minute Thesis challenge

Explaining the use of seaweed in recycling batteries in under three minutes has won a PhD researcher the chance to represent the University of Leicester on a national stage.

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) is an academic competition developed by the University of Queensland, Australia, and held each year by the Doctoral College at Leicester.

While an 80,000-word thesis would usually take nine hours to present, researchers have just three minutes and a single presentation slide to provide the background to their problem and map out a proposed solution.

Sean Scott took the top prize – and a place at the national Vitae-run competition later this year – for highlighting the importance of battery recycling in an increasingly-electric world, and how chemical compounds found in seaweed could offer the answer.

Sean, currently undertaking a PhD in battery chemistry as part of the Faraday Institution, said: “Current recycling processes are limited by how the battery is designed and manufactured; my research focuses on changing the way the battery is designed to better facilitate recycling, a concept that is going to be imperative if the use of lithium-ion batteries is to continue into the coming decades.

“The three-minute thesis competition was a great experience, allowing me to develop presentation skills to a non-specialist audience. This type of communication is not always practiced during a PhD but can be important as a non-specialist audience could even include government and policy makers as well as the general public.

“Additionally, being limited to one slide and three minutes gave me a great opportunity of reflection into the take-home messages of my overall project.”

More than 100,000 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) were sold in the UK in 2020, with further demand for battery technology in hybrid vehicles. With a Government ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars coming into force in 2030, the reliance on battery technologies which are difficult, costly and dangerous to recycle is likely to increase.

Sean’s three-minute thesis highlighted how bio-polymer sodium alginate, extracted from seaweed, could be used to capture and reuse some of the critical materials in the millions of tonnes of battery waste forecast to be produced by 2040.

Use of this ‘binder’ with ultrasonic waves would allow more efficient recycling of battery cells and, through modification, could be used to improve the performance of batteries during their lifetime.

Runner-up Gillian Doe, completing a PhD in improving breathlessness pathways in primary care, will present her three-minute thesis on a new treatment for chronic shortness of breath at the East Midlands Doctoral Network (EMDoc) Competition.

She recruited 48 participants to a study which examined a move from a disease-based diagnostic pathway to one based on the symptoms presented by patients with chronic breathlessness, set against the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor David Lambert, Dean of the Doctoral College at the University of Leicester, said: “To fully understand a topic is one thing, but to be able to clearly communicate complex scientific ideas to others is an extremely valuable skill to hold.

“We have seen some excellent science communicators through our Three Minute Thesis competition and this year was no different. Many congratulations to Sean and Gillian, who will go on to represent the University at two further competitions, and to everyone who took part.

“As a Doctoral College we are immensely proud of our early career researchers who contribute to the world-leading work on display at Leicester.”

As one of the UK’s top research universities with an international reputation for world-leading research, the University of Leicester’s Doctoral College ensures that researchers at different stages of their careers remain at the very heart of our intellectual endeavour.