Meet the Ossila Directors, Pt. 2: Dr. Alastair Buckley

Posted on Tue, Aug 29, 2017

Dr. Alastair Buckley at the Sheffield Solar Farm
Dr. Alastair Buckley at the Sheffield Solar Farm, March 2017

Earlier this year, we published Part 1 of our "Meet the Ossila Directors" series. As summer rolls around to an end, we are excited to share the final instalment of this series! For Part 2, we had a chat with another one of our Directors, Dr. Alastair Buckley. 


O: Can you tell me about your role at the University of Sheffield?

A: I'm a senior lecturer in the Physics Department, and I started at the University in 2008. Before that, I'd been working in industry for 8 years - for a company called Microemissive Displays, which developed micro-display technology (sort of like Google Glass), the actual display itself. We helped develop that technology, and I was the chief scientist there for 5 years. We had quite a few customers in the Far East in the toys and games market, but the virtual and near-to-eye displays didn't really take off. The company went into administration in late 2008, and I started a lectureship role at the University soon after.

I came to the University with the premise of adding critical weight to the materials science activities in the department, looking at organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Just at that time, Prof. David Lidzey (Chairman of Ossila) had started researching organic photovoltaics (OPV), which was taking off in quite a big way. I initially made contributions to that research. But then, I diversified my interests within a couple of years, partly because I thought there were more opportunities out there to look at different ways of doing research.


O: What are some of the research projects you started from the ground up?

A: The UK funding landscape was quite dynamic at that time; a lot of "risky" stuff was being funded. At the same time, solar photovoltaics (PV) was taking off in the UK (in 2010) - the subsidies came in with the renewable obligation certificates. So, we looked at how to support the UK industry around the deployment of PV, and the policy frameworks around incentives for PV. I set up 2 projects - one was an Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) research project, on the role of the public on decision-making democracy around innovation regarding energy technology. This was a collaboration with social sciences, architecture and engineering. We also set up a database of PV performance from the real-world, where we asked people to donate data to our central repository that we still operate in the department. These 2 research streams took me away from materials science, to a certain extent. They've been quite successful, I suppose! But I still do materials science and support its research in the department, and look at the bigger picture of the questions around energy.

The database of PV performance has grown to become a live service for the National Grid, to measure the amount of PV on the electricity network. So, we have commercial data, and we're using those live data streams to then aggregate the national/regional PV generation numbers. That's quite important for the UK energy mix. In parallel, we also set up a small test facility called the Sheffield Solar Farm on the roof of the Hicks Building. It kind of tied into the tie between real-world measurements across the whole of the UK, as well as materials science, new cells, and measurement in real-world conditions that use solar.


O: Can you elaborate on the Sheffield Solar Farm?

A: We originally called it the Solar Farm because it was a physical installation on the roof, with different types of module technology and different kinds of meteorological monitoring and weather condition monitoring. But when the centre of gravity of that project became streaming in data from across the whole of the UK, "Solar Farm" didn't do it justice. So, we changed the branding of the project to Sheffield Solar, but the original name still stuck! So externally, the networks we have for the use of our monitoring services know us as Sheffield Solar. But internally, we're quite well known as the Sheffield Solar Farm - that's just the way it goes! So, Solar Farm refers to the installation, and Sheffield Solar refers to the research group that's doing work on real-world reports. 


O: The way it is now - is it how you originally envisioned it to be?

A: Yea, pretty much! (laughs) It is, it is. The need to measure real-world performance is there, and it needs to be done over the lifetime of the systems (which is 20 years). Typical research funding works on a 3-year cycle, so it's extremely difficult to keep a project going, to just do the same thing. This is why we've got a mix of research funding and industrial/innovation funding.


O: How did you get started with Ossila?

A: When I was working with MicroEmissive Displays, we needed to develop sophisticated ways of doing research. We were trying to develop new LED technologies, and for that we needed very reliable experimental platforms - we needed reliable substrates to experimentation on, we needed reliable material sets, and reliable procedures - much more reliable than a standard university laboratory would need.

Starting out, we outsourced substrate production to third-party contractors who would make thousands of substrates for us, and then we would build devices all in the same way. It was a quality assurance thing that we were developing, because we were needing to screen many different combinations of materials. That learning - of how to professionalise a materials science lab - spilled over into Ossila. When James (Kingsley, Ossila Ltd’s MD) first started to think about how to become a supplier to the organic electronics community (at that time), we started to use some of the knowledge that I had gained on industrial R&D, which fed back into high-quality products.


O: Was there anyone whom you looked up to for inspiration during your earlier years?

A: The cheesiest one would be my mum, she was quite inspiring! She was a maths teacher, but she didn't like rules. She just did what felt in her heart was the right thing to do. She said, "You do what you want to do", and she instilled confidence. I think she was a very inspiring teacher, all her students thought so. I guess that inspired me! Growing up, I didn't ever think I would end up in education doing teaching. But the reality is that I kind of have... so maybe that's a "destiny" thing going on!


O: You appear to be very passionate about education. What are you most passionate about in your teaching role at the University?

A: I do quite love teaching development work! There are 2 days a week where I'm brought out on a central University project to do interdisciplinary teaching. I also help lead an organisation called the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) that links different universities in the North of England together to try and help break down some of the barriers between Physics students getting diverse jobs in technical industries. I'm pretty passionate about giving students the best chance of a variety of different roles. I like breaking stuff down, not getting too constrained by disciplinary cultures and perspective, and not assuming that a historical curriculum is the one that needs to be followed in the future - allowing things to drop off the curriculum if they're not currently important.


O: Lastly, what is your favourite way to unwind and relax?

A: Running... I just run!