Reporter 414, 9 February 1998

Industry and academics tackle hard questions on soft matter

A physics network which brings together experts from major universities and the private sector has been awarded £50,000 to find out how ‘soft matter’ holds together.

Headed by Dr Peter Olmsted, a Research Fellow at the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, the project will enable academics and experts from industry to understand the science behind the structured liquids which we use every day.

“Basically anything you squeeze out of a bottle is soft condensed matter, and the bottle itself was once soft matter,” explains Dr Olmsted. “This includes everything from shampoo and skin cream to paint and tomato sauce, as well as things like butter, margarine, jam and even bread in dough form.”

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded the grant because the project will address fundamentally interesting questions for physicists while helping companies improve their products.

“When you squeeze shaving foam out of a can it will keep its form for a while but if you come back to it the next day it’s fallen in to a gloopy mess,” says Dr Olmsted. “We want to find out why that happens. It will help us understand the dynamics of soft condensed matter and how their structures change over time.”

The network is made up of experts from the Universities of Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford and Imperial College, and scientists from companies including ICI, Unilever and Schlumberger.

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