16 January 2018
Infineum’s Elizabeth Mould has been recognised for her ground-breaking work in producing a commercially valuable and environmentally friendly artificial snow, now in demand by the film industry.
The Vice Chancellor’s Impact Award 2017 recognises the diverse and globally important contribution University of Bristol research makes to society, and Elizabeth, a recent graduate, collected her award in the Business and Economy category. Her “falling snow” has already been used in films and television adverts.
Elizabeth was studying for a Masters in Chemistry at University of Bristol and leapt at the chance of creating an environmentally friendly snow when she saw a project advertised.
We needed to develop something that lasted long enough to create the effect of falling snow, but did not leave a lasting residue. It had to be cost effective too
The product needed to be very foamy - creating foam snowflakes when air was mixed with the snow fluid - and Elizabeth started by quantifying how surface active potential components were (i.e. their ability to help foam formation by reducing surface tension) using a tensiometer. She also used a dynamic foam analyser to look at the structure of the bubbles and how long they took to degrade and therefore disappear.
“But what we saw in the lab test didn’t always translate into real life so there was some trial and error involved. We ended up making lots of different solutions to see which produced the most realistic, suitably stable “snow” when used in the snow machine,” said Elizabeth. “At one stage we even created our falling snow in the tropical rainforest biome of the Eden Project to ensure it was ecological enough not to cause problems for sensitive plants”. And although the world of lubes might seem a million miles away from special effects, Elizabeth said she has used a surprising amount of similar techniques in her six months in the Oil Life Team at Infineum. “In lubes, we also need to identify surface active agents (surfactants) that go to the surface of a solution where they can do the job we need them to,” she explained. So is Infineum as glamorous as the film business? “Well, there are so many interesting research projects to work on here with very interesting chemistry behind them,” said Elizabeth.