“My research aligns with the innovation and engagement activities at the heart of Swansea University’s history and heritage.  

As an undergraduate, in the middle of an integrated master’s at Swansea University, I took a year in industry. By the end of my degree, I’d experienced industrial research and academic research and wanted to be right in the middle of both. I found the perfect opportunity in Swansea’s engineering doctorate scheme, where I was able to continue working in an important area - the fast drying of coatings that are continuously produced on production lines.

I began my research by focusing on materials such as ultraviolet-cured resins for coated abrasives (yes, sandpaper) and near infrared-cured organically coated steels for construction (yes, paint) but understanding the amount of research and development that goes into these everyday materials altered my view of the world. The focus of most of my work has been to speed up a process or replace rare or harmful materials, considering technical issues, but also with a view to commercial success. 

Ian Mabbett in a lab wearing protective clothing

I worked with my colleagues Professors Dave Worsley and Trystan Watson in the College of Engineering to patent a method of producing a solar cell in 2010, taking a production step from 30 minutes to 12 seconds, and enabling continuous roll to roll manufacture without a huge oven.   It was at this time that Professor Worsley set up the Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings (SPECIFIC).  I became a technology transfer fellow there, leading energy storage for a while before I took the reins of the EngD centre I’d graduated from. Within the theme of working where I graduated, I later went on to help re-open chemistry at Swansea and take a faculty position.  

More recently my work has focused on problems in developing nations. In 2014 I had a chance encounter with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), where I discovered that 40% of the world’s population have inadequate access to proper toilet facilities. The impact of this is a childhood death rate from diarrhoea that eclipses aids, malaria and measles combined.  

Working with the BMGF I realised that my skills and Swansea’s innovation ethos could help. The reality is that technologies to solve these issues need to be commercially viable.  We need to derive value from waste by creating other commodities such as fuels or fertilisers and clean water. One thing holding the technologies up is an economic way of pre-processing and dewatering faecal sludge materials. Through my previous work on drying, curing and sintering of various materials I’d gained a lot of experience of radiative drying and how it can help pre-treat materials and drive down energy and cost. 

With that experience I moved on to the SUNRISE project, which won ‘best international collaboration’ in the Times Higher Education awards 2020.  SUNRISE takes the energy positive ‘active building’ concept developed by SPECIFIC and applies the concept across the Global South, with a strong emphasis on India. SUNRISE is an OECD case study for ‘addressing societal challenges using transdisciplinary research’, working with local communities to co-create appropriate infrastructure, then engaging with the whole process from scientific invention through to establishing supply chains for new technologies with industrial partners.  

Now my interests are in whole systems approaches to decarbonisation of infrastructure. Rather than thinking about buildings, transport, power, industry and nature separately I’m interested in how that infrastructure interfaces and can work together and how people interact with and experience those combined systems. Related to this, I’m increasingly interested in collaborations with artists and story tellers. If they can help us reimagine the future, filling it with hope, then innovators can be inspired to create it.