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Professor Stephen Eichhorn awarded £1.5M EPSRC Fellowship with Equality, Diversity and Inclusion focus

Professor Stephen Eichhorn

19 January 2021

Professor Stephen Eichhorn from the Bristol Composites Institute and University of Bristol’s Department of Aerospace Engineering has been awarded a £1.5M Fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, recognising outstanding research and leadership.

The title of the 5-year fellowship is 'Realising Functional Cellulosic Bio-Based Composites'. The technical work of the fellowship will focus on biobased and sustainable composites using cellulose towards functional materials. The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion aspect of the work will aim to improve the experiences and inclusion of Black students and staff.

The worldwide transition from the use of oil-based to more sustainable feedstocks for plastics is underway. This transition is due to dwindling oil stocks and a realisation that current levels of the use of this resource is no longer sustainable. Cellulose from plants can provide a more sustainable source for materials use. Professor Eichhorn is ideally placed to play a key role in the transition to renewable materials as he has been researching the structure-property relationships of cellulose for over 20 years.

Being intrinsically strong and stiff means that cellulose fibres, per weight, can compete mechanically with most synthetic alternatives such as glass. In nature's most prevalent natural composite - wood - cellulose forms the basis of its outstanding structural performance. All attempts to replicate the composite performance of wood and plants have fallen short, and this fellowship seeks to address these issues, while also using the intrinsic properties of plant fibres and wood themselves. The research will aim to do this in the context of both natural and synthetic materials, adding functionality to the composites, while also addressing in a cross-cutting sense the sustainability credentials of the materials and structures proposed.

The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion aspect of the work will look at improving inclusion of Black staff and students in STEM subjects. This will be achieved through a variety of activities, including outreach to local schools in Bristol; schemes such as the Black mentors programme; training of staff and students to become allies; tackling issues such as 'white privilege'; and decolonisation of the curriculum to make STEM subjects more inclusive, providing a platform for Black voices to be heard.

Professor Eichhorn said: "I am delighted to have been awarded this fellowship. It brings together my passion for sustainable and biobased materials, and cellulose, together with ED&I. Cellulose is my passion, and I love all things to do with plants and their many functions as composite materials. The fellowship will give me time to explore this.

As a white-male in a STEM environment, I have benefitted from my identity in ways that are often unseen. I have also benefitted from having a diverse team throughout my career. But I have seen that there are many barriers to accessing STEM subjects, and this is particularly acute for Black students and staff.

Fellowships tend to focus on the individual that receives the money, but this provides a platform for a wider inclusion of Black scientists and engineers to contribute to an exciting programme, giving opportunities for talent to come through and enrich the programme and change the culture. I am hoping to learn more about how my white privilege can be used to make change happen."

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