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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Studying at Cambridge


Charlie Barty-King


Charlie's work is funded by the EPSRC through the Centre for Doctoral Training in Ultra Precision Engineering where Charlie is enrolled. His PhD is a collaboration between the Nanomanufacturing group at the Institute for Manufacturing and the Bio-inspired Photonics group at the Department of Chemistry, both of the University of Cambridge.

Subject groups/Research projects

Supply Chains and Food Security:

Research Interests

Charlie's work is predominantly focused around a cellulose-derivative, Hydroxypropyl Cellulose (HPC), which upon dissolution self-assembles into a lyotropic liquid crystalline mesophase. Under certain conditions of concentration, temperature and pressure HPC gives rise to vibrant, iridescent structural-colour that is inherent to its molecular conformation. Therefore, provided the material is sufficiently stable over time, the colour will never fade. Light is reflected in a similar fashion to Bragg-reflection and means that the observed colour can be tuned in various ways, for example, by applying pressure or changing the concentration.

HPC has proven bio-compatibility in the food and pharmaceutical industries as a bulking agent in pills and as a gluten-substitute in foods. It is thus edible, bio-degradable, low-cost and already produced in large quantities world-wide. It is also easily derived from cellulose, the most abundant natural polymer in the world. These points combine to make HPC highly suited for industrial scaling in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, if only more photonic applications were realised.

To this end, Charlie is currently attempting to trap the vibrantly coloured HPC phase into the solid state so that it can be used as a novel food aesthetic. For example, it could be used to produce vibrant and iridescent sweets, jellies and/or food/cake decorations that change colour as you move around or touch them. The pressure and humidity sensitivity also has applications as a low-cost, biocompatible sensor in packaging. 

By the end of his PhD, Charlie would like to have developed a pressure-responsive, weavable fibre from HPC for use as a low-cost, low-skill-to-understand sensor, as well as a solid-state edible iridescent material.

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