Lab Name: Experimental Micromechanics Group

Researcher: Dr Ben Britton

Location: London, UK



Dr Ben Britton
Dr Ben Britton

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Dr Ben Britton leads the Experimental Micromechanics Group at Imperial College London. His group develop new experimental and computational techniques to understand deformation and failure of materials; primarily those used in nuclear, oil and gas, and aerospace applications. Laurie Winkless spoke to him to learn more about his work…

What is your academic background?

I initially set out to study maths, but while doing a maths project in school, a neighbour suggested I look at close-packing structures – they’re what led me to materials. For my undergraduate degree, I studied metallurgy and material science at the University of Oxford. In my fourth year, I used nanoindentation to explore the mechanical properties of grain boundaries in materials.

In the slight euphoria of finishing my project, my supervisor Prof Angus Wilkinson offered me a place on a DPhil programme. My plan had actually been to go to law school, but I spoke to my parents and they said “Well, you could still do law after the doctorate", so I joined Angus’s team. My DPhil was on developing methods to characterise titanium alloys, and that’s where I first started my work on electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD).

What brought you to Imperial College London?

After I handed in my thesis, I stayed at Oxford for a two-year postdoc on materials for fission and fusion power – again, using many of the same tools I’d developed during my DPhil. I joined Imperial as a Nuclear Metallurgy Fellow in 2012, and then in 2015 I won a RAEng Research Fellowship. That scheme aims to help early career researchers establish their own groups, and it supports you for five years, so it’s been very important.

What are the major themes of your group’s research?

The group is made up of materials scientists, mechanical engineers, physicists, and chemists, so we each bring different skills. About a third of our work is in oil and gas, a third in nuclear power, and a third in aerospace. We have a pretty strong industrial focus, so I spend a lot of my time translating basic science into applied science and engineering.

We combine simulation and experiment. This is critical, as it enables us to translate experiments directly into models, and to design models that capture the essence of performance in experiments. Simulation-wise, we specialise in crystal plasticity and dislocation dynamics; really, we’re thinking about how materials slip and how we build microstructures. Our experimental work has two major strands – one is on developing mechanical testing techniques to measure performance, such as measurement of fracture energy of a particular grain boundary. The other strand is around electron microscopy, and particularly, EBSD, which is probably what I’m most well-known for.

Can you give me an example of the industrial impact of your work?

Imperial was a partner on a large EPSRC project called HexMat, which focused on hexagonal metals for the aerospace, defence and energy sectors. Through that, we developed a lot of expertise and knowledge on specific alloys and microstructures. For example, the aerospace industry spends a lot of money trying to mitigate dwell fatigue in titanium alloys – it’s really important in jet engines, as it can cause failure in critical components. We’ve done a lot of experimental work around understanding that process, and then using those results to develop better models to explain what’s going on at the microscale. That work improves confidence in the components, which enables people to save money. We’re continuing that via an industrial project that’s partly funded by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and includes major aerospace manufacturers.

Ben's team are a sociable bunch!
Ben's team are a sociable bunch!

What’s the secret to running a successful lab?

I currently have four post-docs, 11 PhD students, and four MSc/MEng students. We also usually have several undergrads in the lab over the summer. So, it’s busy! The approach I’ve taken is to build a group that can help each other. My team is large, but they all chip in to support one other, and keep things moving. And I am very honest with them when, for example, I haven’t managed to review their draft paper on time. I also use online tools a lot, which mean that I can still be working and contactable no matter where I might be in the world.

Another very helpful thing is to work alongside your colleagues. Prof Fionn Dunne and I run joint research group meetings, which effectively means that, if either of us are out of the building, there's another senior academic available to sign paperwork, or instruct PhD students. That support structure helps us as individuals, and really benefits both our groups.

I think finding interesting opportunities is also helpful, as it keeps the research fresh and engaging. I like to get knee-deep into things as quickly as possible – I think it might be one of my greatest skills! I also regularly make time to reflect on what’s gone well, where we added value, and what activities were less worthwhile.

You’re very active on social media, and are a vocal advocate for equality in all forms. Can you talk a bit about why you think it’s important?

use Twitter a lot, and for several reasons. The first is that, as someone who travels, I find social media really useful for keeping in touch. The other thing is that it's a way to enable academics to represent themselves as normal human beings, and also to have the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds – from policy makers to schoolchildren.

My social media activity gets a bit of a mixed response from colleagues. Some see it as a good investment of effort, whereas others in academia accuse me of ‘rocking the boat’. But that’s ok – there’s a group of us who are working hard – on and offline – to try and make academia more fair, equitable, and diverse. It’s still too homogenous, and that's a problem when we're engaging in wider society, and tackling global challenges.

I’m also someone who struggled with being gay for a long time, and only came out to my family last year. A big part of coming to terms with my sexuality was getting involved with a group called Pride in STEM, and we’ve since become a registered charity. We say our mission is to “queer up science spaces” and to “science up queer spaces,” but we also work hard to influence, change policies, and share good practice. This feeds back into my lab, because as an academic, a significant part of my role is enabling other people to do good science. Giving them the space to be completely themselves is critical, so we should be able to openly discuss sexuality – it’s really about relationships and how people connect with the world.

Selected publications / links

Daniel S. Gianola, T. Ben Britton, Stefan Zaefferer "New techniques for imaging and identifying defects in electron microscopy" and

Siyang Wang, Finn Giuliani, and Ben Britton "Microstructure and formation mechanisms of δ-hydrides in variable grain size Zircaloy-4 studied by electron backscatter diffraction" Acta Materialia (2019) and

Vivian S Tong, Alexander J Knowles, David Dye, T Ben Britton "Rapid Electron Backscatter Diffraction Mapping: Painting by Numbers" and Materials Characterization (2019)

Tianhong Gu, Chis Gourlay, and T. Ben Britton "Evaluating Creep Deformation in Controlled Microstructures 7 of Sn-3Ag-0.5Cu Solder" Journal of Electronic Materials (2019)

Tea-Sung Jun, Xavier Maeder, Ayan Bhowmik, Gaylord Guillonneau, Johann Michler, Finn Giuliani, T. Ben Britton "The role of β-titanium ligaments in the deformation of dual phase titanium alloys" Materials Science and Engineering A (2019) and

Britton, T.B., Goran, D., Tong, V. "Space rocks and optimising scanning electron channelling contrast" Materials Characterization (2018) (open access preprint also available

Thomas Benjamin Britton, Vivian Tong, Jim Hikey, Alex Foden, and Angus Wilkinson "AstroEBSD: exploring new space in pattern indexing with methods launched from an astronomical approach" Journal of Applied Crystallography (2018) (& preprint

Further information

Ben recently worked with two of his Imperial colleagues – Dr Jess Wade and Prof Chris Jackson – to develop a comment paper for Nature Review Chemistry on the benefits of engaging with social media. The trio opened the initial draft up to informal peer-review via Google Documents, and they had feedback from 40 scientists and science communicators. This paper appears in the August 2019 edition of the journal, with the following details: Britton, T. B., Jackson, C. A., & Wade, J. (2019, June 20). The reward and risk of social media for academics with online influence. Retrieved from

The Experimental Micromechanics Group can be found on the web via and on twitter as @ExpMicroMech