PhD Profiles: Meet our Borland Forum winner – Piers Coia

IFM PhD candidate and 2023 Borland Forum Award winner Piers Coia.

Our PhD Profiles series spotlights our emerging researchers and the awesome discoveries they are making in the field of materials science. In this profile, we speak to Piers Coia the recent winner of the prestigious Materials Australia Borland Forum Award. 

The Borland Forum showcases short presentations from high-calibre postgraduate materials science and engineering students on their materials-related research project. Piers beat candidates from RMIT University, Monash University, University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology to take home the top award with his presentation on “Multifunctional Structure Supercapacitors”. 

Area of research: Materials, specialising on carbon fibre 

Joined IFM: 2021

Career highlights:  PhD scholarship at IFM & Borland Forum Award 2023 

Piers during his Borland Forum presentation on “Multifunctional Structure Supercapacitors”.


What inspired you to start a career in your field?

Realistically, as a child or an undergraduate student I never had the inkling that I would do a PhD, I followed my gut and always pursued what I liked doing. So, I have my teachers and demonstrators especially in chemistry to thank for helping me discover my passion for my career in research. 


Why did you decide to join IFM?

Piers with his parents Andrew and Carolyn at the Borland Forum.

I decided to join because it had great supervisors and the facilities where I feel that I could try almost anything in my research and the analysis facilities to validate that research. 


What is your current research focus? 

My current focus is developing carbon fibre structural supercapacitors via surface modification of the fibre surface. 

A supercapacitor is a form of electrochemical storage, like a battery. However, compared to a battery it has a much greater power density and specific capacitance, while batteries have a higher energy density and low self-discharge potential. Structural capacitors aim to combine structural uses and electrochemical uses.

Carbon fibre is ideal for this as it has well-documented structural uses, it also is highly conductive, but it suffers the drawback of lower surface area than other theoretical materials such as graphene, which causes a lower capacitance. Through electrochemical surface modification, I’m able to attach a redox active anthraquinone molecule to the surface of the carbon fibre. While other methods sacrifice one or the other, my surface modification can vastly increase the capacitance while also improving the structural properties.


What are some of the key findings of this research? 

So far, I have modified the surface with a molecule called anthraquinones and been able to increase the capacitance of the fibres by 6.6x while also increasing the surface adhesion by 30%. Currently, I’m working covalent organic framework functionalised carbon fibre, however, the results here are still very preliminary. 

A 12K carbon fibre tow that has been modified electrochemically with 100 mM of bisdiazoniumanthraquinone via cyclic voltammetry. Once washed it was an amazing blue colour that persists until wet or put in resin.

What real-world impact will this research make?  

My research explores how carbon fibre panelling on an electric vehicle can be turned into a supercapacitor by using carbon fibre as a positive and negative electrode. Normally carbon fibre has a very low surface area, leading to a low capacitance (<0.6 F/g). With my surface modifications, we can improve the capacitance of carbon fibre to make electric vehicles lighter and expand their ranges. 


What motivates you in your research? 

I like research because I like being able to explore the forefront of science and not know the answers to the questions. I like to discover answers and overcome problems.  


What makes you passionate about this area? 

I’m passionate about achieving the best results possible, either if it is mechanical or chemical and to be at the forefront of my research area. I also like having the option to collaborate with industry and get real-world results.