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Award details

Self-actuating surfaces for tunable microwave metamaterials (CDT in Metamaterials, PhD in Physics/Engineering) Ref: 4403

About the award


Lead Supervisor:

Dr Alex Powell  - Department of Physics & Astronomy, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter.


Prof Ken Evans - College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter.

The University of Exeter is looking for an enthusiastic, highly motivated student for a multidisciplinary project exploring the physics and applications arising from combining self-folding 2D surfaces with electromagnetic metamaterials.

Electromagnetic metamaterials have revolutionised the design of antennas, reflectarrays and many other electromagnetic components over the last decade. Currently however, once a material is designed and fabricated, its properties are fixed - unless each component is fitted with a complex array of electronics, which adds significant weight, bulk and cost. A family of materials that could be fabricated, and then readily altered in situ, would therefore have a myriad of applications in fields as diverse as communications, healthcare or environmental monitoring.

One route to achieving this is to use self-actuating, or self-folding surfaces: These materials alter their geometries in a controlled way on the application of a stimulus, typically heat, light or moisture. This is generally achieved via the stimulus causing greater expansion in one part of the material (or composite material) than another, leading to bending. This process can be reversible or produce permanent changes, can create highly complex structures and has already led to innovations in microfluidics, energy storage and soft robotics.

This project will explore the possibilities of hybridising electromagnetic metamaterial arrays and self-actuating materials, possibly bringing in origami or kirigami techniqhes, to create a new family of reconfigurable structures, with a view to applications in telecommunications and beyond, and the expectation of the discovery of much new physics to drive future research.

The project will pull together elements of electromagnetic physics, mechanical engineering, and advanced materials and manufacturing. There are many exciting areas to explore, but the nature of the work will involve expanding your knowledge outside that of a single undergraduate discipline. Therefore this project would be ideal for an enthusiastic, highly motivated candidate looking to pursue exciting multidisciplinary, curiosity-driven research with real-world applications.

The successful candidate will have the benefits of both being a member of the extended metamaterials CDT research community, and a compact group with a supervisor able to provide a lot of focus on this project.  The project will involve the opportunity to learn many analytical and experimental techniques, as well as access to large-scale facilities such as the anechoic chamber in Exeter.

The studentship is funded by the prestigious EPSRC Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology (ICASE) scheme, via a grant awarded to BT. The successful candidate will develop a close relationship with BT, including regular reporting and a period working at the BT labs. This project therefore presents opportunities to acquire skills necessary for a future career in either academia or industry. For more details about the ICASE scheme, see

It is essential to have a first or upper second-class degree level in Physics, Mechanical or Electrical Engineering, Materials Science/Engineering (or another MSc in a relevant discipline) with core skills in experimental work and data analysis, and a working knowledge of electromagnetism. Any programming skills or modelling experience with COMSOL/HSS/CST etc would be helpful.

About the studentship:

The 4-year studentship is fully funded by the EPSRC and BT. It is of total value around £120,000 which includes an annual, tax-free stipend of greater than £18,000 per year.

About the CDT in Metamaterials (XM2):

XM2 is the doctoral training programme of our Centre for Metamaterial Research and Innovation at the University of Exeter. We provide scientific knowledge as well as transferable and technical skills training to all our students to prepare them for careers within and outside of academia.

In 2014, we started off as a £12 million Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Metamaterials, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC/EP/L015331/1), the University of Exeter and industry.

The PhD students learn together in targeted courses, self-driven activity groups, and exposure to industry to gain scientific background knowledge beyond their areas of expertise, and to equip themselves with transferable professional skills such as creative thinking, project management, and leadership.

XM2 now consists of more than 60 active PhD students (Postgraduate Researchers, PGRs) from the UK, the EU and beyond, who are training in a stimulating, challenging yet supportive cohort-based environment. Since 2018, over 30 graduates went into employment in industry and as postdocs in Higher Education Institutions in and outside of the UK.

About the University of Exeter:

The University of Exeter combines world class research with excellent student satisfaction. It is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities. Formed in 1955, the University has over 20,000 students from more than 130 different countries. Its success is built on a strong partnership with its students and a clear focus on high performance. Recent breakthroughs to come out of Exeter's research include the identification and treatment of new forms of diabetes and the creation of the world's most transparent, lightweight and flexible conductor of electricity.

We are one of the very few universities to be both a member of the Russell Group and have a Gold award from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), evidence of our established international reputation for excellence in both teaching and research. Our success is built on a strong partnership with our students and a clear focus on high performance.

Exeter is also ranked amongst the world’s top 200 universities in the QS and Times Higher Education rankings.

Entry requirements

The Essential Criteria:

• Undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline;

• Vision and motivation (for research & professional development);

• Evidence of the ability to work collaboratively and to engage in a diverse community;

• Evidence of excellent written and oral skills in English.

The highest quality candidates will also be able to demonstrate one of more of the following:

• Specialist knowledge about one or more of the 8 research areas listed above;

• Training in research methodology (e.g. undergraduate research projects);

• Research outputs (e.g. papers) and/or other indicators of academic excellence (e.g. awards).


The interview will normally be undertaken by a panel of 2 people, a member of the CDT management team and the project supervisor.  This will allow assessment for fit to the CDT concept as well as academic suitability.

Interviews are expected to start within two weeks upon application receipt. It is therefore advisable to apply as soon as possible.

Please email if you have any queries about this process.

How to apply

Application Criteria:


UK nationals only.

Applications are made to the Metamaterials programme for a PhD in Physics/Engineering. We invite candidates to specify their project(s) of interest at the time of application.

Please ensure to upload ALL items listed below through our application system. Incomplete applications cannot be processed.

• Degree transcript(s) giving information about the qualification awarded, the modules taken during the study period, and the marks for each module taken.

• An academic CV;

• A cover letter outlining your research interests in general, the title of the project you are applying for;
o Describe a) why you would like to study for a PhD, b) why you would like to focus on this particular topic, c) any relevant expertise and d) your future career ambitions;
o Describe the qualities that you believe will make you a great researcher (in particular as part of a team).

• The contact details of two academic referees.

* We foster creativity and utilisation of individual strengths. Applicants are encouraged to provide evidence to support their statements. This might include conventional written documents (e.g. examples of work), but we also encourage alternatives such as audio or video recordings, websites, programming etc. Please ensure to include accessible links to such files in an appropriately named document as part of the upload process.

Application Procedure


Applications will normally be reviewed within two weeks of receipt.

Candidates will be short-listed against a set of agreed criteria to ensure quality while maintaining diversity. Failure to include all the elements listed above may result in rejection.


Application deadline:1st February 2022
Number of awards:1
Value:Approximately £ 120,000, including a substantial research and travel budget, tuition fees and annual taxfree stipend (approx. £18,000 per year payable to UK students only).
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions Team