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Career set for take off with Mastership programme

2 hours 59 min ago

Joel Fuentes Tobin, Research & Technology Campus Manager at BAE Systems, talks to The Student Engineer about how a Mastership – a Master’s degree level apprenticeship – has helped his career take flight.

What’s your role with BAE Systems?
Between my 4th and 5th years of studying for a Master’s in Aeromechanical Engineering at Strathclyde University, I applied for a 12-week summer internship with BAE Systems at its Warton site.

You’re given a rating at the end of the internship, and if you’re able to achieve the top rating of five then you’re offered a place on the graduate scheme without the need to go through the standard recruitment process. I was lucky enough to be one of those people.

When I joined the graduate scheme in 2017 my first six months were spent in requirement management of mission systems software for Tornado aircraft, followed by working on test rigs. I’m now working as a Research & Technology Campus Manager, overseeing relationships and projects that BAE Systems has with its five strategic university partners. It’s about making sure joint projects are running smoothly, that activity is rooted in business needs and that both sides are getting the best from the research work and keeping in touch with emerging new technologies.

31 Squadron Tornado (© 2018 BAE Systems)

If you already have a Master’s degree, what’s the value of a Mastership?
They’re very different types of qualification. My Master’s was mostly theoretical while the Level 7 Mastership I’m currently pursuing is more competency based. Like all engineers who’ve studied a postgraduate programme I can do all the thinking in terms of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics – but that in itself doesn’t prepare you for managing complex projects.

In other words, the Mastership with Cranfield University is more about equipping us for the industrial engineering approach, optimising the use of resources and results within a particular organisation, with its own set of goals and ambitions.

The biggest priority for me at this stage is to work towards gaining Chartered Engineer status. The level 7 postgraduate Mastership is aligned to the professional competencies that need to be exhibited to become a Chartered Engineer. The evidence-gathering approach being taken means the professional practice and experience is being captured, and by completing the programme I’ll also have a Postgraduate Diploma in Engineering Competence – a big step towards the CEng accreditation.

What new skills are the most important to your career?
Project management is really important, as I believe all engineers will collaborate and contribute to the role of project management in the future so learning about the Prince (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) 2 system has been invaluable. I can see it being fundamental in a whole range of roles for the future, so would definitely be worth investigating further.

All the modules that apply across the business beyond to engineering are massively important – like the modules on finance for non-financial managers, workplace cultures, operations management and governance and ethics.”

Hawk on the runway at Warton (© 2018 BAE Systems)

How is it possible to combine your day-to-day work with postgraduate study?
The Mastership has been running since January, so we’re four months into the two-year part-time programme. During this time I’ve had a handful of roles. My previous role was on the test rigs which meant I had very little desk time while my current role involves lots of travelling between different partner universities and different BAE Systems sites, again with relatively little desk time. This means that during the initial stages I’ve needed to consciously set time aside to focus on studying, attending modules and completing assignments with the postgraduate study. I do expect this to change as I settle into managing the balance between my study and my day job and also when assignments begin to be related to more specific and live organisational projects that I’m working on.

All the modules are delivered online, so there’s no travel time needed and it means I can access the live sessions from wherever I am, and then catch-up ‘on-demand’. Sessions are interactive, you can ask the academics a question at any time, and stay in touch with the rest of the group via instant messaging and the online forums. There’s also an assignment helpdesk.

What’s worked best of all is how the Mastership has brought us all together in a working environment. Many of the participants from BAE Systems are based at the Warton and Salmesbury sites, and after each module we’ve tried to find a way to all get into the same room and collaborate on the topics and assignments before going our separate ways.

What part does the Mastership play in your plans for the future?
I’m at the stage where I’m still thinking about which direction I want to go. People tend to either go down the technology stream, focusing on more specialist expertise, or a leadership stream where a broader set of skills are needed. The Mastership experience means I can keep my options open, and provide a solid basis for whatever type of engineering career I decide to follow.

Thanks Joel!


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CT scanning could help early diagnosis and monitoring of arthritis

3 hours 55 min ago

A novel use for the established imaging technique could improve arthritis treatment options

CT scans of hip, knee and ankle showing space between the bones in the joint compared with two-dimensional x-ray images. Image: Tom Turmezei

Osteoarthritis is a painfully common condition, but hard to treat effectively and to diagnose early. It occurs when the cartilage that coats the ends of bones and joints wears away over time, leading to immobility and pain. Pain killers can help, but the only truly effective treatment is through surgery to replace cartilage or to implant replacement joints.

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis depends on x-ray imaging to detect narrowing of space between the bones in the joint. But this effect can be gradual and subtle and difficult to spot, depending on the judgement and experience of the clinician. Lack of sensitivity of x-rays can also make it difficult to detect changes in the joint over time.

Tom Turmezei of the engineering department at Cambridge University is working on new ways to detect and monitor osteoarthritis. “In addition to their lack of sensitivity, two-dimensional x-rays rely on humans to interpret them,” he said. “Our ability to detect structural changes to identify disease early, monitor progression and predict treatment response is frustratingly limited by this.”

In a paper in the journal Scientific Reports, Turmezei and colleagues explain how they have turned to computerised tomography (CT) scanning to identify changes in the space between bones in the joints. CT scanning is an established technique, commonly used to look at internal organs and (with the help of contrast agents) blood flow, but it is not normally used to monitor joints. However, with its ability to construct detailed three-dimensional images from “slices” through the body, Turmezei believes it could be a powerful tool.

The Cambridge team has developed a technique called joint space mapping (JSM). The initial research was carried out on human hip joints from bodies donated to medical research. This revealed that the technique was more sensitive than the current “gold standard” for joint imaging with x-rays, proving at least twice as good at detecting small structural changes. The researchers have refined the technique using colour-coded images to illustrate the width or narrowness of the space between the bones across the whole joint.

“Using this technique, we’ll hopefully be able to identify osteoarthritis earlier, and look at potential treatments before it becomes debilitating,” said Turmezei, who is now a consultant at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital’s Department of Radiology. “It could be used to screen at-risk populations, such as those with known arthritis, previous joint injury, or elite athletes who are at risk of developing arthritis due to the continued strain placed on their joints.”

Moreover, Turmezei said, CT can be used with low doses of radiation, making it safer for more frequent scans to monitor patients over time. “We’ve shown that this technique could be a valuable tool for the analysis of arthritis, in both clinical and research settings,” said Turmezei. “When combined with 3D statistical analysis, it could be also be used to speed up the development of new treatments.”


The post CT scanning could help early diagnosis and monitoring of arthritis appeared first on The Engineer.

This Week’s Poll: are engineers paid enough?

3 hours 56 min ago

With the publication this week of The Engineer’s annual salary survey, we’re asking whether engineers are paid enough?

(Credit: Public domain/Pixabay)

Now in its 4th year, the survey – which we’re running in partnership with Technical Recruitment specialist CBSbutler – attracted a large response from UK engineers of all levels of seniority and across all sectors – and provides a fascinating snapshot of what engineering salaries are looking like in 2018, as well as insight into the issues that are having an impact on the profession.

You can read detailed analysis of this year’s survey results – including average salary breakdowns by sector, region and seniority – here, and you can see how your salary stacks up against that of your industry peers using our online salary benchmarking tool.

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As outlined in the full report, average engineering salaries haven’t changed much over the past 12 months. Indeed, the overall mean average salary for engineers taking part in the survey is actually lower than last year, standing at £47,896 in 2018 compared to £48,197 in 2017.

This compares reasonably well with other professions in the UK, sitting below those in strategy and consultancy on £57,554, qualified accountants on £53,887, and those in banking on £52,666, but above those in financial services on £47,250.

Over 50 per cent of engineers in eight of the 11 sectors covered in the report state they are happy in their current jobs, although this level of contentment is not matched in salary satisfaction. At 39.6 per cent, engineers in energy/renewables/nuclear are most satisfied with their remuneration compared to 25.3 per cent of rail/civil & structural engineers.

So for this week’s poll we’d like to ask a simple question: are engineers paid enough? Do you think the profession as a whole is undervalued, or does your salary fairly reflect your skills and experience? Is your remuneration so poor that it is hastening an exit from your current role, or do you think engineering salaries compare favourably to those in other professions?

Commenters should take note of our guidelines for comment content, and bear in mind that all comments will be moderated. We may edit for grammar, spelling and clarity, and will try to ensure discussion does not get sidetracked. Results from the Poll will be published on June 26, 2018.

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Patent filings: the truth behind the data

7 hours 4 min ago

New figures suggest innovation in the UK has increased, but we are lagging behind other parts of Europe and Brexit could yet turn the clock back writes Karl Barnfather chairman of IP firm Withers & Rogers

The latest batch of patent filing data released by the European Patent Office (EPO) reveals that innovation activity in the UK has increased, which is always a good sign. However, dig a bit deeper and the true picture becomes clear– UK innovators are still not doing enough to protect their inventions, unlike those in many other parts of the world.

The total number of patent filings made to the EPO by UK businesses grew by 2.4 per cent to 5,313 in 2017, a sign that investment in innovation remains buoyant. Drilling down into the UK data for industry sectors, the number of patent applications for innovations related to civil engineering rose considerably – increasing by 20.2 per cent. Similarly, the number of pharmaceutical and biotech patent applications rose by 15.7 per cent and 25.3 per cent respectively. Patent applications for medical technology overtook transport as the UK’s most active technology field, with 364 patent applications made in 2017.

While these statistics suggest that innovation in the UK is increasing, it is significant that the UK’s share of the overall number of patent applications made to the EPO in 2017 remains low by comparison with some other countries. Ranked 17th in the table of countries that made applications to the EPO in 2017, innovators in the UK filed just 82 applications per million of population. Puerto Rico, Norway and Ireland ranked higher. Topping the table, innovators in Switzerland filed over ten times as many applications per head of population, which makes them the most innovative country in the world.

The problem of Britain’s underwhelming performance when it comes to commercialising its innovations is not simply due to a lack of government intervention

The outlook for UK innovation is improving strongly in some areas, however. The rise in patent applications related to pharmaceutical and biotech innovations is particularly positive and shows that UK-based businesses are active players in the development of new cancer drugs and other much-needed medicines. The high volume of filings in this sector could also be due to greater awareness and understanding of the value of patent protection. The sharp rise in the number of patent applications related to construction in 2017 may well be linked to current investment in several large-scale infrastructure projects, including Crossrail and HS2.

However, despite the chinks of light in the data, cultural issues still need to be addressed in order to ensure that UK businesses don’t lose ground to competitors. While the Government has indicated a willingness to support UK innovation, the economic uncertainty expected over the next few years, as Britain exits the EU, makes it even more important that the conditions are right to enable the UK to realise its innovation potential.

The Government’s Industrial Strategy has set out plans to boost the productivity and earning power of people throughout the UK, and in February the Government announced a new £90m fund designed to align the UK’s agriculture supply-chain businesses with AI, robotics and data science. While this is helpful, the Government has a more important role to play and this should be its main focus.

In particular, diversity and international collaboration should be recognised and supported to ensure that Brexit doesn’t negatively impact the UK’s ability to attract skilled research scientists and to facilitate research projects at university level.

Furthermore, it is vital that innovators are able to achieve a good return on investment after Brexit. To assist with this, the Government must ensure that British companies have access to key markets, with as few trade barriers as possible.

However, the problem of Britain’s underwhelming performance when it comes to commercialising its innovations is not simply due to a lack of government intervention. There is also an onus on businesses to ensure that they are nurturing and supporting innovation.

Taking lessons from nations where innovation is considered an integral part of growing a successful business, British companies should consider establishing ‘skunk’ works or labs to sponsor research activity within their own corporate structures. They should also make innovation part of their business strategy and set goals for achievement in the same way as they might set targets for financial performance.

UK companies may also need to reconsider what it means to be innovative. Instead of concentrating on the springboard effect that comes from being first to market, they should be taking a more long-term view of commercialising their innovations.

In today’s intensely competitive and fast-paced markets, the real value of innovation often comes from licensing deals or industry collaborations, where patented technologies are shared to accelerate change. Of course, a deep understanding of the value of intellectual property rights is critical to this way of working.

In short, if Britain wants to increase its share of EPO patent applications in the future, it must start by self-learning a new approach to doing business that fosters innovation in every way and at every level.

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Swiss team carves miniscule watch component from synthetic diamond

Mon, 2018-06-18 17:04

A new technique for creating micromechanical systems has led to a miniscule watch component carved from synthetic single-crystal diamond.

Escapement wheel made from synthetic diamond

Diamond has a number of favourable properties but cutting it into complex shapes with micrometre precision remains very challenging.

Now, a process developed by a team led by Niels Quack, a Swiss National Science Foundation Professor at EPFL in Lausanne, makes it possible to carve a micromechanical watch system – a 3mm diameter escapement wheel and anchor – out of synthetic single-crystal diamond.

The Lausanne team is said to have refined reactive ion etching, a technique widely used in the computer chip industry, to carve synthetic diamond into three-dimensional shapes 0.15mm thick.

“We’re getting close to watch industry standard thickness, which is about 0.2mm,” said Quack. “Our technique is interesting to industry, and we are in discussions with a Swiss watch company. We believe that diamond offers reduced friction, which should increase the power reserve. That’s how long it takes until the watch has to be rewound. But it’s still a hypothesis that needs to be tested.”

Diamond has other advantages for watchmaking: it’s translucid and can be coloured, and is also non-magnetic, which is a highly valued attribute in the current market.

Previously, reactive ion etching could create structures 0.05mm thick. When ions are accelerated by an electric field, they not only remove the diamond layers at selected spots; they also erode the mask that defines the desired shape. The depth of the structures that can be obtained is limited by the mask’s resistance and thickness.

In under six months, Adrien Toros, a scientific assistant at the EPFL’s Institute of Microelectronics, developed a double-layered mask that consists of one layer of aluminium, which adheres well to diamond, placed under a second layer of silicon dioxide, which is thick and more resistant to ionic activity. The result is a faster etching process claimed to enable nearly vertical, and deeper, cuts.

With the support of Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, the team plans to pursue its collaboration with Swiss synthetic diamond manufacturer Lake Diamond, with whom the team has filed a patent.

“In the medium term this new technique will allow us to produce and commercialise precise micrometre components, and consequently to expand our field of activity”, said Pascal Gallo, the company’s CEO.

In a second project, the researchers are working to develop optical components from ultrapure diamond, such as lenses used in thermal imaging, which operate within the infrared spectrum, as well as laser components for industrial cutting.


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Engineer salary survey highlights widening gender pay gap

Mon, 2018-06-18 15:56

With the gender pay gap across all ares of the economy receiving increasing levels of scrutiny, The Engineer’s 2018 Salary Survey points to a widening gap between the salaries of the UK’s male and female engineers.

Produced in partnership with technical recruitment consultancy CBSbutler, the survey – now in its fourth year – attracted responses from 2,864 engineers from across the UK.

Female engineers, who accounted for just 7.2 per cent of respondents, are paid on average £35,800. This compares to an average of £48,720 for their male colleagues and marks a widening of the £10,000 pay gap identified by our 2017 salary survey.


This gap can be partly explained by the difference in seniority among male and female respondents.  For instance, just 2.4 per cent and 11.3 per cent of male respondents describe themselves as graduates and junior engineers respectively, compared with 10.2 per cent and 20.3 per cent of female respondents.

However, the findings do suggest that male engineers at all levels of seniority are paid more than their female counterparts. Female graduates and junior engineers earn an average of £27,552, for example, compared with £31,051 for male engineers, a gap of around £3,500. This gap jumps to around £10,000 for senior engineers and managers, and widens even further at director level and above, where women earn £46,053, and men £73,595, a huge difference of £27,542.

More generally, this year’s survey tells a story of stagnation, with many key measures showing little, if any change, from last year’s results.

And although there are significant regional, sectoral and seniority based variations, the mean average salary for engineers taking part in this year’s survey is £47,896, which marks a slight decrease on last year’s average of £48,197. To put this in perspective, our 2017 survey showed a year on year average salary increase of six per cent.


With industry facing a period of growing uncertainty, this stagnation is perhaps unsurprising. And Brexit is clearly looming large in the thoughts of many UK engineers. 61 per cent of those surveyed are concerned about the impact of Brexit on industry, whilst 37 per cent say they are worried about the impact that leaving the EU would have on their job security.

Despite such concerns though, UK engineers appear to be a fairly settled bunch, and although just 32.7 percent of the total response group are content with their pay more than half say that they are happy in their current roles, and more than 80 per cent expect to stay in industry for at least the next five years.

We will be analysing the findings of this year’s survey in greater detail over the coming weeks and months.

The Engineer salary survey 2018 – Key stats
  • 2,864 responses
  • Average age: 45.8
  • Average salary: £47, 896 £48,197 = YOY decrease of 0.6per cent
  • Highest paying Sector – Oil& gas sector (£53, 913), this is closely followed by Renewables / Nuclear (£52,653)
  • Female respondents are paid on average £13k less than their male colleagues – a widening of the £10k gender pay gap reported in last year’s survey
  • 8 per cent of respondents are considering a change of job (down from 45 per cent in 2017)

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Electrically conductive hydrogel stretches limits of capability

Mon, 2018-06-18 15:26

Engineers have developed an electrically conductive hydrogel that could give people with paralysis greater control over electronic equipment, or give voice to those with speech difficulties.

Developed by researchers at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) in Saudi Arabia, the material is claimed to take stretchability, self-healing and strain sensitivity to new limits.

“Our material outperforms all previously reported hydrogels and introduces new functionalities,” said Husam Alshareef, professor of materials science and engineering at KAUST.

The research is published in Science Advances.

Smart materials that flex, sense and stretch like human skin could have many applications including biodegradable patches that help wounds heal to wearable electronics and touch-sensitive robotic devices.

The material – a composite of hydrogel and MXene metal-carbide – can stretch by more than 3400 per cent and quickly return to its original form. It also adheres to a number of surfaces, including skin. When cut into pieces, it can quickly mend itself upon reattachment.

“The material’s differing sensitivity to stretching and compression is a breakthrough discovery that adds a new dimension to the sensing capability of hydrogels,” said first author, Yizhou Zhang, a postdoc in Alshareef’s lab.

Signals from the electrically conductive hydrogel can clearly distinguish between different facial expressions (2018 KAUST)

According to KAUST, this new dimension may be crucial in applications that sense changes in the skin and convert them into electronic signals. The team has found that a thin slab of the material attached to a user’s forehead can distinguish between different facial expressions, such as a smile or a frown. This ability could allow patients with extreme paralysis to control electronic equipment and communicate.

In a similarly assistive application, strips of the material attached to the throat can convert speech into electronic signals.

“There is real potential for our material in various biosensing and biomedical applications,” said co-author Kanghyuck Lee.

Further medical applications include flexible wound coverings that can release drugs to promote healing. These could be applied internally, on diseased organs, in addition to adhering externally to skin. The team also envisions developing a smart material that could monitor the volume and shape of an organ and vary drug release according to signals produced.

In robotics applications, the material could be used in touch-sensitive finger-like extensions for machinery.

“There is great potential for commercialisation,” said Alshareef.


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June 1858: Big Ben mark two

Mon, 2018-06-18 12:50

The Big Ben currently silenced is the second bearing the name

Anybody visiting Parliament Square at the moment will see a lot of disappointed tourists. One of the main things they will have come to see – the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, universally (but erroneously) known as Big Ben – is sheathed in scaffolding with only one face of the clock visible.

And if they were hoping to hear the famous Westminster chimes, and the bell that is actually called Big Ben ringing out the hours, then they are also unlucky. Owing to essential repairs, the tower will be sheathed and the chimes silenced until 2021, apart from on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.

Perusing our archive, we came across a small entry – just one paragraph – full of interesting and very little known facts about the bell. The first eye-catching thing was that it was referred to as “Big Ben the Second”. There are no further details on why this should be so in the article itself, but a little research has uncovered some history.

The first bell for the tower, a 16.3 ton hour bell, was cast in Stockton-on-Tees on 6 August 1856, and the name of Sir Benjamin Hall, a Welsh civil engineer and politician who served as MP for Marylebone from 1837, and who oversaw the latter stages of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, was inscribed upon it. Sir Benjamin being a famously tall man of the time, it is thought that the bell was named after him and even then the tower was also known as Big Ben, though at the time it was properly named St Stephens Tower (it was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012).


In fact, nobody knows whether this naming is true. Another story is that it was named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer called Benjamin Caunt. When the bell was cast, the tower was not yet finished, so it was mounted for testing in nearby New Palace Yard. During testing, however, the bell was cracked beyond repair. A new bell was ordered and the commission given to the Whitechapel Bell foundry near the Tower of London – still in existence and open for fascinating tours, although the foundry itself closed just over a year ago, holding the record as the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain.

Enter Big Ben the Second. The Engineer tells us that the bell was nicknamed “Victoria” and was “tastefully ornamented with Gothic tracery in low relief”. Inscribed upon the bell were the words “This bell… was cast by Mr George Mears, of Whitechapel, for the clock of the Houses of Parliament, and the direction of Edward Beckett Denison QC in the 21st year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and in the year of our Lord MDCCCLVIII”. The weight, the article tells us, was 14½ tons, one and three-quarter tons less than its ill-fated predecessor (these are, of course, Imperial tons). It was 7ft and 3in high, and 9ft in diameter at its mouth. This was not smaller than the previous bell, but the shape was different. “The head is more rounded, and the waste more sloped in,” the article records.

The spot on the bell where the hammer was to strike was half an inch less in thickness than the old bell, we are told. Already at this point, The Engineer records that the bell was faulty in tone, ringing at nearly F rather than E natural. “The tone of the new bell is stated to be so full of sound that even a slight stroke with a common switch makes it ring with a tolerable tone, and the vibration, after being struck with the clapper, gradually settles down like the sound of a trumpet dying away.”


The clapper had also been cast, and weighed about six hundredweight, half as much as the clapper for the previous bell. Returning to our research, the new one cracked in September 1856: according to George Mears, immortalised on the bell’s inscription.

Denison (an irascible man, whose obituary we have also featured in our archive section) had used a hammer of more than twice the maximum weight specified to strike the bell. It was out of commission for three years and the hours struck on the lowest toned quarter bell instead while it was repaired.

The repair was a remarkable piece of improvisation: a square piece of metal was chipped out of the rim around the crack and the bell rotated so that the clapper struck in a different point. The tone of the bell changed irreversibly, and the crack is still in place to this day. Nobody calls it Victoria, though.

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Non-invasive test for malaria wins RAEng’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation

Fri, 2018-06-15 16:19

A non-invasive test for malaria has won a Ugandan software engineer the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

Matibabu non-invasive test for malaria

Brian Gitta created the device, which works in conjunction with a mobile phone, after he and members of his team developed malaria, which caused them to miss lectures during their time at Makerere University in Kampala.

Dubbed Matibabu, the low-cost, reusable device clips onto a patient’s finger and requires no specialist expertise to operate. The results are available within one minute (compared to 30 minutes with current tests) on the phone that is linked to the device.

A beam of red light shone through the user’s finger detects changes in the shape, colour and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. Team member Shafik Sekitto told the Guardian that people infected with malaria have parasites in their blood that produce waste, one type of which is magnetic. The magnet in Matibabu detects this anomaly and sends the results to a mobile device.

Matibabu is currently undergoing testing in partnership with a national hospital in Uganda, and is sourcing suppliers for the sensitive magnetic and laser components required to scale up production.

Gitta & Sekitto

The device is aimed at individuals, health centres and diagnostic suppliers. The team also aims to set up Matibabu on the streets to allow people to do a single test at a time.

Through their participation in the Africa Prize, the Matibabu team have been approached by international researchers offering support and are currently writing up their findings into an academic paper, to be published within the next few months.

“We are incredibly honoured to win the Africa Prize – it’s such a big achievement for us, because it means that we can better manage production in order to scale clinical trials and prove ourselves to regulators,” said Gitta. “The recognition will help us open up partnership opportunities – which is what we need most at the moment.”

Gitta wins the first prize of £25,000. At an awards ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya on 13 June 2018, four finalists from across sub-Saharan Africa delivered presentations, before Africa Prize judges and a live audience voted for the most promising engineering innovation.

The three runners-up, who each win £10,000, are:

  • Collins Saguru, a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, for AltMet, a low-cost, environmentally friendly method for recovering precious metals from car parts
  • Ifediora Ugochukwu from Nigeria for iMeter, an intelligent metering system that gives Nigerian users transparency and control over their electricity supply
  • Michael Asante-Afrifa, from Ghana for Science Set, a mini science lab that contains specially developed materials for experiments

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation. It encourages sub-Saharan African engineers to develop innovations that address crucial problems in their communities in a new way.


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Stretchable circuits boast wearable and biocompatible applications

Fri, 2018-06-15 15:51

Chinese researchers have developed a stretchable metal-polymer conductor (MPC) that has potential for wearable circuits and biocompatible electronics.

(Credit: Tang et al)

The non-toxic material features globs of gallium and indium that sit within a silicon-based polymer substrate, the liquid metal acting as a fluid conductive medium that allows electricity to flow. According to the researchers, the structure resembles round liquid metal islands floating in a sea of polymer, supported by a liquid metal base to ensure full conductivity.

The material is produced using a combination of screen printing and microfluidic patterning, resulting in a pliable and resilient liquid-plastic hybrid that can take on a range of two-dimensional shapes. Described in new journal iScience, the MPC could facilitate advances in wearable electronics and durable biomedical implants.

“These are the first flexible electronics that are at once highly conductive and stretchable, fully biocompatible, and able to be fabricated conveniently across size scales with micro-feature precision,” said senior author Xingyu Jiang, a professor at China’s National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology. “We believe that they will have broad applications for both wearable electronics and implantable devices.”

As part of their research, the team experimented with a number of different MPC formulations in a variety of applications, including in sensors for wearable keyboard gloves and as electrodes for stimulating the passage of DNA through the membranes of live cells. Due to the flexibility of the method, it is claimed that virtually any two-dimensional geometry can be fabricated.

“The applications of the MPC depend on the polymers,” said first author Lixue Tang, a graduate student in Jiang’s research group. “We cast super-elastic polymers to make MPCs for stretchable circuits. We use biocompatible and biodegradable polymers when we want MPCs for implantable devices. In the future, we could even build soft robots by combining electroactive polymers.”

According to project lead Jiang, biocompatibility was a fundamental requirement, and it opens up a world of applications beyond rudimental wearables.

“We wanted to develop biocompatible materials that could be used to build wearable or implantable devices for diagnosing and treating disease without compromising quality of life,” he said.  “We believe that this is a first step toward changing the way that cardiovascular diseases and other afflictions are managed.”


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Sculpted graphene foam shapes up for batteries and sensors

Fri, 2018-06-15 15:38

Texas team devise method to make three-dimensional objects from graphene foam

Graphene has often been touted as the ultimate two-dimensional material. However, chemists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have devised a method for making and sculpting three-dimensional blocks of graphene foam. The soft, porous solids can be used as supports for components of batteries and super-capacitors and as a mould for materials to make flexible, conductive sensors.

Duy Xuan Luong with a block of LIG Image: Tour Group/Rice University

The work was carried out in laboratory of Prof James Tour, a synthetic organic chemist who specialises in nanotechnology and is also a professor of computer science. Four years ago, Tour’s laboratory was the first to synthesise laser-induced graphene (LIG) by heating films of polyimide, a polymer commonly used in industry, with a laser. This method creates a two-layered structure, with the polyimide remaining intact at the base but the upper layer transformed into interconnect flakes of graphene.

The team has now developed this technique further to make complete blocks of this graphene material, rather than simple sheets. It is done in a manner similar to additive manufacturing, where the block of graphene foam is built up from layers. Initially, a single sheet of polyimide is treated as before. It is then coated with ethylene glycol and another layer of polyimide placed on top. The top of this layer is again burned with a laser to transform it into LIG. The process is repeated with additional layers until the block of the desired size is created. The block is then placed onto a hot plate to evaporate away the ethylene glycol, then transfer to a furnace to burn off remaining polyimide, leaving behind a spongy block of interconnected graphene flakes with pores measuring 20 to 30nm in diameter.

The foam is assembled by burning polyimide film into laser-induced graphene, then stacking more polyimide on top with an ethytlene glycol binder and repeating the processs Image: Tour Group/Rice University

In the journal Advanced Materials, Tour and his students, led by Duy Xuan Luong, explain how they modified a 3D printer with a custom-built fibre laser to mill the block into complex shapes. They also carried out some application trials, using the LIG blocks as anode and cathodes in lithium ion capacitors. The anode achieved a gravimetric capacity of 354 milliamp hours per gram, near to the theoretical limit of graphite, while the cathode’s capacity exceeded the average capacity of other carbon materials, they said. “This is excellent performance in these new-generation lithium-ion capacitors, which capture the best properties of lithium-ion batteries and capacitor hybrids,” Tour said.

The LIG block can be laser-milled into shape Image: Tour Group/Rice University

The team also infused LIG block with liquid poly-dimethyl siloxane, creating a stronger conductive material of the same shape but with greater strength. From this material, they made a flexible sensor that accurately recorded the pulse from the wrist of a volunteer. Further calibration of this device would allow them to derive blood pressure from the pulse waveform, they claim. “This truly brings graphene into the third dimension without furnaces or the need for metal catalysts, and our process is easily scaled,” Tour claimed.


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Interview: Mclaren Applied Technologies CTO Dr Caroline Hargrove

Fri, 2018-06-15 12:30

Dr Caroline Hargrove, CTO of McLaren Applied Technologies, talks to Jon Excell about how motor racing is helping other sectors modernise

While top-flight motorsport has sometimes struggled to stress its wider technological significance, it’s fair to say that in recent years its reputation as a hothouse for a nimble approach to innovation and technology development has been somewhat reinvigorated. And there are few more striking illustrations of this dynamic at work than the turbo-charged growth of McLaren Applied Technologies, the spin-out arm of the celebrated Woking-based racing and automotive group.

Many different sectors could learn from motorsport’s approach to data

Formed in 2004 when McLaren merged its composites and electronics operations, McLaren Applied Technologies now employs around 520 people and last year grew by 36 per cent, cementing its position as the wider group’s main engine for growth.

It’s a growth that the firm’s chief technology officer Dr Caroline Hargrove puts down to the fact that the expertise honed on the track –particularly with regards to data –is suddenly much more relevant to the wider world.

In today’s highly connected, data-rich world, sectors ranging from healthcare, to manufacturing to public transport are increasingly aware of the transformative benefits of an intelligent approach to data, and McLaren’s expertise –built up over almost three decades –is, she said, directly applicable to the challenges many other sectors now face. “We have operated in a data-rich environment for a long time,” she told The Engineer, “and a lot of people are only experiencing data in the last 10 years or less. A lot of the stuff, like the so-called digital twin, we’ve been doing for 20 years –we did a digital model of the race car in great detail, which is what a digital twin is, but we just didn’t use that terminology.”

Dr Caroline Hargrove – CTO Mclaren Applied Technologies

The division’s recent growth has also coincided, she said, with a decision to drop a somewhat scattergun approach to projects and concentrate instead on a few key markets where it feels it can have maximum impact.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest of these areas is the motorsport sector, which accounts for just over half of the business. The firm’s electronic systems and software tools feature in most of the world’s big motor racing series, and it’s the sole supplier of the engine control units used in Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar Championships.

It also recently won the contract to supply the batteries for the Formula E championship, a move Hargrove says puts the company in a good position to capitalise on the worldwide push for electrification. “It’s an exciting time. This is where the industrial strategy is pushing, and luckily motorsport isn’t lagging behind,” she said. “Our newFormula E battery, which will be used in the new Gen2 cars is a step in the right direction for both the series and the potential application of the battery technology in road vehicles.”

Beyond motorsport, the wider automotive market is clearly an obvious destination for the firm’s expertise. And one of the biggest success stories here, said Hargrove, is the development of road car simulation technology based on McLaren’s Formula 1 simulator – a system that Hargrove played a major role in developing.

Hailed as a step-change in vehicle simulation, the McLaren system dispenses with the somewhat clunky traditional hexapod-based motion simulators, and instead uses an innovative combination of air springs and linear motors to more accurately replicate the twists and turns of a real-life driving experience. The system plays a key role in helping Mclaren’s race engineers work with the drivers to optimise their technology, but now, working with US firm MTS Corp, the company is bringing its benefits to the wider automotive market. Hargrove said that as well as being used by McLaren’s own automotive division, the technology is already helping a number of OEMs accelerate their own development programmes.

Mclaren’s advanced Formula 1 simulator has been adapted for automotive OEMs

The firm is also looking at the wider world of public transport. Here in the UK, it has been working with train operator C2C on a system that gives vastly improved Wi-Fi connectivity to commuters travelling on the firm’s Southend to London route. The technology takes all of the different communications signals (3G, 4G, Wi-Fi etc) and seamlessly switches between them, depending on which has the most bandwidth.

Further afield, it recently announced a project to develop a condition monitoring system for Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit network that will see sensors and data loggers more commonly used in Formula 1 deployed on the network’s trains. This project, claimed to be a first for race to rail technology transfer is, said Hargrove, part of a broader push to apply the lessons learned in motor racing to the railway track. “There are many things we are doing to improve the performance of trains,” she said. “We’re also looking at whether we can do disruption management –when something goes wrong, your crew are at the wrong place, your trains are at the wrong place, and there’s a lot of factors. How do you solve that one? At the moment humans are solving this one and we think we can do a better job by supporting the humans by doing loads of computation in the background.”

A less mature area for the company, but one where Hargrove believes there could be huge potential, is in healthcare. “It’s in our sweet spot of lots of data being streamed, processed locally and in the cloud –and we keep thinking there’s something there for us.”

She’s certainly not alone in this ambition. In a major speech in May, prime minister Theresa May argued that smart use of data and AI could help save hundreds of thousands of lives a year by enabling earlier diagnosis.

Smart use of data could revolutionise healthcare, and Mclaren would like to help

But although McLaren has been involved in a number of projects in the field – including a notable collaboration with the University of Oxford on the development of decision support tools for surgeons – Hargrove is frustrated by a somewhat cluttered innovation pathway for potentially game-changing medical technologies. “The route to market is difficult,” she said. “There’s lots of innovation, but fragmentation of the sector, and the way technology is procured holds the UK sector back.”

Another key market for the firm, the Industry 4.0 obsessed world of manufacturing, is somewhat further along in its thinking. Here, McLaren is collaborating with Deloitte on the development of a smart decision support system to help manufacturers deal with the ever more complex demands they face.

Hargrove is passionate about the impact such tools could have on broader industrial productivity in the UK, particularly on the UK’s long-tail of manufacturing SMEs. “The people we’ve worked with so far are often the people who already do a decent job –we need to find a way of cracking the people who if they don’t do this, their productivity is really going to go down. How can we reach those companies who are not really thinking that’s an issue to show that it’s often not that difficult to raise your bar a little bit?”

Kids buzz when you give them something exciting to do, but I don’t think the school system or teachers have got the bandwidth or experience to give them that

It’s hard to think of a more stimulating and exciting engineering environment than the one described by Hargrove and yet, in common with many other less-well known and less glamorous firms, she said that McLaren does struggle to find the right skills. In an effort to address this, the company recently opened a data science office in Waterloo, to tap into the skills of London’s buzzing tech start-up community.

But while this is proving to be an effective short-term move, Hargrove believes much more needs to be done to shore up the future pipeline of skilled engineers and is puzzled that a profession capable of generating so much excitement doesn’t have the right “glow” for the next generation. “Kids buzz when you give them something exciting to do, but I don’t think the school system or teachers have got the bandwidth or experience to give them that –I’m not sure how to fix it, other than everyone trying to do a little bit.”


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Video of the week: AI sees through walls to assist people with degenerative illnesses

Thu, 2018-06-14 17:03

This week’s video comes from MIT where researchers are using AI to see through walls in order to improve the lives of people with degenerative illnesses.

Dubbed RF-Pose, the latest advance from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) uses AI to teach wireless devices to sense people’s postures and movement, even from the other side of a wall.

Led by CSAIL’s Prof Dina Katabi, the team has used a neural network to analyse radio signals that bounce off people’s bodies in order to create a dynamic stick figure that walks, stops, sits and moves its limbs as the person performs those actions.

The system could be used to monitor diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis by providing a better understanding of disease progression and allowing doctors to adjust medications accordingly. It could also help elderly people live more independently, while providing the added security of monitoring for falls, injuries and changes in activity patterns.

RF-Pose confidence maps and skeleton (Credit: MIT-CSAIL)

The team is currently working with doctors to explore multiple applications in healthcare.

“A key advantage of our approach is that patients do not have to wear sensors or remember to charge their devices,” said Katabi.

MIT CSAIL RF-Pose could also be used for new classes of video games where players move around the house, or even in search-and-rescue missions to help locate survivors.

The research is detailed in a paper titled: Through-wall human pose estimation using radio signals

Click here for more engineering news

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Simulation gives England 3.8 per cent chance of winning 2018 Fifa World Cup

Thu, 2018-06-14 15:47

England’s footballers have a 3.8 per cent chance of winning the 2018 Fifa World Cup, according to a Monte Carlo simulation applied to all the teams in the tournament.

Whilst the England national football team has realistically long odds, 2014 winners Germany are ranked as having a 13.3 per cent chance of retaining the trophy.

These are outcomes from an uncertainty model devised by the University of Adelaide’s Steve Begg, who rates Australia as having a 0.1 per cent chance of winning the tournament.

Begg, a Professor of Decision-making and Risk Analysis in the University’s Australian School of Petroleum, has developed a ‘Monte Carlo simulation’ of the competition based on team rankings with other input including recent form.

The key idea behind the modern Monte Carlo technique is that rather than trying to work out every possible outcome of a complex system, enough possibilities are modelled to be able to estimate the chance of any particular outcome occurring.

“The outcomes of many decisions we make are uncertain because of things outside of our control,” said Prof Begg. “Uncertainty is crucial in predicting the chance of an oil or gas field being economic. In the World Cup, it determines the many ways the whole tournament might play out. What makes it so hard to predict is not just uncertainty in how a team will perform in general, but random factors that can occur in each match.”

In the simulation, Begg is said to have generated 100,000 possible ways the whole tournament of 63 matches could play out. Although there are many possible options – almost 430 million outcomes in just the Group stage – this is “more than enough” for an assessment of the probability of how far each team will progress. He can run 800 different simulations a second.

In his model, two key uncertainties are a team’s “tournament form” (their general level of performance entering the finals) – and a team’s “match form” (the extent to which the team plays better or worse than its tournament form in a given match). The possible scores for each match are derived from the likely number of goals, based on scores from all matches in the last three World Cups, allocated to the two teams based on their relative match form.

Inputs to the model are based on FIFA rankings over the past four years, modified by Begg’s knowledge of the game and team; for example Russia will have a higher “tournament form” because of host advantage, and poorer teams have a relatively greater “giant killing” upside than better teams.

On current inputs, Begg has calculated the Australian national team has a 14 per cent chance of advancing through the groups stage, 3.8 per cent of making the quarter-finals, 1.2 per cent of the semi-finals, 0.3 per cent of being in the final, and 0.1 per cent chance of being the 2018 World Cup Champions.

“This may be disappointing,” he said, “But to make good decisions, it is really important to base beliefs on evidence and reason, not what you would like to be true.”

“Probability is subjective, it depends on what you know,” said Begg. “It doesn’t need data; you use what information you have to assign a degree of belief in what might happen, and thus make decisions or, in this case, a judgement on who wins. The crucial thing is that your information and reasoning is not biased.”

The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia kicks off today, June 14, 2018 with its first game between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.


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Multisensing device maps water contamination in rural Colombia

Thu, 2018-06-14 15:18

An electrochemical device developed at Bath University is being used in rural Colombia to detect water contamination and help map problem areas.

The device measures four key physicochemical variables in water, namely pH levels, conductivity, temperature and dissolved oxygen. It also monitors the presence of heavy metals in water, including mercury. Developed in conjunction with Colombia’s University de Los Andes, the system features a mobile app that uploads the readings in real time to a web-based platform. This allows authorities and members of the public to see where contamination is at its worst, potentially tackling its root causes.      

“The novelty of this device lies mainly on the electrochemical detection and on the interactive process and display of the data,” Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, project lead and senior lecturer at Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering told The Engineer.

“The device is an integrated sensor that includes probes for physicochemical analyses, together with electrochemical detection of heavy metals [mercury, lead, copper and cadmium] using screen-printed electrodes. The sensor communicates with a smartphone and the data is sent to an open-access interactive map.”

Officially known as ‘Water Monitoring in Colombian Vulnerable Communities in a Post-Conflict Scenario’, the project was conceived with the express aim of addressing contamination in the Colombian Amazon. According to the Bath team, Colombia is the third most mercury-contaminated country in the world, largely due to illegal metal mining. Parts of the great river are highly polluted by the heavy metal, which finds its way into the food chain via fish consumed by locals, as well as irrigation and drinking water.

Rural indigenous communities have been particularly affected, with high rates of foetal malformations and brain disorders linked to the problem. As part of the project, the research team spent three weeks testing the device alongside the indigenous community of the Resguardo Santa Sofia, located at the southern tip of the Amazonas region of Colombia.     

“Due to the lack of financial resources and technology, communities like Santa Sofia in the Amazon have no means of checking if the water they are surrounded by is safe to use,” said Dr Di Lorenzo. “This multi-sensing device can have a massive impact to these communities, allowing them to easily check if the water they are using is safe to do so.”

The researchers believe that by mapping areas of water affected by mercury as well as providing locals with key water variable readings, the spread of water-borne diseases can be prevented. They hope that communities are empowered with a means of testing a water supply themselves whilst authorities are provided with evidence of water affected by illegal mining allowing them to act and mitigate this activity. Currently, the team is working to further improve the device by making it more intuitive and smaller, making the technology even more accessible for rural communities.


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Muddling along with multi-platform malarkey

Thu, 2018-06-14 15:17

Our 24 hour, connected, multi-platform world is supposed to make it easier to communicate with one another. So why, asks our anonymous blogger, is it often so much harder?

The ability to communicate around the world currently stands at a level that could only have been dreamed of even a mere 20 years ago. There’s E-mails, Skyping, Facetiming and any number of other nouns that have been turned into verbs by the hip kids. However there is also a bit of a problem in that some people do not actually reply to messages sent.

I must admit that I’m a bit old fashioned with all this multi-platform communication malarkey and on the whole I just use e-mail and the telephone. I can hear some of you out there muttering “Just send a read receipt request” with regard to the e-mail but it has been my experience that these too have been ignored. The telephone is barely any better. As often as not the person you call isn’t available and when you leave a message they never fail in not getting back to you. As far as I’m aware the subjects I get in touch with people about are neither contentious nor trying, and of course a lot of them are related to matters of benefit to the recipient, yet there does seem to be a growing trend for just ignoring stuff.

I’m left wondering if this is a modern phenomenon and, if so then what’s at the heart of it? With the expectations raised by immediate contact from virtually any part of the world, including trains and cars, is the normal sequence of such situations now seen as redundant? Could it be there is more opportunity to hide from stuff – the modern equivalent of the bottom of the in-tray? I may well be out of step with the new norm but think this laissez-faire attitude to be unprofessional and mentally mark down those who practice it.

I personally also have a problem with the questions of etiquette regarding all this. First, there is no way of knowing if the message has reached the intended recipient and been ignored, intentionally deferred or merely that its been mislaid – either literally or metaphorically. A follow up could be tried but how many can you get away with before it potentially becomes irksome and you are undermining your own position? If it is the case of a supplier for a commonly available item then the solution is easy, you go and find another supplier. If it is more in the nature of establishing a collaborative relationship, or a single available source of supply then things become a bit trickier. As the established rules of non-immediate (and occasionally sporadic) communication are eroded the potential for doubt regarding intent, aligned with unnecessary conflict, increases.

The necessity of maintaining historic working practices in this way is, for me, reflected in the much vaunted idea of the paperless Design Office. Although we are not far off this I still print drawings out and I think it is because of the way the human brain processes information. There is a reason that A0 was generally the largest sheet size for drawings and A4 the smallest. If you select the size correctly then you can look over the whole drawing and immediately understand the information in each view and how they inter-relate, as well as looking at details where required. Not so important for understanding overall geometry in the world of 3D CAD but still significant when dimensioning complex objects.  Relying on the screen results in much zooming in, zooming out and scrolling; making reconciliation of the macro and micro difficult. When A0 screens are common, then there will truly be no need for paper.

New technologies give new opportunities and we should explore how we use them without clinging onto historic methodologies. However we should also understand how those methodologies are arrived at if we are not to lose old advantages whilst creating new ones.

The brain / eye interrelationship needs to always be central to the method of representing design information. Equally, clear and disciplined techniques need to be maintained in communication no matter what the medium.

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Real time laser monitoring process could save steelmakers millions

Thu, 2018-06-14 14:24

Steelmakers could save millions of pounds a year with an award-winning laser based technology that offers real time monitoring of the chemical composition and temperature in molten metal furnaces.

Dr Szymon Kubal with a molten steel ladle

The breakthrough innovation, which is being marketed by Swansea University spin-out Kubal-Wraith and developed in collaboration with Tata Steel UK, is claimed to offer a significant improvement over existing monitoring process, which require production to be halted while disposable probes are immersed into the molten metal to measure temperature and take samples.

Commenting on the new technology, its inventor, Tata Steel UK’s Dr Szymon Kubal, said: “We have been able to adapt and combine recent advances in refractory manufacturing and laser metrology to enable continuous monitoring with no break in production.”

He explained that the process allows a laser beam to be projected into a molten furnace through a refractory gas-swept channel (or tuyère) in the furnace wall. “Previous attempts of laser measurement techniques have been thwarted because metallic accretions block the channel through which the laser is probing, rendering the devices unreliable,” he said. “This innovation does do not suffer from such problems.”

The firm claims that the technology could save individual steelmaking plants £4.5m per year, but whilst steel plants will be the first market to be targeted, the technology is applicable to other metal making sectors such as aluminium, copper and nickel. World Steel Association data indicates there are over 1000 molten metal furnaces worldwide and each would see significant cost savings, increased throughput, and a reduction in use of consumables through adopting the new continuous process control of temperature and composition.

“A critical barrier for us to overcome was the extreme difficulty in getting permission to test our new innovations in an operational steel plant under production conditions,” said Dr Kubal. “However, by working in collaboration with Tata Steel UK we are able to undertake full-scale validation trials. It is a huge endorsement that we have been able to secure such support in order to penetrate this barrier to market entry.”

The technology, which recently won the Materials Science Venture Prize awarded by The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, is the subject of a patent owned by Swansea University to which Kubal-Wraith has exclusive exploitation rights.”


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Going electric: The Range Rover P400e

Thu, 2018-06-14 13:00

The Range Rover P400e is a new plug-in hybrid model boasts 404PS and a usable electric-only range. So how does it compare? 

Nobody could have predicted just how influential the Range Rover would go on to become when the original three-door model was launched in June 1970. It brought off-roaders out of the farmyard and onto the high street – paving the way for the hordes of SUVs and crossovers that now dominate the global car market.

Like many iconic cars, its shape was in fact penned by an engineer rather than a stylist. But that didn’t stop Spen King’s original concept being exhibited in the Louvre, alongside the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. The fact the silhouette has changed so little in the intervening half a century is testament to its inherent rightness.

Under the skin, things have changed rather more radically. The current generation Range Rover was the first SUV in the world to feature an all-aluminium monocoque construction when it debuted in 2012. It was the most extensive finite element analysis project that Jaguar Land Rover had ever undertaken at the time – subject to a staggering 1,000 CPU years of processor time. The end result was a structure 39 per cent lighter than the steel equivalent, contributing to an overall weight saving of up to 420kg (depending on the market and specification).

When fully charged the Range Rover P400e gives a range of up to 31 miles

One of the other major changes brings us on to the car you see here, the Range Rover P400e plug-in hybrid. Strictly speaking, this is not the first hybrid powertrain to appear in a Range Rover – that honour goes to the previous diesel-electric Range Rover Hybrid launched back in 2013. But it is the only one you can buy now, not to mention the first to feature a plug-in capability and a meaningful electric-only range.

Flip up the iconic clamshell bonnet and you’ll find the smallest engine ever fitted to a Range Rover – the 2-litre four-cylinder Ingenium petrol unit now found in everything from the Jaguar F-Type to the Land Rover Discovery. It features high-pressure direct injection, a variable lift system on the intake valves that allows the throttle to be left open most of the time, and a twin-scroll turbocharger, which uses ball bearings to improve efficiency and transient response. The end result is 300PS (296bhp) from just 1,997cc. But that’s just half the story. Mounted on the ZF 8-speed gearbox there’s an 85kW (116PS) electric motor, capable of powering all four wheels. Due to the different characteristics of the two powerplants, you can’t quite add up their individual outputs, but the combined total is still an impressive 404PS (398bhp) and 640Nm (472lbft) of torque. More to point, it means the P400e officially returns 101mpg and emits just 64 g/km of CO2 on the NEDC cycle.

Of course, as with any hybrid, these laboratory figures bear scant resemblance to the real world. We saw a rather less eco-friendly 21mpg on our drive through the Cotswolds. Admittedly, it was driven with considerable gusto.

Does that defeat the object of a hybrid powertrain, then? Not at all. For a start, Land Rover claims an all-electric range of 31 miles on the NEDC cycle. We didn’t have a chance to put that to the test, but we’re told well over 20 miles is achievable in the real world, which means the average British commute could potentially be done on little or no petrol – particularly if there are recharging stations at both ends. For fleet operators, company car drivers and city dwellers there are also numerous financial benefits associated with its on-paper figures. These include significant tax incentives and exemption from the London Congestion Charge.

There are other benefits, too. With both powerplants working in unison, the 2.5-tonne Range Rover feels every bit as rapid as its 6.4 second 0-to-60mph time would imply. In fact, it’s second only to the supercharged 5.5-litre V8 in the line-up. What’s more, the electric motor adds vast reserves of easily modulated torque right from zero rpm, which makes this particular Range Rover even more formidable off-road.

Truth be told, however, it’s not the Range Rover’s performance or its off-road ability that has given the model such enduring appeal; it’s the fact it’s also a world-class limousine. Here, too, the electric motor helps. At least up to a point.

The good bits first: Electric-only mode brings a level of serenity to the cabin that even the very best combustion engines would struggle to match. And despite the electric motor’s modest power output there’s enough torque to make effortless progress. It’s an ideal fit with the Range Rover’s luxury remit. The downside is that the petrol engine is quite keen to cut in once you switch to hybrid mode. By four-cylinder standards it’s a fine effort, but it simply doesn’t sound as cultured as the larger V6s and V8s in the range. Somewhat curiously, the addition of the hybrid system also seems to have added a slightly crashy edge to the ride (it’s not entirely clear why this has happened, because although it’s some 250kg heavier than the petrol V6, the P400e is only a few kilos heavier than the V8, which glides along beautifully). In the grand scheme of things these are both relatively minor niggles, but at this price point – £105,865 as tested – you’d be forgiven for being picky.

Inside, there’s the same brilliantly executed cabin as you’ll find in the rest of the range – now featuring a vastly improved infotainment system first seen in the Range Rover Velar. The twin 10-inch touchscreens are intuitive to use and great to look at, plus there’s an excellent voice control function co-developed with Nuance. There’s also one of the best head-up display units we’ve tested, a plethora of connectivity options and all the latest driver assistance functions.

Land Rover likens the infotainment system to a ‘digital butler’, waiting on your every need. And some of its most interesting work takes place behind the scenes. In hybrid mode, for instance, the navigation system can analyse the roads and the GPS altitude data for your chosen route and plan the most effective energy management strategy. It can also learn your preferred routes to work and check real-time traffic information to deduce the best option for that particular morning. Likewise, if you’re running late for a meeting it can send ETA updates to your fellow attendees and if you’re on the way to the airport it can alert you if your flight has been delayed.

Whether or not you choose to pay a premium for the plug-in hybrid will depend very much on your requirements. For business owners and company car drivers the P400e may well be the default choice within the range. Likewise, for those who can carry out a reasonable number of journeys in electric-only mode it offers a compelling proposition. Ultimately, though, the conventional models remain that little bit more polished – at least for the time being.

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Design student’s grandmother inspires dementia app

Wed, 2018-06-13 19:56

A design student from Nottingham Trent University has created an app to assist those living with dementia in everyday tasks.

ORIA, the Home Care Companion, was developed by 21-year-old Sarah Lodge, originally from Northampton. The app displays medication and appointment reminders on a customised tablet installed in the user’s home, as well as daily tasks, pictures and messages. Sarah was prompted to build the app by the deteriorating health of her late grandmother Theresa, who had Parkinson’s disease before being diagnosed with dementia. Sadly, Theresa died earlier this year whilst Sarah was still developing the technology.

“Family was always important to my grandmother and she thoroughly enjoyed receiving updates of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Sarah.

“She proudly displayed several photo frames of her memories with her family. This always brought a smile to her face. However, as I was living a long distance away, it was difficult to maintain contact which would evoke the same emotive response from her. This app is designed to help solve this as well as providing simple everyday support which will help people with dementia maintain their independence.”

The tablet is linked to the phone of a carer or relative who can choose what is displayed. The app also provides advice and resources for carers, including access to ‘blogORIA’, a platform for people to share their stories of caregiving. Interaction levels are recorded and the data is used to send alerts to the carer if there is a drop in contact for an extended period of time. Sarah’s design is set to go on public display at Nottingham Trent University’s Art and Design Summer Show 2018.

“This is a brilliant example of a product that has been designed in a thorough and thoughtful way in order to support people living with dementia,” said James Dale, head of Product Design at Nottingham Trent. “ORIA has the potential to have a really positive impact on their lives and those who support them.”


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Wood pulp could replace fossil materials in synthetic chemical manufacture

Wed, 2018-06-13 16:13

Finnish and UK scientists develop method for making lignin particles react with enzymes in water, opening up new possibilities for bio-based polymers from wood

Forestry is an important industrial resource in Finland

Finland is covered in forests, and as a result the pulp and paper sector is one of its most important industries. One of the byproducts of the pulp industry is lignin, the fibrous organic polymer that gives wood its structural strength but must be removed when it is turned into paper. Currently, lignin has no commercial uses, and is treated as a waste material.

Trying to find a use for this waste stream, researchers at Aalto University joined forces with the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at York University. The research concentrated on the behaviour of spherical particles of lignin, whose manufacture had already been developed at Aalto. Their major breakthrough was in creating a water-repellent composite structure out of the lignin particles, when they discovered that, by regulating the surface charge of the particles, they could make enzymes stick to their surface. The researchers used a natural polymer isolated from seaweed to support the lignin-enzyme complexes.

The biocatalysts (at the bottom of the vial) could open new avenues in green synthesis (Image: Valeria Azovskaya)

As the researchers explain in a paper in Nature Communications, these complexes had surprising properties. The lignin improved the efficiency of the reaction catalysis performed by the enzymes, enabling reactions that would not otherwise work in water.

Aalto University postdoctoral researcher Mika Sipponen explains that this could have a major commercial significance. “The commercial enzyme we use as reference is attached to the surface of synthetic acrylic resin produced from fossil raw materials. In comparison, this new biocatalyst was at best twice as active,” he said. “The beauty of this method lies in its simplicity and scalability. We are already able to manufacture lignin particles in batches of several kilogrammes. Of course, we hope that this will become a sustainable option for the enzyme industry to replace fossil materials in technical applications.”

The discovery could open up new possibilities for the production of biologically-based polyesters, the team claims. “We are pleased that the years of investing in the lignin particle research are beginning to produce significant results. We envision several possible uses for spherical particles in green chemistry processes and the development of new materials”, said research leader Professor Monika Österberg.


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