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Mars explorers could breathe oxygen made by plasma

Wed, 2017-10-18 21:28

Existing cold-plasma technology could convert Martian CO2 atmosphere into breathable oxygen for astronauts, says Portuguese study.

Astronauts on Mars could breathe air made from the local atmosphere using cold plasma

Researchers from Lisbon and Porto Universities believe that future crewed missions to Mars could make their own oxygen for exploring the surface from the local atmosphere. “Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space. Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge,” said the lead author of the study in the journal  Plasma Sources Science and Technology, Vasco Guerra.

Guerra and colleagues are investigating cold plasma, an ionised gas at low temperatures but containing fast-moving electrons and ions, for converting CO2 emissions from industrial processes into hydrocarbon fuels using solar energy. “Low temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition –  the split-up of the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide – both by direct electron impact, and by transferring electron energy into vibrational excitation,” he explained (for an example, see here).

Mars offers excellent conditions for applying this process to the CO2 atmosphere — known as In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) — the low temperatures on the surface may even make the process more effective by slowing the reaction down so that more molecules can be converted and separated into a breathable stream and a carbon monoxide stream. “Carbon monoxide has been proposed as to be used as a propellant mixture in rocket vehicles,” Guerra said. “The low temperature plasma decomposition method offers a twofold solution for a manned mission to Mars. Not only would it provide a stable, reliable supply of oxygen, but a  source of fuel as well.”

Using such a system “could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars,” Guerra added. “It would allow for increased self-sufficiency, reduce the risks to the crew, and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission.”

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Skills and automation dominate industry talk at party conferences

Wed, 2017-10-18 21:00

Paul Jackson trawled the Labour and Conservative party conferences for signs of a joined-up and coherent industrial strategy. 

Industrial strategy, a dodo of public policy at the end of the 20th Century, is back very firmly in the political dictionary but do we really know what it means?

I went to the two big party conferences to search for the substance behind the rhetoric when Labour gathered in Brighton and the Conservatives hit Manchester, trawling the fringe meetings for substance from the elected politicians and to get a sense of how much the delegates were in tune with their politicians.

What I found at the two conferences was a good will to manufacturing and language that we would recognise on skills, local investment and infrastructure. But, there was plenty of room for confusion.

We do have two documents to guide us in our search. The Government’s Green paper, Building our Industrial Strategy, had the 10 Pillars of Industrial Strategy when published back in January, before the interruption of the general election, and is still in post-consultation analysis. Then there’s Labour’s rival document, Richer Britain, Richer Lives, with two missions, broadly splitting into a green agenda and innovation.

The younger audience at the Labour conference were looking more to the opportunities and challenges of automation, worrying about the threat whilst excited by the opportunity

The impression from sampling a dozen fringe meetings is rather different and the pillars, based on this look, might need a bit of support. In Manchester, there was a wide acceptance that skills would be the dominant issue, a real shift from the devolution prominence of last year’s Tory Conference in Birmingham. In the sea air of Brighton, the younger audience at the Labour conference were looking more to the opportunities and challenges of automation, worrying about the threat whilst excited by the opportunity.

These are not incompatible priorities, which is good news for political consensus and particularly for engineering, but priorities will matter in times of tight public spending and global change.

The need to improve productivity is a recurrent theme. Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis, former Housing Minister and now Minister of State for Immigration, told an LSE-organised meeting that practices needed to change, particularly in construction, as well as promising that changes to immigration controls would be “in the context of industrial strategy”.

“We still build houses in the way we did 50 or 60 years ago,” said Lewis, explaining that upskilling in the UK was essential and that would take time. When I asked him whether a shift to prefabricated units for housing would lead to more imports from countries which already use this approach, Lewis thought that there would be enough time for local production to be established. “We’re not going to shift from where we are now to modern method overnight,” he said.

It was Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary who really emphasised the scale of change coming at an event organised by Bright Blue, a relatively recent think tank. “The digital economy is going to transform millions of jobs,” said O’Grady, “We have to start in a place where we’re honest about the problems we face.”

That message about the scale of change was less obvious in Manchester than it had been in Brighton the week before when it was standing-room-only for any events mentioning artificial intelligence or the next industrial revolution at fringe meetings during the Labour Party Conference.

Monday was the day for business at Labour and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speech on the economy. Reports of that speech were dominated by commitments to nationalisation, which could have a significant impact on the engineering sector because the targets include rail, energy, water and the Royal Mail.

Reassuringly, McDonnell also highlighted the changing pattern of work, the need for investment in science and technology and just how much the jobs of the future will be different. There are specific commitments in Labour’s Industrial Strategy paper that include £% of GDP invested into research and development, and a national education service for lifelong learning. That education commitment includes an ambition to double level three learners rather than including bold targets for the higher level skills that will be needed in the future as automation changes work dramatically.

At the CBI-sponsored fringe McDonnell was challenged for understating the scale of change, of being too “conservative”, in the changing pattern of work by finance champion Tim Hames, Director General of BVCA, the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association. Hames predicted that half of all current jobs would disappear to automation by 2033.

The implication for skills was recognised by shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden when he told a devolution and industrial strategy fringe that the silos of education and training needed to go. “We are in a world where FE (further education), HE (higher education) and online learning are merging much faster than most policy makers understand,” said Marsden, calling for an approach to developing the workforce for higher productivity occupations and abandoning the approach of “Any Job will do” which he attributed to the Department of Work and Pensions.

There were warm words about science research and innovation but little discussion at the conferences

How does this all stack up against the ten pillars: science, research and innovation; skills; infrastructure; business growth and investment; procurement; trade and investment; affordable energy; sectoral policies; driving growth across the whole country; and creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places.

There were warm words about science research and innovation but little discussion at the conferences. Trade and investment are stalled by Brexit. Energy policy has been more consumer focused with domestic price caps. And, there was real doubt about the commitment to devolution in Manchester. The Conservative leader of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Donna James was really blunt on this one. “I think devolution is off the agenda,” she said, saying further that housing would be the priority for the Department of Communities and Local Government and that infrastructure in her area had been badly neglected.

The need for the right skills was certainly discussed. How does the scorecard look there? Just a few days after the conferences the Department for Education released the news of a dramatic, 61% drop in apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the levy and then announced delays to the introduction of T-Levels, proposed as the saviour for vocational qualifications, suggesting that even in the priority areas the industrial strategy has a long way to go. As Neil Carberry, skills head at the CBI put it in his told-you-so tweet in response to the terrible drop: “No argument now that policy doesn’t need redesign to work, as @CBItweets has said”.

With the former skills minister now chairing the Education Select Committee, the scrutiny of that redesign work is looking like a self-marked homework assignment. That must be a massive concern for business and particularly a high-skills, high productivity sector like engineering. The sector has a lot of influencing to do.

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Aerospace Integration Research Centre officially opened at Cranfield

Wed, 2017-10-18 20:37

The £35m Aerospace Integration Research Centre (AIRC) has been officially opened at Cranfield University.

Cranfield AIRC centre

The new facility has been co-funded by Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Cranfield University, plus the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

According to Cranfield, the Centre will conduct research into ways of integrating advanced technologies to reduce the time from academic innovation to industrial application.

To enable this, the AIRC has been equipped with aerospace research technology including air traffic management (ATM) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) laboratories; flight simulators; a virtual wind tunnel; a FANUC robot in the intelligent automation centre; and a 1500 sq m open space work area, currently housing a full-size wing from an Airbus plane.

Trevor Higgs, head of landing gear and UK senior site representative, Airbus, said: “We at Airbus see the AIRC as a key part of the growing research ecosystem the aerospace industry has in the UK, and will help us foster closer relationships with research partners and to accelerate and deliver on our research strategy for the Wing of Tomorrow, to make sure our products remain the best in world.”

Henner Wapenhans, director of technology strategy, Rolls-Royce, added: “This new Centre will help develop the next generation of highly skilled engineers and will play an important role in developing the innovative technologies needed to enhance performance, improve efficiency and reduce emissions of future aircraft.”

Features of the new AIRC centre include:

A visualisation area, air-traffic management simulation and large aircraft flight simulator used to test new ideas and impact on aircraft. Feedback screens are linked to the visualisation lab and the pod meeting area

1500m² open lab – to be used for testing intelligent robots in the structural assembly of aircraft parts, including 18m x 6m sliding doors to allow a demonstrator aircraft, such as the University’s 19-seater Jetstream 31, to enter the facility

A full-size aircraft wing

A FANUC CR-35iA robot – which can operate in an uncaged, open space, and determine the proximity of a person or object so it will stop if touched

Closed labs for research requiring a controlled environment such as testing UAVs, structures, assembly and intelligent automation

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World’s first floating wind farm delivers electricity to grid

Wed, 2017-10-18 19:57

The world’s first floating wind farm has started to deliver electricity to the Scottish grid.

Comprising six 5MW floating turbines, the 30MW Hywind Scotland project is located 25km offshore from Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and will provide power for approximately 20,000 households. The £190m Hywind project is operated by Statoil in partnership with Masdar.

“Hywind can be used for water depths up to 800m, thus opening up areas that so far have been inaccessible for offshore wind,” said Irene Rummelhoff, executive vice president of Statoil’s New Energy Solutions business. “The learnings from Hywind Scotland will pave the way for new global market opportunities for floating offshore wind energy. Through their government’s support to develop the Hywind Scotland project, the UK and Scotland are now at the forefront of the development of this exciting new technology.”

The onshore operations and maintenance base for Hywind Scotland is located in Peterhead, while the operations centre is located in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

According to Statoil, recent years have seen significant cost reductions in onshore and bottom fixed offshore wind sectors and floating wind is expected to follow a similar downward trajectory over the next decade.

“Statoil has an ambition to reduce the costs of energy from the Hywind floating wind farm to €40-60 €/MWh by 2030. Knowing that up to 80 per cent of the offshore wind resources are in deep waters [+60 metres] where traditional bottom fixed installations are not suitable, floating offshore wind is expected to play a significant role in the growth of offshore wind,” said Rummelhoff.

Second wind: could floating turbines reshape offshore renewables?

Commenting on today’s development, Tom Delay, CEO, The Carbon Trust said: “A decade ago Beatrice Offshore Wind Demonstrator in the Moray Firth was the world’s first deep-water project with fixed foundations.  Today marks another crucial milestone in the development for offshore wind, and again it is happening in Scotland – the world’s first commercial floating wind project.

“This will be the beginning to expand the global deployment of offshore wind to areas where fixed foundations are not feasible. With the opening of the Hywind Pilot Park today, Scotland becomes the world leader for floating wind deployment and we can say with confidence that floating wind is viable. However, it is crucial that innovation continues to drive down costs and the right policy is in place to increase investment.”

Battery storage has the potential to mitigate intermittency and optimise output, and to this end Statoil and Masdar will also install Batwind, a 1MWh lithium battery storage solution in conjunction with the Hywind Scotland project.


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The Engineer drives: Honda Civic Type R is a fast piece of work

Wed, 2017-10-18 16:47

Chris Pickering gets to grips with the Honda Civic Type R, the fastest front-wheel-drive production car to lap the fearsome Nürburgring Nordschleife

Decked out with more vents and spoilers than a Friday night in a McDonald’s drive-through , the new Honda Civic Type R could never be accused of hiding its light under a bushel. But what you see here is the real deal. It’s the fastest front-wheel-drive production car ever to lap the fearsome Nürburgring Nordschleife. Find a long enough straight and it will crack the best part of 170mph.

Under the bonnet there’s a two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 320PS (316bhp) and 400Nm of torque. It’s a relatively mild revision of the engine found in the previous generation Honda Civic Type R, which courted controversy somewhat among Honda fans by abandoning the brand’s traditional high-revving naturally aspirated format in favour of forced induction.

The idea of a turbocharged Honda no longer raises any eyebrows

Two years down the line, things have moved on. The idea of a turbocharged Honda no longer raises any eyebrows and neither does the firm’s decision to put all that power through the front wheels. While an increasing number of hot hatches are now turning to four-wheel drive, Honda points out that a front-wheel drive set-up is both lighter and more efficient.

The chassis is based on the regular 10th-generation Civic, which uses an innovative ‘inside-out’ assembly process. Here, the inner frame is assembled first, followed by the outer frame and then the joints. The resulting structure is 16kg lighter than the previous Honda Civic Type R’s, despite being both longer and wider. It also yields a torsional stiffness improvement of 37 per cent and a static bending rigidity improvement of 45 per cent.

As with the previous model, all Civic Type Rs – even those bound for export to Japan – are produced by Honda UK Manufacturing in Swindon. For the international launch, however, we headed slightly further afield, to the de-restricted Autobahns of Germany.

Traffic prevented a proper attempt at the claimed 169mph top speed, but the Type R was still pulling determinedly at an indicated 156mph. More importantly, it felt absolutely rock solid at that speed. All those aerodynamic accoutrements, it turns out, are there for more than just show. In fact, Honda claims this is the only car in its class — and one of relatively few road cars full stop — to produce genuine downforce, as opposed to simply negating lift.

Accelerate hard from low revs and you can sense the engine building up boost, but there’s no real lag. That’s thanks, in part, to the use of variable valve timing and lift on both the camshafts, which enables very careful control of the exhaust back pressure. The throttle response is pin sharp, aided by a single-mass flywheel, which reduces the clutch inertia by some 25 per cent over the outgoing model.

The car is a more useable day-to-day proposition for drivers

It all adds up to a hugely fast car. The mighty mid-range torque is accompanied by a genuine appetite for revs. Before you know it, the engine is lunging for the 7,000rpm limiter and it’s time to grab another gear. If anything, Honda’s claim of 0-to-62mph in 5.7 seconds feels a little conservative.

Following the blast down the Autobahn we headed to the Lausitzring to sample the car on track. Grip is prodigious, as you might expect, but what really impressed was how well the Type R manages to blend agility and composure.

At 1,380kg, it’s a relatively light car by modern standards, and it slices through the direction changes with scalpel-like precision. The variable-ratio electrically assisted power steering also helps. It isn’t the most communicative system, but it does feel remarkably intuitive; the only clue to its non-linear nature is the fact you can negotiate the tightest of turns without shuffling your hands around the wheel.

Honda’s decision to stick with front-wheel drive has been well and truly vindicated. Those of a hooligan persuasion might argue that driving the rear wheels can be more fun, but at no point
did the Type R’s chassis feel overwhelmed by its power. Torque steer is almost completely absent, thanks to the dual-axis front suspension concept carried over from the previous model. This puts the wheel carrier on a separate knuckle to the main MacPherson strut, placing the steering axis much closer to the centreline of the wheel. There’s also a proper mechanical limited-slip differential, aided by an electronic system that can selectively apply the brake on either side to quell any wheel spin. It works brilliantly, although it’s not as addictive as the ultra-aggressive differential on the previous model.

All Civic Type Rs are produced by Honda UK Manufacturing in Swindon

Away from the track, the biggest strides forward are actually to be found in the more everyday aspects of the car. The previous Honda Civic Type R was a real hardcore headbanger. It was great for track-day enthusiasts, but the ride was simply too stiff for UK roads in its most aggressive setting. For the new car, Honda has stuck with magnetorheological dampers, but switched to a triple-chamber design, which provides a much wider range of adjustment. It feels positively plush in comparison and should help to significantly broaden the car’s appeal.

The acoustics have also been carefully optimised to make the new Honda Civic Type R substantially quieter while cruising. Uniquely, it features an additional tailpipe in what is essentially a twin-exit exhaust system. At high flow rates, this third pipe acts as an additional exhaust outlet, giving the engine a deeper growl. But at lower gas velocities, the flow reverses, sucking in ambient air to prevent the booming noise that would otherwise fill the cabin. The resulting soundtrack isn’t the most symphonic, but it is suitably purposeful.

The end result is a car that retains most of the previous Type R’s razor-sharp focus, while offering a far more useable day-to-day proposition.

Stay up to date with The Engineer’s automotive coverage 

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Highest-power biological solar cell offers potential for medical devices in remote regions

Wed, 2017-10-18 16:28

Based on bacteria, paper and carbon fibre, the biological solar cell generates energy in a similar way to the Earth’s ecosystem

Choi’s micro-BSC assembly is compact and self-maintaining

The cells were developed by a team at Binghampton University, part of the State University of New York, and is intended specifically for powering lab-on-a-chip diagnostic devices, said research leader Seokheun Choi.

Such devices need a self-contained clean power source, and miniaturised biological solar cells (micro-BSCs) – where photosynthetic microorganisms are the key to electricity generation – are an attractive option because the microorganisms are self-assembling and self-maintaining.

However, Choi explains in a paper in the journal Lab on a Chip, their potential has not yet been realised because the only micro-BSCs that have been made so far have only produced power density outputs in the range of nW per cm2  — not enough for microfluidic devices — and have only lasted for a couple of hours.

Choi’s team has used a new architecture for their solar cells and has produced a system which, they claim, exhibited a greater power density than any micro-BSC system to date: a maximum output of 43.8µW per cm2, and even more significant, produced sustained power of around 18.6µW per cm2 during the day and around 11.3µW per cm2 at night for 20 days.

The device consisted of a film of a cyanobacterium — a type of simple single-celled plant that has existed on Earth for over 2.5 billion years — called Synechocystis. Living in fresh water, Synechocystis can generate energy during the day (via photosynthesis) and at night (by degradation of stored glucose by enzymes). Cyanobacteria tend to grow in biofilms, spontaneously organising themselves into colonies; such biofilms can be a nuisance in some situations.

Choi’s team grew the film on a carbon fibre cloth that had been coated with a conductive polymer, poly (3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) polystyrene sulphonate, which acted as the anode in the solar cell. Completing the cell by adding a proton exchange membrane and air cathode and enclosing the whole thing in a thin gas-permeable and transparent silicone membrane, Choi and his PhD student, Lin Liu, constructed a cell with a volume of just 90µL that kept the cells alive and produced its record-breaking power density and longevity without the need for any additional fuel.

“The device will release biological photo-energy conversion technology from its restriction to conceptual research and advance its translational potential toward practical and sustainable power applications for point-of-care diagnostics to work independently and self-sustainably in limited-resource and remote regions,” Choi claimed.

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Flexible sensor skin gives robots a sense of dexterity

Wed, 2017-10-18 15:57

Robots could soon handle objects with the same dexterity as humans thanks to a flexible sensor skin developed by engineers from the University of Washington and UCLA.

Bio-inspired sensor skin wraps around a finger or any other part of a robot to help convey touch (credit: UCLA Engineering)

The skin can be stretched over any part of a robot’s body – or prosthetic – to accurately convey information about shear forces and vibration that are critical to grasping and manipulating objects.

The bio-inspired robot sensor skin mimics the way a human finger experiences tension and compression as it slides along a surface or distinguishes different textures. It measures this tactile information with similar precision as human skin and is described in a paper published in Sensors and Actuators A: Physical.

“Robotic and prosthetic hands are really based on visual cues right now – such as, ‘Can I see my hand wrapped around this object?’ or ‘Is it touching this wire?’ But that’s obviously incomplete information,” said senior author Jonathan Posner, a UW professor of mechanical engineering and of chemical engineering.

“If a robot is going to dismantle an improvised explosive device, it needs to know whether its hand is sliding along a wire or pulling on it. To hold on to a medical instrument, it needs to know if the object is slipping. This all requires the ability to sense shear force, which no other sensor skin has been able to do well,” Posner said.

Some robots use fully instrumented fingers, but that sense of “touch” is limited to that appendage. Another approach is to wrap a robot appendage in a sensor skin, which provides better design flexibility, but these skins are yet to provide a full range of tactile information.

“Traditionally, tactile sensor designs have focused on sensing individual modalities: normal forces, shear forces or vibration exclusively. However, dexterous manipulation is a dynamic process that requires a multimodal approach. The fact that our latest skin prototype incorporates all three modalities creates many new possibilities for machine learning-based approaches for advancing robot capabilities,” said co-author Veronica Santos, a UCLA associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The new stretchable electronic skin, which was manufactured at the UW’s Washington Nanofabrication Facility, is made from silicone rubber that is embedded with serpentine channels filled with electrically conductive liquid metal that won’t crack or fatigue when the skin is stretched.

When the skin is placed around a robot finger or end effector, these microfluidic channels are strategically placed on either side of where a human fingernail would be. When humans slide a finger across a surface, one side of the nailbed bulges out while the other side becomes taut under tension. The same thing happens with the robot or prosthetic finger because the microfluidic channels on one side of the nailbed compress while the ones on the other side stretch out.

When the channel geometry changes, so does the amount of electricity that can flow through them. The research team can measure these differences in electrical resistance and correlate them with the shear forces and vibrations that the robot finger is experiencing.

“Our electronic skin bulges to one side just like the human finger does and the sensors that measure the shear forces are physically located where the nailbed would be, which results in a sensor that performs with similar performance to human fingers,” said lead author Jianzhu Yin.

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MasterChef inspires Highways England funded self-healing road project

Wed, 2017-10-18 15:37

An episode of MasterChef inspired a researcher from the University Nottingham to develop a new technology for repairing cracks in road surfaces.

After watching a contestant on the Spanish version of the show use a technique known as spherification (the controlled jellification of a liquid to form spheres), Dr Alvaro Garcia, from the Nottingham Transportation Engineering Centre (NTEC), began exploring how the addition of microcapsules of oil to asphalt could be used to create self-repairing road surfaces.

The idea is that as cracks appear in the road the capsules break open, releasing the oil within and softening the asphalt around it. This helps the asphalt ‘stick’ back together, effectively filling in cracks and preventing small defects from deteriorating further.

Working with funding from Highways England, Garcia’s team has created and carried laboratory tests on microcapsules filled with sunflower oil.  Commenting on the research Garcia said, ‘Our preliminary results showed that the capsules can resist the mixing and compaction processes without significantly reducing the physical and mechanical properties of asphalt and they also increased its durability. More importantly, we found that the cracked asphalt samples were restored to their full strength, two days after the sunflower oil was released.’

Sunflower oil can reverse the effects of ageing in bitumen used in asphalt by reducing the viscosity of the binder. The microcapsules created by Dr Garcia and his team, help to reduce the amount of other healing agents used because they can be activated in precise areas when required, thus avoiding the need to be mixed up in bulk.

Garcia estimates that the material – which he has named Capheal – could increase a road’s lifespan by at least one-third from 12 to 16 years and costs about the same as other additives that are commonly used in asphalt paving.

He added that is has potential advantages over other road healing technologies, which often rely on additional equipment.  “I previously worked on developing self-healing roads in the Netherlands and Switzerland that featured metal fibres,” said Garcia.  “An induction heater would pass over the surface to melt the bitumen and fill in cracks in the roads, but the problem with that is you need a large machine, which is expensive and requires a road to be closed to traffic.”

NTEC’s team is near the end of the initial stage of the project with the successful completion of laboratory tests and pilot trials. After this, Highways England will test bed Capheal on carefully selected sections of a road during planned overnight maintenance work. This will be followed by a monitoring period of about 12 to 24 months to determine Capheal’s level of durability and endurance.


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Amour plated protection through the ages: five innovations from The Engineer archive

Wed, 2017-10-18 12:30

The prospect of imminent annihilation is a great motivator and the correlation between warfare and technological advance is well known and documented.

The development of armour is no different in this respect and The Engineer has taken a keen interest in the materials and processes used to afford protection to the weapons of war, be they horses, boats, tanks or trains.

Here, we look back at five developments designed to give armoured protection to combatants on land and at sea.

Cruickshank’s Improvements in Cavalry Equipments1856: The Horse Tank

Horses no longer take soldiers directly into battle but in 1856 a certain Mr Cruickshank had penned an article describing how armour could both protect horses and be used offensively. ‘Cruickshank’s Improvements in Cavalry Equipments’ was published in the very first issue of The Engineer and describes an armoured suit for horses that consisted of a rigid adjustable armoured frame to protect the horse and the lower extremities of the rider. Attached to this frame was a series of retractable lever-operated cutting implements and weapons with which the rider could scythe his way through enemy troops. This, the article said, would ‘render the attack of cavalry more formidable by providing horses with a means of destroying troops against which the attack is directed’.

Learn more about the Horse Tank

1861: SS Great Eastern

Five years after the seeming whimsy of the Horse Tank came a discussion about whether Royal Navy ships should be primarily built of wood or if they should be clad in a coat of iron. The nation had fought off the Spanish Armada with wooden ships; and had protected the country from Napoleon. Why change now at the height of the British Empire? The reason the question was even being posed was largely down to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By building the SS Great Eastern – designed to travel to Australia with 4,000 passengers without the need to refuel – Brunel had introduced a wholly new concept, which sent ripples through the Admiralty and discussions about the effectiveness of iron against ordnance. The prospect of fire helped to swing opinion in iron’s favour, a factor not lost on the Royal Navy who launched their first iron-armoured wooden vessels a year before the debate in The Engineer.

Learn more about SS Great Eastern

The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms1902: The first armoured car

The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms, inventor and founder of the RAC and SMMT, in 1899, and its building completed by Vickers, Sons and Maxim Limited in 1902. The war car consisted of a rectangular chassis built by the British Daimler Motor Company and was covered by a 28 foot-long detachable metal shell that looked like an upturned bathtub. It was powered by a 16 horse-power four-cylinder engine provided by the German Daimler company, and had a top speed mode of 9 miles an hour. The car’s offensive capabilities were made possible by two quick-firing Maxim guns and a “pom-pom”, an automatic cannon named for the sound it made when fired, and required four people to operate it, although several riflemen could also be accommodated.

Learn more about the first armoured car

There were two identical armoured trains in service during
the First World War: one for the East Anglian coast and one for the east coast of Scotland1919: First World War armoured trains

In 1919 two fearsome armoured trains had been commissioned to help defend the East Anglian coast and the east coast of Scotland. The identical trains were the result of several rail companies providing component parts. All the parts above the frame were protected with armour plating and the cab windows had metal sliding shutters. The idea behind the trains was that, in the event of an invasion, they would speed to the invasion site and deploy an infantry force, backed up with artillery from two gun carriages at either end of the train, which would slow down the invaders until further support arrived. The infantry vans were converted from 40-ton coal wagons, with half-inch-thick armour on the sides and three-eighths-of-an-inch thick on the roof. Neither train saw action, but did provide reassurance on the coast.

Learn more about WWI armoured trains

The ‘little ships’ were mainly crewed by RN Reservists1945: ‘Little Ships’ achieve more than Dunkirk heroics

The ‘Little Ships’, crewed mainly by Royal Navy reservists, formed a significant part of what wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as the “miracle of deliverance” at Dunkirk. Among the Little Ships’ crews, however, observations had been made that would lead to the development of a material that, towards the end of the Second World War, would save thousands of lives and tons of steel. The material was plastic armour and, in August 1945, Dr JP Lawrie of the Royal Naval Scientific Service penned an article for The Engineer that summarised the material’s development and its quick evolution for use during the D-Day landings of 1944.

Discover more about the development of plastic armour

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Scifi Eye: The imaginary prospects of future money

Tue, 2017-10-17 21:38

Scifi novelist Jon Wallace looks at the vital role that an imagined currency can play in a future alternate world

Money is a simple method by which scifi writers establish the world of their stories. Our dependence on and hunger for currency has helped define human history since around 700BC; we can hardly imagine society without it, and so naturally it plays a crucial role in story, as corrupting motive or hunted treasure.

Crucially, creating an entirely new, imagined currency helps to establish the otherness of our world. Money, whether a coin bearing Caesar’s likeness or a note that of a Founding Father, is part of what allows us to define a particular civilisation: for writers an invented currency therefore helps us establish our alternate order.

Often enough the fantasy currency is little more than a fun game for the writer, making up things we find pleasing to say – from Cowboy BeBop’s ‘Woolongs’ to Groo the Wanderer’s ‘Kopins’ and Rick and Morty’s ‘Flurbos’. Money is often a joke in scifi, such as Futurama’s speaking Nixon notes and Douglas Adams’ ‘Ningis’ – triangular rubber coins measuring 6,800 miles on each side. Still, it plays a crucial role in most of these tales.

Even in worlds where traditional payment is supposed to have ceased, cash retains its importance to storytelling: in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where money no longer exists, the writers were horribly shackled by the imposition of greed-free saintliness. Small wonder that Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek spin-off, is rendered more successful by the introduction of a race entirely defined by ‘acquisition’; the Ferengi lust for Latinum created more variety and fun; we like them because we recognise them far better than Federation do-gooders.

So, what to make of a world of cryptocurrencies and contactless payment? Are the days of safes and briefcases under the table numbered? And if so, what does this mean for scifi writers wanting to tell tales of Ferengi-style dodgy deals and treasure hunts?

Well, the omens for cash are mixed. The Engineer recently reported on a new nano-structure printing process that holds great promises as an anti-counterfeiting measure, promising printed images with a resolution of 100,000dpi. Such work would seem to point to a secure future for the humble banknote. Yet, in the same month, Costcutter supermarkets have trialled a ‘finger-vein payment system’ that sees customers pay via a scan of the unique biometric map of their finger veins: another step towards a cash-free society.

What can such developments mean for the scifi writer? A world without cash would seem to point to a world where more than ever personal worth is resolved solely into exchange value, as our finances define our identity; where privacy becomes more and more an absurdity. Where will it all lead us?

Picture a cashless future where citizens’ bank balances define the way they perceive the world; we could tell the story of a city whose population lives in augmented reality (AR), yet where vast swathes of the AR space is invisible to those scanned and found of limited means. This visual exclusivity extends to all things: we could tell the tale of a mischievous tailor who convinces a rich man to wear an AR suit that only the wealthiest citizens will see. He agrees, and wanders the city, appearing a ridiculous fat man in his underwear to all but the fewest of the few. The tailor expects some child will point out the absurdity of this emperor’s new clothes, but it never happens. Instead the craze spreads, and for a while the whole city’s population wanders in its underwear, hoping to be thought of as princely.

Perhaps even if hard cash remains, money will continue to govern us: imagine future banknotes that possess artificial intelligence, greenbacks designed to turn bright red when used in criminal transactions, rendering them invalid. The system works well, until the notes begin to judge the merit of their legitimate owner’s transactions too, only allowing themselves to be spent as they see fit, turning red to prevent their exchange for evils such as alcohol, weapons, or One Direction albums.

Beyond that, it’s interesting to speculate how the concept of value could be destroyed by contact with extra terrestrials. Imagine a universe where Earth has joined an inter-galactic economy, where a mineral alien to Earth is standard cash. To acquire the mineral each individual must mint his own currency, provided a purely aesthetic rate of exchange by an intergalactic panel. Suddenly artists are wealthy beyond their wildest dreams as their beautifully rendered coinage purchases stacks of mineral, while once rich men can only attain fragments with childish scrawled notes.

Wherever technology leads money, it will remain the root of all evil; but it’s the root of a good story too. With no Ferengi, there’s no fun at all.

Jon Wallace is a science fiction writer. He is author of Barricade, published by Gollancz. 

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Chromatography techniques yield rare earth elements from coal ash

Tue, 2017-10-17 19:30

New chromatography separation techniques could extract rare earth elements from waste coal ash and help introduce the US to a market worth $4bn.

Linda Wang, Purdue University’s Maxine Spencer Nichols Professor of Chemical Engineering

Rare earth elements (REE) consist largely of Lanthanides (Lns) – a series of 15 metallic elements – and the value of products requiring them is estimated at over $4 trillion per year.

“REEs have many important applications in things such as permanent magnets in power generation and electric cars, batteries, petroleum refining catalysts, phosphors in colour televisions, and many electronics including cellphones,” said Linda Wang, inventor of the technology at Purdue University, Indiana. “The demand for REEs is predicted to grow dramatically over the next several decades.”

Separating rare earth elements is, however, extremely difficult because the elements have the same ionic charge and are similar in size, said Wang. They also occur in ores in concentrations of a few thousand parts per million.

“Extensive processes of mining, grinding, extraction, and purification are needed to transform the ores to very high purity [approximately 99.9 percent minimum] rare earth metals required for commercial applications,” she said. “Typically, old technologies from the 1950s are used for separation and purification. They usually require 1,800 different extraction stages in series and in parallel for purification.”

By contrast, Wang’s new techniques could separate REE first from other impurities and then from each other by using only a few chromatography units.

The processes are said to involve ligand-assisted elution or displacement chromatography methods using low-cost, inorganic sorbent titania or polymeric sorbents.

“These new processes can effectively separate REEs with purities and yields greater than 95 per cent,” Wang said. “Using titania sorbents is what makes this innovation unique. They are robust and inexpensive, making the processes efficient and affordable. We are the first group in the world who developed this technology. Additionally, the by-products of our process include silica gel, aluminum oxide, and other metal oxides of commercial value, making the overall process profitable and economical.”

Wang said that the US has accumulated 1.5 billion tons of coal ash, which is rich in rare earth elements and could be used to produce REEs for decades.

“We have demonstrated the feasibility of this technology at laboratory scale and believe it is going to be a much simpler, more efficient, and lower capital cost option for REE production,” Wang said. “We have had success in many challenging chromatographic separations, including the purification of medical isotopes, sugars, amino acids, chiral drugs, insulin, polymers, and many others. Thus, we are confident that we can produce high purity REEs from coal ash.”

The Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization has patented the technology and it is available for license.

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Liquid metal morphing makes shapes for robotics

Tue, 2017-10-17 17:06

A method for forcing blobs of liquid metal to form programmable shapes could have startling applications

Researchers from Sussex and Swansea Universities have invented a method for morphing a liquid metal into two-dimensional shapes that can be changed seamlessly. While some way off from the morphing liquid metal robot that terrified audiences in the film Terminator 2, the technique could be useful in reconfigurable electronics, in displays and in soft robotics, the team said.

The blob of EGaIn on a 7×7 grid of graphic electrodes is manipulated to form a letter S

The researchers, led by Yutaka Kotuda at Swansea’s Future Interaction Technologies laboratory and Prof Sriram Subramanian of Sussex’s INTERACT laboratory, are working with an alloy of indium and gallium known as EGaIn that is a liquid at room temperature and whose surface tension is very sensitive to external electric voltages. Placing a blob of liquid metal onto a 7×7 array of graphite electrodes, they manipulated the pattern of electric charge across the array to affect the tension across the surface of the blob, pulling it around so that it formed letters and a heart shape. They discussed their research at this week’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Interactive Surfaces and Spaces in Brighton, and it has been published in the proceedings of the conference.

The array was under the control of a prototype graphical user interface, allowing the shape of the metal to be changed dynamically. “One of the long-term visions of us and many other researchers is to change the physical shape, appearance and functionality of any object through digital control to create intelligent, dexterous and useful objects,” Subramanian commented.

The research represents the first use of a liquid metal for such controllable deformations, the team said, with previous attempts using fabrics, rubber, gels, shape-memory alloys or systems such as magnetically-levitated polystyrene balls. Liquids, and in particular liquid metals, offer advantages because of their electrical conductivity and the possibility of liquid-to-solid phase change and control of stiffness and density.

“While this work is in its early stages, the compelling evidence of detailed 2D control of liquid metals excites us to explore more potential applications in computer graphics, smart electronics, soft robotics and flexible displays,” said Kotuda.

There are still imitations to the technique, in particular preventing the droplet of liquid metal from splitting. However, the researchers believe this technique might have short-term applications in making electric circuits that can be redesigned on the fly, using the metal as a programmable condutive ink.

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Airbus Bombardier C-Series deal could save Belfast jobs

Tue, 2017-10-17 17:02

Airbus is to acquire a majority stake in Bombardier’s C-Series aircraft business, potentially shoring up thousands of UK jobs put at risk by a recent US decision to impose sharp import tariffs on the aircraft.

Under the agreement, Airbus will acquire a 50.01 per cent stake in the C- Series Aircraft Limited Partnership (CSALP) whilst Bombardier will own approximately 31 per cent of the business.

Whilst Airbus has acquired its stake without handing over any money, access to the aerospace giant’s supply chain expertise and global sales reach is expected to generate considerable production cost savings for the C-Series and enable access to new markets.

The deal also cements Airbus’ stature in the growing market for single aisle aircraft which represents 70 per cent of the expected global future demand. The 100 – 150 seat C Series is considered to be highly complementary to Airbus’ existing single aisle aircraft portfolio, which focuses on the higher end of the single-aisle business (150-240 seats).

The deal is welcome news for Bombardier in the wake of the recent decision by the US department of commerce to impose import tariffs of 300 per cent on the aircraft (this was increased from an initial tariff of 220 per cent), and could help protect up to 1000 jobs at Bombardiers’ Belfast plant, where the wings for the C-Series jet are manufactured. The partnership is also expected to secure jobs at the main C-Series assembly site in Quebec, Canada.

The decision was welcomed by Unite, the UK’s biggest union, which said that it had received assurances that employment associated with manufacture of C-series wing will remain in Belfast. “This is a welcome development,” said Unite’s regional coordinating officer, Davy Thompson, “one that gives ‘breathing space’ to the C Series itself and which we anticipate should safeguard the future of C-Series production jobs in Belfast for the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, Airbus CEO Tom Enders hailed the deal as “win win for everyone”.

“Not only will this partnership secure the C Series and its industrial operations in Canada, the UK and China, but we also bring new jobs to the US,” said Enders. “Airbus will benefit from strengthening its product portfolio in the high-volume single-aisle market, offering superior value to our airline customers worldwide.”

Despite this, there are some reservations about the deal, which will see aircraft destined for the US market and assembled at the Airbus plant in Mobile, Alabama.

The UK’s GMB union has warned that the decision may be viewed by the US administration as an attempt to dodge trade tariffs. “This sounds like potentially good news for our members in Belfast,” said GMB National Officer Ross Murdoch, “But, as always, the devil will be in the detail. “GMB hopes both Bombardier and Airbus have taken cast iron legal advice to ensure they don’t get rid of one legal challenge only to open themselves up to another.”

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Interview: GKN Driveline chief executive Phil Swash

Tue, 2017-10-17 15:44

Phil Swash, CEO of GKN Driveline speaks to Jon Excell about the current “golden age” of automotive engineering. 

There are rarely many big surprises at car shows these days.

While once upon a time manufacturers waited for the exhibition hall doors to open before performing the big reveal, today’s events are typically robbed of their drama by months of pre-show hype.

Nevertheless, they do still provide a useful indication of the sector’s direction of travel. And at this year’s vast Frankfurt motor show there was one word on everyone’s lips: electrification. In a relatively short space of time, this subject has moved from the fringes to the centre-stage of the sector’s strategy.

Phil Swash has been GKN Driveline CEO since 2015

Unsurprisingly, it was the household names who grabbed the headlines, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and others all unveiling a mix of new models and thought-provoking concepts.

But from a technology point of view, it was the degree to which the industry’s key suppliers were talking about electrification that was perhaps most striking. Suppliers like GKN Driveline, the automotive division of UK engineering multinational GKN.

Exploded view of the eTwinsterX technology launched at the 2017 Frankfurt motorshow

Long renowned for its drive-shaft technology, and specifically the constant velocity (CV) joints that it pioneered for automotive use, GKN has evolved rapidly in recent years with a series of acquisitions expanding its expertise into almost every area of driveline technology, including, increasingly, electrification.

Talking to The Engineer shortly after unveiling its latest product in this area – an electric driveline concept dubbed eTwinsterX – the division’s CEO Phil Swash said that whilst some have been surprised by the rise of electrification, GKN has had the trend in its sights for some time. “I could show you presentations and discussion documents we were presenting to our board three years ago where we were saying this is going to be huge,” he said.

While some remain unconvinced, Swash thinks that there is now an inevitability to its rise. “Whether it’s trailblazers like Tesla, the diesel issues in Europe and America, or the Chinese market acceleration: all of these things have come together at a time to really accelerate momentum, and I think that momentum is unstoppable now.”

Indeed, adoption of the technology could ultimately outstrip even the boldest predictions, he claimed. “When you look at other new technology evolutions – laptops, phones, ipads – the hype is often too high initially and the volumes are never what the hype is. But when they get to that inflection point, the proportion of sales they command is often far higher than anyone anticipated and we think it will be the same for electric vehicles.”

GKN will deliver new components and technologies for the Jaguar Formula E electric race car.

The company’s level of investment in the technology reflects this confidence. “The amount of investment we make in electrified drive train is very significant now: over a quarter of our engineering investment in drivetrains,” said Swash.  “When you think that less than three per cent of vehicle sales are electrified it shows you how much we’re investing ahead of that very, very rapid increase.”

Clearly electrification isn’t the only game in town, and GKN sees plenty of life left in conventionally powered vehicles. But even here, R&D investment in existing areas has clear benefits for the electrification market.

The group’s traditional expertise in driveshafts is a good example. “Every battery electric vehicle / hybrid vehicle also needs really high-performance drive-shafts,” said Swash. And as concepts like bi-directional torque flow — being to deliver power and harvest regenerative power — become more established, GKN’s expertise in this area will become ever more important, he added.  Another established area of expertise with clear applications in the electric world is in all wheel drive technology: “A lot of what we learn in AWD on the software control side reads directly across into edrive, especially tuning the dynamics, torque vectoring and so on.”

Nevertheless, it was the firm’s burgeoning electric credentials that took the limelight at Frankfurt, where alongside the launch of the eTwinsterX, it also announced a hook-up with the Panasonic Jaguar Racing Formula E team.

Much of the work on the Formula E project will be carried out at GKN’s recently opened UK innovation centre in Abingdon, the former home of Williams Hybrid Power, which was acquired by GKN back in 2014.

Inside GKN’s UK innovation centre

However, the deal will see the entire GKN group provide design, manufacturing and consultancy services to the Jaguar team, and Swash believes the firm has plenty to offer: from the light-weighting and composites expertise generated by GKN Aerospace, to the drivetrain knowledge of its automotive division, and even the use of technology from the group’s powder metallurgy business to help in the manufacture of cooling systems for the vehicles.

Beyond this, he also hopes the relationship will help accelerate the development of electrification technology in general, and enable the firm to tap into motorsport’s famed fast-paced innovation culture.  “We’ve done it to fast-track and demonstrate our latest technologies,” he said, “It’s a great proving ground and it drives you in a different way. The pace, demands and expectations are very different.”

We will look back and say these were the golden years, from an engineering perspective, from a product perspective, it’s just fantastic

The differing expectations of other areas of industry are something Swash knows all about.  Prior to joining GKN Driveline in 2015, he was CEO of GKN Aerospace Europe, and despite identifying many similarities between the two sectors — “they’re both big global customers, with big complex programmes, and massive investments” — he has, he said, been blown away by the rapid pace of innovation in the car sector. “One of the great differences for me, and the thing that’s really great about automotive, is that the technologies we’re developing today will be on a car in 3 years’ time. That’s so different to the aerospace environment where you can be working on a new process or product development for a decade and it still might not get on the next new aircraft.”

It is, he added, a remarkable time to be working in the sector: “To be an engineer in automotive today, oh my gosh, it’s just fantastic. What other industry would you want to work in at this time? We will look back and say these were the golden years, from an engineering perspective, from a product perspective, it’s just fantastic.’

Despite this, for the UK automotive sector in particular there are some large Brexit-shaped clouds on the horizon. And like most engineering firms with a big stake in the UK, GKN is, said Swash, concerned by the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with Europe. “I’m concerned…that we don’t have any clarity yet on what the arrangement will be,” he said. “For any business, barriers to the free movement of talent or import/export taxes generally isn’t very good for trade, we’re hopeful and engaged to try and ensure that the eventual arrangements don’t create those barriers, but until we have that certainty we are concerned.”

As a global company, despite being headquartered in the UK, the home market accounts for less than 10 per cent of the automotive division’s sales so the company will survive any Brexit-related slowdown in the UK market. However, its continued presence in the UK will, said Swash, be largely dependent on a continued UK market for its products.

“We’ve been in UK for a long time,” said Swash, “we think it’s important we’re there, there’s engineering heritage, and we’ve invested heavily in our business in the UK. But at the end of the day we’re a global company and we’ll go where our customers need us.”

Phil Swash – Biog
  • Joined GKN in 2007 as CEO GKN Aerospace Europe.
  • Appointed Chief Executive GKN Driveline in September 2015.
  • Member of the GKN Executive Committee since October 2014.
  • Prior to his current role, Phil was Chief Executive GKN Land Systems.
  • Has held a number of operational roles at BAE Systems and Airbus where, prior to joining GKN, he was responsible for the wing production of all Airbus aircraft.
Click here for more news and features from the automotive sector

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This week’s poll: Protecting UK strategic industries

Tue, 2017-10-17 15:32

Do new proposals to prevent strategic industries in the UK being bought up by overseas interests go far enough?

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Business secretary Greg Clark has announced new proposals to prevent manufacturers in strategic industrial sectors from being bought up by foreign interests. The proposals apply to manufacturers in two sectors: the ‘dual use’ and military sector, whose products are already subject to export controls; and companies involved in the design of computer chips and quantum technology.

Currently, the government can only intervene when the annual turnover of the target company is above £70m — this limit will be reduced to £1m — and if the proposed takeover or merger increases the company’s share of UK supply to 25 per cent or over. The latter requirement will be removed altogether. More information on the proposals can be found here.

Overseas acquisition of UK companies has been a controversial topic in The Engineer in recent years, so we’d like to know what our readers think of these proposals. Will they provide enough protection for the UK’s strategic assets? Should other sectors be added to the two already mentioned? Is the UK in a position to turn away any inward investment at all? Or are these proposals already too late to protect industries that should have remained in UK hands? Readers picking the second or fourth option can suggest which sectors they’d like to see protected, or which ones should not have gone overseas, in the comments section.

We will publish the results of this poll on 24 October.

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Plasmonic nanoantenna arrays hold promise for ultrasensitive sensors

Tue, 2017-10-17 04:32

Researchers have designed and tested plasmonic nanoantenna arrays that could lead to the development of ultrasensitive and low-cost fluorescence sensors for water monitoring.

SEM images of nanoantenna array and in the inset a magnified view of the array elements (Credit: Bristol University)

The breakthrough has been made by researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Bedfordshire in collaboration with ABB.

The arrays, designed and tested by Dr Neciah Dorh during his PhD at Bristol University, are made from aluminium nanorods fabricated using electron beam lithography by commercial partner Kelvin Nanotechnologies. At 50nm wide and 158nm long, the nanorods are designed to resonantly enhance fluorescence emission from contaminants in water including diesel or tryptophan.

The work, published in Applied Optics, is said to show a six-fold increase in measured fluorescence emission from a dye. The research also shows that by correctly designing the array element spacing, strongly directional fluorescent emission can be obtained which would allow for highly integrated multi-wavelength sensors to be designed.

The work was carried out in Prof Martin Cryan’s research group, which is part of the Photonics Research group in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Bristol University. Prof Cryan obtained funding from ABB as part of the ABB research grant programme.

The project was a collaboration with Dr Andrei Sarua from the School of Physics at Bristol and Dr Tahmina Ajmal from the University of Bedfordshire, who had previously worked on the Aquatest project at Bristol.

Together they developed a prototype low-cost, LED based sensor system, which they plan to develop further into a hand-held field deployable system for performing water quality monitoring.

Prof Cryan said: “The nanoantenna arrays, which can be fabricated by lower cost production techniques such as nanoimprint lithography, can bring significant sensitivity enhancement so that laboratory quality measurements could be carried out in the field.

“This would allow for deployment of remote wireless sensor networks for early warning of pollution or continuous monitoring of water quality in sensitive environments.”

Dr Dorh has co-founded a start-up, Fluoretiq, developing quantum enhanced fluorescence sensors which will help identify bacteria within minutes rather than days. Similarly, Prof Cryan’s group is developing systems that could combine the power of nanoantennas with quantum enhanced sensors to produce yet further sensitivity enhancements.

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How should you react when management has its head in the sand?

Mon, 2017-10-16 20:26

There are few things more irritating  than a senior management team that wilfully ignores sensible advice writes our anonymous blogger. 

A few years back I had a constant battle with keeping my temper at work. I was suffering from a building rage that came from fighting a steady battle over a number of years but finding my efforts constantly dismissed or thwarted.

Ours was a small company with less than 10 members of senior staff and by this stage it was a company and team that I’d been a part of for a few years. The process had started on my arrival there, immediately I had identified a number of serious failings and risks, and brought them to the attention of anyone who would listen. However, there was a complete lack of interest from the top all the way down. You will have to take my word for it that I am talking about extremely basic matters, and that if I was only 20% correct in my assessment then that was still an awful lot of the company that was worryingly sub-optimal.

Then a combination of steady erosion of performance and a few temporary loadings towards those areas of risk resulted in quite a sustained problem. Yet not only were my views still rejected but the same old tactics of inefficient fire fighting and knee jerk reaction were deployed once more.

This resulted in us generally muddling through day to day but did very little to claw back the situation – and what it did achieve was attained in the least efficient way possible. Approximately 50% of the senior team agreed with me (or I with them if you prefer) regarding where the problems lay and the obvious ways to tackle them. Unfortunately the problems were also led from the top along with the other 50% of the senior team through their inadequacy or inefficiency.

I tried everything to change things for the better. Private informal chats, encouragement, explaining how good working practises could mitigate against risk – blazing rows even. Sadly nothing could either sway the CEO from his suicidal course or those who were failing us all from maintaining their woeful performance. To be able to see such problems, and to have what you know to be sound advice coupled with appropriate skills to help resolutely ignored is an infuriating experience.

The obvious solutions are “leave” or indeed “put up with it and take the money.” These bring their own problems though and it’s because of the dreaded “P word” – professionalism.

With the company in such a parlous state I knew that the loss of a senior member of staff might be enough to tip it over the edge. Of course no-one is indispensable but this could have been the final problem that would sink the whole enterprise. Probably not too horrendous for the members of the senior team who could either retire or move into positions in other companies, but possibly critical for the workforce on the shop floor. A mixture of skilled and semi-skilled, mainly on the minimum wage, few transferable skills and probably without savings to keep them going while they found somewhere else.

Equally it was difficult to carry on as a complicit drone while those who should have been central to rescuing the company from its predicament continued to swing the lead and cause further problems whilst bleating on about how terrible it all was.

I’m not sure if how it all ended was the best that could be hoped for given the circumstance (nothing radical or shocking but something that must remain shrouded in mystery to prevent my accidental unmasking) but for my part I did the best I could at the time. Not for the shareholders perhaps, nor the rest of the senior team or even possibly the customers (although by default I should imagine it was); but rather for those whose direct livelihood was most vulnerable.

Altruistic or selfish, shareholder or customer – just how does one determine where professional loyalties should lie and therefore how exactly such problems are dealt with?

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Kier joins MTC to help in delivery of future infrastructure projects

Mon, 2017-10-16 20:04

Kier has joined the Manufacturing Technology Centre, a move intended to help the company work on R&D that will assist in delivering construction and infrastructure projects.

Kier innovation director Mark Austin and MTC chief executive Dr Clive Hickman

The company, which employs 21,000 employees across the UK, has identified augmented reality, robotics, 3D printing, and MTC process analysis as areas it will explore and exploit as part of its MTC membership.

Mark Austin, innovation director, Kier, said: “We’re looking forward to working with industry peers to develop new R&D projects that will help us deliver the construction and infrastructure projects of the future.”

Kier launched its membership of Coventry-based MTC with an Innovation Forum for 15 of its key staff, drawing on the recently launched Construction & Infrastructure Roadmap produced by the i3P (Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform) and the MTC.

The roadmap outlines the challenges which need to be addressed in order to meet the targets set in the Government’s Construction 2025 Strategy – including 33 per cent lower costs; 50 per cent faster delivery; 50 per cent lower emissions, and a 50 per cent increase in exports.

Kier becomes the latest in a growing list of construction and infrastructure companies working with the MTC, including Amey, HS2, Network Rail and Skanska.

Trudi Sully, associate director for construction and infrastructure at the MTC, said: “Bringing Kier into membership is a significant step in consolidating the MTC’s position and strength as a major player in R&D for the construction and infrastructure sector.

“Having them on-board alongside our other key sector members speaks to the wider market about the vital opportunity for collaborative innovation and will enable us to develop more expertise and broaden our engagement with the sector.”

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Mantis shrimp eye inspires camera that senses colour and polarization

Mon, 2017-10-16 18:57

Researchers have taken inspiration from the eye of the mantis shrimp to develop an ultra-sensitive camera that can sense colour and polarization.

Mantis shrimp (Credit: Michael Bok, University of Lund)

The bioinspired imager can potentially improve early cancer detection and help provide a new understanding of underwater phenomena, said researchers from the University of Illinois.

“The animal kingdom is full of creatures with much more sensitive and sophisticated eyes than our own,” said Viktor Gruev , a University of Illinois professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-author of the new study. “These animals perceive natural phenomena that are invisible to humans.

“Polarization of light – that is, the direction of oscillation of light as it propagates in space – is one such example. While most of us are familiar with polarized sunglasses, which simply remove glare, many animals use polarized vision as a covert communication channel, to find food, or even to navigate by sensing polarization patterns in the sky.”

The mantis shrimp is said to possess one of the most sophisticated eyes in nature. Compared with human vision, which has three different types of colour receptors, the mantis shrimp has 16 different plus six polarization channels, Gruev said.

Gruev and graduate student Missael Garcia led an effort to replicate the shrimp’s visual system using some basic physical concepts. They report their findings in the journal Optica.

“Nature has constructed the mantis shrimp eye in such a way that photosensitive elements are vertically stacked on top of each other,” Gruev said. This stacking allows for absorption of shorter wavelengths, such as blue light, in the shallow photoreceptors and red light in the deeper receptors. The photoreceptors are organized “in a periodic fashion at the nanoscale that allows them to also ‘see’ the polarized properties of light,” he said.

“The same laws of physics that apply to the mantis visual system also apply to silicon materials, the material used to build our digital cameras” Garcia said. “By stacking multiple photodiodes on top of each other in silicon, we can see colour without the use of special filters. And by combining this technology with metallic nanowires, we effectively have replicated the portion of the mantis shrimp visual system that allows it to sense both colour and polarization.”

This combination of silicon photodetectors and nanomaterials allowed the Illinois research team to create a point-and-shoot colour-polarization camera. The applications for such cameras are wide-ranging, from early cancer detection to monitoring changes in the environment to decoding the covert communication channels that many underwater creatures appear to exploit, the researchers said.

In a previously published study by Gruev, a bioinspired polarization sensor fitted to a colonoscope could detect the disordered nature of cancerous cells in the human colon.

“By mimicking the mantis shrimp visual system, we have created a unique camera that can be used to improve the quality of our lives,” Gruev said. “The notion that we can detect early formation of cancer is what is driving this research forward. The cost of this technology is less than $100, which will enable quality health care in resource-limited places around the world.”

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October 1955: Radio-controlled tractor gets to work in Surrey

Mon, 2017-10-16 17:05

Ford Motor Company invites The Engineer to observe an unmanned, radio-controlled Fordson Major diesel tractor

Fordson tractors underwent a series of modifications during their 47 years in production, but it was a non-production version that lured one of our predecessors to a field in Surrey in October 1955.

Ford Motor Company had invited The Engineer to observe an unmanned, radio-controlled Fordson Major diesel tractor, a technology demonstrator that had been built for use in field trials. What piqued the interest of our predecessor was the potential application of radio-controlled vehicles “in the transport of fissionable material at nuclear power plants”.

The radio-controlled Fordson Major diesel tractor in action in 1955

Furthermore, Ford was demonstrating a vehicle modification that our reporter thought could be “a pointer to the future of mechanised fanning”.

According to the report, radio control was enabled by a transmitter working at 27-12Mc (megacycles) and providing six separate – but not simultaneous – channels, by means of audio-frequency modulation of the carrier, the receiver having tuned reed output relays for the reception of individual signals. These then operated secondary relays to provide excitation from the 12V tractor battery for the solenoids connected to the tractor controls.

The transmitter and receiver were battery operated, the latter being carried in a case fixed to the side of the tractor near to the telescopic whip aerial. The operator’s control box was separate from, but attached to, the transmitter by a cable. The controls had been arranged to allow left and right steering, clutch release, implement raising and lowering, and engine stop.

The report said: “On the tractor, in association with the receiver, there was a bank of coloured lights that indicated the control functions and which provided a continuous check on the operation of the radio transmitter and receiving gear.

“The ‘engine stop’ function is also associated with a safety device, which comes into operation in the event of a failure in the transmitter or receiver. The hydraulic system, which operates at about 500lb per square inch, includes a Plessey pump installation, a five-gallon header tank fitted underneath the radiator, a Keelavite control valve and the solenoid operated by-pass valve, as well as the valves and hydraulic cylinders concerned with steering and clutch control.”

The function of the by-pass valve was to short circuit the pump when no hydraulic power was required, which reduced the amount of energy wasted during pumping.  The tractor was steered by a double-acting cylinder controlled by a double-acting valve operated magnetically from the 12V tractor battery through the radio receivers output relays.

The Engineer’s reporter said that the mechanical output of the hydraulic cylinders was coupled to a point on the steering drop arm, and there were bypass taps provided so that manual steering could be resorted if required.

The clutch was controlled by a single-acting cylinder that was arranged to operate directly on the linkage between the pedal and the clutch.

“For the ‘engine stop’ control there is a solenoid with linkage direct to the lever on the fuel injection pump casing, and to provide a full measure of safety it is arranged to hold the mechanism in the running position when energised,” our reporter observed. “Normally this control is held out in the “stop” position by a spring, so that… in the event of any electrical failure either from the radio or from the battery the solenoid is de-energised and the engine stopped.

“To raise and lower the implement gear the existing control lever has been removed and the linkage connected to a motor-driven actuator. This is controlled by limit switches to provide the correct stroke and automatically centre the valve when the operating switch on the control panel is allowed to centre from the raised position, corresponding to the spring centring cam device normally fitted to the manual control.”

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