Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Talk : Prof Poliakoff on the Royal Society

Chemisty Professor Martyn Poliakoff gave a short, but very charming, talk this week on his new role as the “foreign secretary” of the Royal Society (Wiki here).

Professor Poliakoff perfoming his party trick of making a TV levitate

The professor began by mentioning that the full name of the organisation was “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” and that it was formed in 1660.

Viscount Brouncker, the first Royal Society President, had a really nice 'tache

Essentially doing the same job as the Academies of Sciences found in other countries, the Royal Society is unusual in that it was formed by a group of individuals, as opposed to a government decree to make a king or president look good.

Surprisingly, the Society only needed a Royal charter so that it could publish documents and journals. The Professor explained that publishing was the radio and TV of its time - and just as today one needs a licence to broadcast today, so one needed a licence to publish in the 17th century.
After a nasty incident in the early 70s involving some metallic purple paint, the Royal Society has always been painted white

Since the Royal Society operates pretty much according to its original charters (there were three, in 1660, 1663 and 1669) the Professor Poliakoff’s job description is essentially as stated in the first charter: “to enjoy mutual intelligence and knowledge with all and all manner of strangers and foreigners”

Incidentally, the charter is a fascinating document, and one wonders whether the Royal Society still takes advantage of the right to "require, take and receive the bodies of such persons as have suffered death at the hands of the executioner, and to atomise them. . ."

Or call on the big guns if it finds itself beset by some kind of disagreement or difference: “we do authorise. . the Archbishop of Canterbury. . to reconcile, compose and adjust the same differences. . . ”

Which is certainly a different approach to going to ACAS to sort a problem out.

The Archbishop of Canterbury solved a Royal Society dispute a few years ago by the simple expedient of telling the warring parties that if they didn't come to an agreement, he would punch their lights out. .  .allegedly.

But I digress. Let us return to Professor Poliakoff’s talk. . .

He continued by providing an outline of the Royal Society, something that it elaborated on by the Royal Society’s website (here) which states that the Society has an elected council of 21 and permanent staff of some 140. Today the Royal Society has some 1,500 fellows, including more than 80 (!!) Nobel prize winners.

The Society has three roles. As an advocate for science, as a leaned society and as a funding agency.

In its funding role, the Society supports more than 460 post-doc fellowships and 17 professorships, as well as providing grants for over 3,000 scientists in the UK and abroad. This programme has supported researchers such as Prof Andre Geim (who co-won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of Graphene)

As a learned society, it publishes a number of evidence-based reports each year, covering topics ranging from the teaching of computer studies to nuclear fuel stewardship.

And to advocate for science, the Society undertakes activities such as advising on the teaching of science and pairing up MP’s and scientists.

One aspect of the Royal Society’s activities that was a surprise was the work that they do in other countries. Professor Poliakoff commented a number of times on the work that the Society had been doing to help the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences get up and running - and mentioned that there was a much higher level of engagement from the Ethiopian Government in the new Academy than there was by the UK Parliament in the Royal Society.

After the talk had drawn to a close, there was an extended Q&A session. Perhaps due to the topic at hand, there were a lot of questions bemoaning the teaching of science and the media’s portrayal of scientific topics.
It has to be said that there was a faint hint of Victor Meldrew in the audiences questions

In response, Professor Poliakoff, pointed out that journalists worked to tight deadlines and needed focussed material to work with - scientists needed to appreciate this fact.

He also mentioned that high quality science teaching was vital, pointing out that scientists are often able to trace their careers back to a teacher who made science interesting and fun.

Further Information
The talk was part of the Café Scientifique Spring Programme of talks. Although there is no formal fee, the idea is that you will buy a drink or two (the group gets the room for free) and this is the Quid Pro Quo (Clarice) and contribute a couple of pounds to the costs of the organisation (such as travel costs for guest speakers)

Image Sources
Royal Society, Martyn Poliakoff, Rowan Williams, William Brouncker, Victor Meldrew

Sunday, 22 January 2012


BioCity Nottingham is one of Europe's largest bioscience incubators. Somewhat startlingly, it is home to some 70 companies, the majority being technology based, which collectively emply some 600 people. Some of the companies are right at the very forefront of biological research - and here are some examples that have caught the imagination of NSB :

Critical Pharmacueticals
Founded by Professor Steve Howdle (who holds a Chair of Chemistry at The University of Nottingham and has published over 250 papers, filed 10 patents, and received numerous awards), the company is based on his discovery that certain certain (biocompatible and biodegradable) polymers can be liquefied in the presence of pressurised “supercritical” carbon dioxide at near ambient temperatures. In this condition almost any substance (such as a drug or protein) can be mixed in. When the pressure is released, the polymers solidify around the substance. When put inside the body the polymer slowly degrades, releasing the substance in a controlled manner as it does so.
Clever, clever stuff.

All you need to get supercritical CO2 is about 90 atmospheres of pressure. . . 

Naturally Scientific
After four years development, Naturally Scientific has created a two stage bio-manufacturing platform. The first stage combines waste CO2, water and light are combined in a photosynthetic reaction to produce sugars. These sugars can be sold or used in a second stage to produce pure vegetable oils and their derivatives. A fully operational demonstration plant is now producing both sugars and oils right here in Nottingham. Should you be interested, and NSB certainly was, you can read their patent here.
Biofuels! Wow!

In reality it is a LOT more complicated than this. .  .

Based on research by Prof Alan Windle, FRS in the University of Cambridge, Q-Flo is developing a process to make yarns of carbon nanotubes. According to a 2010 report in the Engineer, the company has signed a deal to commercialise the technology for use in body armour and composite motor vehicle bodies. The report describes how the nanotubes are grown on tiny iron catalysts that float around a reactor. These are then collected and “wound up” into a continuous fibre.

Having signed up for the Marines, the Invisible Man found that he was actually quite easy to spot. . .

The vision of this company is to provide the technologies that will allow them to “revolutionize healthcare by providing permanent replacements for damaged or diseased tissues in unlimited supply”. In particular, RegenTec has developed a series of injectable “scaffolds” that damaged tissues can regenerate around.
The company is a spin-off from research undertaken by Professor Kevin Shakesheff’s and his team and the University of Nottingham and has featured in a number of media reports, such as this.

RegenTec's "liquid bone" technology, yesterday

Science Parks in the East Midlands

Back in the 1980s, when having a mobile phones meant something and hairstyles were, frankly, a fire hazard, the economic landscape was undergoing huge changes. As heavy industries were being lost across the country some universities began to recognise that that the era of the knowledge-based business had arrived and began creating areas where technology based businesses had the right environment to form and grow. Soon the United Kingdom Science Park Association was set up so that universities could pool their resources and guide other institutions who were thinking of setting up similar environments.

The number of science parks has grown from just a handful in the early 1980s to around 100 today.

At the heart of the parks is the relationship between the park and the local research centre or university. The Science Park provides fledgling businesses with a link to the research expertise of local universities as well as help with business management.

A boost to the development of science parks came in the form of the 1998 Government White Paper “Our Competitive Future: Building the Knowledge-Driven Economy”. This paper recognised the challenges coming from low cost economies, innovative processes new technologies. To meet this challenge it stated that the role of business was to:

1)Identify, capture and market the knowledge base that drives all products and services.

2)Turn the scientific and technological knowledge in our universities and research organisations into commercial success.

3) Would-be entrepreneurs need to acquire and adopt a greater understanding of risk and business management skills.

4) Form networks and clusters of excellence to win competitive advantage.
Support all their employees continually to develop their skills and qualifications.

For it’s part, the government’s role was to :

a) Invest in capabilities to promote enterprise and stimulate innovation.
b) Catalyse collaboration to help business win competitive advantage
c) Promote competition by opening and modernising markets.

You can read the paper (which has been preserved in a fairly friendly format at the national achives) here.

Whilst it is difficult to measure the effect of science parks on the overall economy, the fact that the number of tenant companies has increased from 930 in 1991 to nearly 1,700 in 2003.

Science Parks in the East Midlands
There are eight UKSPA member Science parks in the East Midlands, each with a range of fascinating companies on site . .. . .

Lincoln Think Tank

BioCity Nottingham

Loughborough University Science and Enterprise Park

Newark Beacon Innovation Centre

No.1 Nottingham Science Park (Associate Member)

Nottingham Science & Technology Park

Wellingborough Innovation Centre

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Short History of Radio Astronomy

NSF was lucky enough to hear a talk by Dr Haida Laing (School of Science and Physics, Nottingham Trent University) on the History of Radio Astronomy.

The talk was part of the “Stargazing LIVE” event at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham on 17th Jan 2012

As is often the case, the talk opened up a series of vistas on areas of knowledge that you didn’t know you didn’t know and forms the basis of this blog post (any errors are probably mine, not Dr Liangs). . . .

The first radio astronomers weren’t professional astronomers.
One of the founding fathers of radio astronomy was Karl Guthe Jansky, who was working at Bell labs on radio communication antennas at Bell Laboratories in the US. In 1932 he built an antenna that could be rotated and measured the radio reception in various directions for several months. After categorising most of the signals as thunderstorms he wondered what could be causing the other static he was he was receiving. Noting that the static correlated with the sidereal day as opposed to the solar day, he realised that it was coming from outside the solar system and eventually pinpointed the source as being the centre of the Milky Way.

In recognition of his pioneering work, the strength of radio sources is measured in Janskys

Replica of Jansky's antenna

Sidereal Day? Wassat?
Dr Liang helpfully explained the difference between a solar(i.e.24hr) day and a sidereal day. This is one of those things that is best explained by a picture rather than a bunch of words (but if you need a bit more info, go here):

Explanation of a Sidereal Day

Grote Reber, a man doesn’t mess about.
In 1933, Grote Reber, an amateur radio operator in the Chicago area, was inspired by Janskys work and, in 1937 he built a 9metre radio telescope in his back garden, as you do.

He first repeated Janskys work and then went on to make a radiofrequency map of the sky, which he completed in 1943.

Sadly, Grote would have to wait a while before he could receive Sky. . .

Still No Professionals
There were further advances by Southwork (Bell Labs) and James Hey (a British physicist) in the early 1940s before the professional astronomers finally pulled their socks up and entered the game. . .

At Last, the pros arrive
1944 saw the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort (as in Oort cloud) and Van de Hulst (one of Oort’s students) predicted the presence of a 21cm (1420Mhz) radio frequency Hydrogen spectral line - something that could give information about the speed that gas clouds are moving at and allow the structure of the galaxy to be determined. But actually making a telescope that could detect this proved to be a difficult challenge that was not solved until, in 1951, Ewen and Purcell finally detected the line in radio emissions from the milky way using a horn telescope at Harvard.

Since then, telescopes have, or course, got bigger and bigger. . .

Parkes antenna

Arecibo antenna


Why Radio Astronomy
The two key benefits of radio astronomy are that the atmosphere is relatively transparent to radio waves and that radio waves are much better at travelling through interstellar dust clouds of dust than visible light is. In addition, some structures are visible in the radio spectrum that are not visible in the visible spectrum.

For example, in the image below, the left side is a visual image of galaxy 0313-192 overlaid with a radio frequency image in red, which shows the galaxys’ radio emitting jets. The image on the right is a close-up of inner portion of the jet. (NASA)

Whilst the image below shows the radio lobes of the Centaurus A Galaxy overlaid on a visible spectrum image (Hubble)

Finally, Dr Liang also mentioned some of the arrays coming on stream in the future :

Square Kilometre Array


Image Sources : Jansky, Time, Grote, Parkes, Areciebo, SKA, VLA, ALMA, Galaxy

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Lecture : A Formula One Piston

NSB was chuffed to have the chance to attend a talk by Jody Hayes (Materials Engineer at Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains) entitled “A Formula One Piston - The Engineering Challenge” today.
The talk was an East Midlands Materials Society Event held at Nottingham University.
As is often the case with these things, the talk opened your eyes to the things that you didn’t know you didn’t know, and is what this blog post is, loosely, written around.

A F1 piston has a hard life
One of the points Jody made early in the talk was to illustrate the kinds of forces that a Formula 1 engine has to face, and he did this with some startling statistics showing what an engine running at its maximum speed of 18000rpm will go through in just one second
  • 300 rotations
  • Values opening and closing 150 times
  • 360 litres of fuel/air mixture is consumed
  • 3 litres of coolant is pumped around the engine
  • 1 litre of oil is pumped around the engine

Moving on to focus on the piston, Jody describes the particular challenges that it has to face:
  • 10,000g force
  • >100bar pressure
  • 3,000km life
  • 12hr service time
  • 350C temp (top surface)
  • 200C temp (bottom surface)
  • Fatigue (repeated cycling of loads can cause a fatigue failure)
  • Creep (applying load at a high temperature can result in the material slowly deforming, called “creep”)
  • Thermal Expanison (the piston must expand when hot at the same rate as the rest of the engine)
  • Thermal Conductivity (the ability to conduct heat away from the top surface helps improve performance)
  • Wear (the piston should have little friction against the cylinder bore and should not be vulnerable to wear by the piston rings
  • Mass (the lower the mass the lower the loads)

Piston Materials
Jody pointed out that the MotorSport industry tended to source materials from the Aerospace and Defence industries, because these are sectors where materials are put to the limit and also because they are able to afford the development of new materials (for example, it can cost £15million to develop a new alloy).
One factor that limits what materials can be used are the FIA rules, which have been written to effectively outlaw certain materials such as Metal Matrix Composites. This is often done in an attempt to reduce costs.
The materials allowed for pistons are described (in rule 5.17.1) as “an aluminium alloy which is either Al‐Si ; Al‐Cu ; Al‐Mg or Al‐Zn based.” (although other rules do allow the addition of small amounts of other elements to the alloy. The rules essentially allow the following :

2000 series : Aluminium alloyed with Copper
4000 series : Aluminium alloyed with Silicon
5000 series : Aluminium alloyed with Magnesium
7000 series : Aluminium alloyed with Zinc

Jody showed a chart that plotted the hardness (which relates to strength) of some alloys from these series against temperature. It could clearly be seen that 2618 showed the best balance of hardness at room temperature and, critically, hardness at 200-350C
High strength also suggests good resistance to fatigue failure and, as Jody pointed out “Fatigue is what kills the engine”
So where has this wonder alloy 2618 come from?
Gobsmackingly, it was originally developed in the 1930s by Aero-engine manufacturer Rolls Royce. At the time it was called RR58 and was used for the engines of Schneider Trophy planes and for the famous Merlin aeroengine. Later applications included turbine blades in early jet engines and as the main structural material in Concorde.

Merlins being manufactured

Concorde, such a pretty plane (sigh)

The composition of 2618 is Al(93.7%), Cu(2.3%), Mg(1.6%), Fe(1.1%), Ni(1.0%), Si(0.18%), Ti(0.07%).

See here for information on what all those alloying elements do
See here for some data on the 2618 alloy
See here for the early history of 2618

If you would like to find out more about the hardening mechanisms 2618, you can see here and here.

2618 is not perfect, however, and suffers from poor wear resistance. This tends to manifest itself as wear between the piston and the piston rings, although careful design or coatings can reduce the problem.

So what happens when it all goes pear shaped?
When a piston fails, often all that is left is a handful of metallic gravel, along the lines of this image.

The first step in investigation a failure is getting all the pieces as the key ot determining the cause of the failure may lie in one of that smallest fragments.

The next step is to photograph and document everything.

And only then can the components be analysed by microscopy, sectioned or assessed in other ways.

Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains
Jody concluded by providing some background on Mercedes-AMG. Based in Brixworth, Northamptonshire, the firm employs some 400 people and exists for the single aim of manufacturing and supporting engines (and KERS) for Formula 1 (click here for a short company history).

Currently supplying three teams, Mercedes-AMG manufacture 48 engines per year for the teams (6 per driver) as well as a number of additional engines for testing and development.

Engineering departments cover all the disciplines one would expect of an organisation at the cutting edge, including design, manufacturing, reliability, systems integration and electronics.

If you are interested in a career with this undeniably glamorous and high-tech company, you may be interested to know that Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains has programmes for Graduates, Apprenticeships and Undergraduate placements. You can find out more here:


So there you go. A very interesting talk, which has left NSB having trouble getting over the fact that 2618 is such an old alloy. . . .

Of course, no article about Formula One is complete without a short clip of cars from the early 90s with sparking undertrays, so let us bid you goodbye with this :

Image Sources : Merlin, Concorde, Mercedes.

Cafe Scientifique Calender of Events

Cafe Scientifique is a place where, "anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context."

NSB picked up a leaflet from the Nottingham branch at a recent Notts University public lectureand thought their calender of events looked quite interesting. All the talks are at 8pm on Monday nights and the venue is the Basement of the Lord Roberts Pub, Broad Street.

16th Jan : Prof Barry Bogin - Human Life History Evolution
23rd Jan : Prof Martyn Poliakoff - The Royal Society
30th Jan : Prof Ian Howarth - Title to be confirmed

06th Feb : Framework - The work of Framework
13th Feb : Prof Elizabeth Stokoe - The Systematics of Social Interaction
20th Feb : Pete Watkins - CERN and the Large Hadron Collider
27th Feb : Hugh Rollinson - The Earth's Continental Crust

05th Mar : John Stuart Clark - Depresso - or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace being bonkers.
13th Mar : Graham Gardiner - Nottingham Social Enterprise Hub
19th Mar : Prof Alistair Milne - Risk Appetite and Risk Aggregation : Do banks understand what they are doing?

For more info, visit the Notts Cafe Scientifique website : http://www.meetup.com/nottingham-culture-cafe-sci/

or email: cafenottingham@gmail.com

Friday, 13 January 2012

Background to the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle Story” was the title of a recent public lecture at Nottingham University. The talk covered a lot of ground and gave an interesting overview of the subject, and provoked NSB to dig a little deeper into the background of the Shuttle program. . .

One can trace the origins of the Space Shuttle program back to US military projects such as the plane-like Dyna-Soar project in the late 1950s. At the time, manned space travel was the domain of NASA which was designed to be re-usable and have good manoeuvring capability during re-entry, in contrast to other spacecraft being developed at the time. Unfortunately for the Air Force, they focussed so much on the controlled re-entry aspect of the project that they forgot to develop any useful missions for the craft do perform while it was in space. So the project got canned in 1963, before any flight tests had taken place. Doh!

Too late, it became clear that Vaseline had not been the best choice to seal the underside of the Dyno-Soar

Incidentally, the Dyna-Soar used a high performance Nickel alloy called “Rene41”. You can get a feel for the detailed way in which metal alloys are characterised by checking out the data for Rene41 here.

The Air Force remained interested in spaceplanes, however, and ran a series of tests on so-called “lifting bodies” in the 1960s and 70s. These craft investigated the handling and landing characteristics of small wingless planes and were dropped from carrier aircraft before firing a rocket motor, climbing to altitudes well above 70,000ft and then gliding back to earth. Examples of lifting craft were the X-24B and the HL-10

The X-24 was a lean mean lifting body. . .

. . . while the HL-10 was a lifting body that had eaten all the pies.

Those of a certain age will recognise the tubby lifting body as the craft that crashes spectacularly in the opening sequence of the Six Million Dollar Man. A sequence that NSB is only too happy to link to below. . .

A review of NASA’s activities in the early seventies resulted in the organisation focussing on two projects - the Shuttle and a Space Station. NASA decided to develop the Shuttle first and, in 1972, that President Nixon formally announced that NASA would proceed with the program.

There were many competing designs in the early stages of the program (see below). It is noticeable that many of the early designs featured a carrier vehicle that was piloted and returned to land conventionally under its own jet power. Further development demonstrated that the extra weight associated with the engines, wings and pilot compartment of these carrier planes had an adverse effect on the payload that the actual shuttle could carry. These concerns, together with budget pressures moved the design towards that of the “Star Clipper” (top right in image below). This proposal used an expendable fuel tank and analysis of the design showed that this was a particularly efficient approach to designing the craft.

I'm not saying that the designers were dropping acid, but . . . .

Amongst other concepts, the above image contains the following :
SERV+MURP (top left)
Star Clipper (top right)
North American DC3 (centre right)

Eventually the design was refined into a vehicle that we recognise today. The first Shuttle, Enterprise, was completed in 1976, without engines or a real heat shield, and used for testing, including atmospheric flight tests (Enterprise was carried aloft on a modified 747 from which it separated and then glided back to earth). Famously, Enterprise was originally intended to be named “Constitution” - until a letter campaign by Star Trek fans led to the change of name to Enterprise.

The flight tests were not without incident. In particular, during the fifth test Enterprise suffered from severe “Pilot Induced Oscillation” during landing - a problem that was cured by a modification to the control computer system. You can read a NASA report about the incident, and the work undertaken to develop a solution, here.

By the early 1980s the program was ready for its first orbital flight. This was performed by Shuttle Columbia on 12th April 1981. This was the first of 135 missions, including 37 missions to build the International Space Station.

Image Sources : HL-10, X24B, Columbia, Dyna-Soar, Shuttle Concepts