In this issue: the lituus is back!; Birmingham's transport gets smart; dirty metal process gets clean - how? Ionic; hybrid welding; Top Cat becomes Manx Cat and "technological tapestry" - how ironic!  Plus so much more...

Software model recreates Bach-era horn

By Lorna Sharpe

Cutting-edge modelling software used to recreate a long-lost musical instrument known to JS Bach could also be used to monitor inaccessible areas of industrial plant.

The software was originally developed by University of Edinburgh PhD student Alistair Braden to optimise the design of modern brass instruments.

Subsequently, Swiss early-music group Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB) asked the university to recreate a now-unknown instrument called a lituus, whose use Bach specified in the 1730s for one of his cantatas.

They gave the Edinburgh team their expert thoughts on what the lituus may have been like in terms of the notes it produced, its tonal quality and how it might have been played. They also provided cross-section diagrams of instruments they believed to be similar.

"The software used this data to design an elegant, usable instrument with the required acoustic and tonal qualities," says Braden. "The key was to ensure that the design we generated would not only sound right but look right as well."

SCB has used Edinburgh's designs to build two examples of the instrument. Two-and-a-half metres long, made from pine and with a mouthpiece made of cow horn, the instruments are thin, completely straight and have a flared 'bell' at the end. Both were used in an experimental performance of the cantata 'O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht' earlier this year.

Computer modelling is an emerging technology in instrument manufacture, but the new software offers unprecedented accuracy in terms of ensuring a brass instrument's design delivers the required shape, pitch and tone. It opens up the possibility that brass instruments could be customised to the differing needs of jazz, classical and other music, or even individual players.

Professor Murray Campbell, who supervised the software's development, says that firms such as Rolls-Royce and others were interested in using similar techniques to pinpoint leaks in hard-to-access pipework and ducting in power stations and elsewhere. Using non-invasive acoustic measurements, computer models could be constructed that accurately show the plant's condition, avoiding the need for shutdowns to carry out inspections. "There are industrial applications where there is tubing that's relatively inaccessible but for which a leak could be catastrophic," Campbell says.

The initial work was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. [new window]

Birmingham to pilot smart travel service

By James Hayes

Birmingham is aiming to become the first UK city to have a digital urban transport information service with a 'mash-up' project that combines a range of real-time data on public transport scheduling, congestion, and car parking. A mash-up is a Web page or application that dynamically unites data from two or more external online sources.

The 'Intelligent Transport' project is proposed by a consortium led by Birmingham Science City Partnership, and includes Birmingham City Council, Digital Birmingham, Coventry University Enterprises, Microsoft, Cisco, and Virtual Earth developer Shoothill. Aimed at road vehicle drivers, bus and train passengers, and pedestrians, a 12-18 month demonstrator pilot is due to be initiated in Q3/2009 along one of Birmingham's busiest commuter roads, the A38.

The Intelligent Transport network works by integrating existing disparate data feeds about travel conditions within an online application. This enables Birmingham travellers to plan journeys before setting off, then access the details via smartphones or PDAs to receive updates and advisories if travel conditions change. Using a mapping tool, the service would advise users about public transport entry points, such as walking routes to bus stops, using GPS links to show the way, plus bus arrival times based on data sent from the vehicle itself rather than timetables.

Drivers could be warned of traffic jams via data relayed by vehicles further ahead on the route. They could also receive updates on the availability of car park spaces, and even use the system to reserve a space in a car park they are close to.

"There is a lot of data out there relating to travel conditions - the problem is that it all flows to and from different sources," says Birmingham Science City officer Phil McGrahan. "The Intelligent Transport system 'mashes' this existing data in a layer of virtual world mapping, to create a helpful user experience. If travellers are on a Birmingham bus that's stuck in traffic, then the Intelligent Transport system will tell them where to get off and pursue an alternative route that will still get them to their destination without delay."

For car drivers, the Intelligent Transport consortium hopes to reduce the number of vehicles that contribute to city-centre congestion by driving round looking for parking spaces.

See our 'Smart drivers' feature on p59

Health risks study 

By James Hayes

A new Centre for Environment and Health has opened at Imperial College London and King's College London to study how people's health is affected by the environment in which they live and work.

Researchers will consider the impact of factors ranging from traffic fumes and aircraft noise, to chemicals such as the by-products of disinfection in the water supply, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly. They will also conduct epidemiological studies of large population samples, in the hope that this will reveal where pollutants may be posing even small excess risks to health.

The centre has funding from the Medical Research Council and the Health Protection Agency, which advises the government.

Demo plant pilots safer solvents

By Bryan Betts

Dirty processes such as metal cleaning and electroplating could become cleaner and more efficient, if research into ionic liquids by chemists at the University of Leicester pays off.

The university's chemistry department has set up a demonstration plant to show off its work on ionic liquids, which are being developed as a cleaner and less dangerous alternative to traditional molecular solvents.

The demo plant is to show businesses how simply they could replace their current acid-based processes with more efficient ones based on ionic liquids, said Professor Andy Abbott, who heads the chemistry department and is also a director of Scionix, a spin-out company set up to commercialise his team's work.

Ionic liquids are salts that are liquid at ambient temperatures. They therefore sidestep the need to base solvents on other liquids, in particular water, Professor Abbott said.

"Ionic systems are inert - they can't be reduced," he explained. "It's much simpler, as it gets around the water-metal reactivity." He added that ionic liquids can enable processes that are currently difficult or impossible, such as plating onto aluminium without the use of harsh chemicals, or plating aluminium onto other metals without resorting to vapour deposition.

As well as electroplating and electropolishing, the Leicester researchers are looking at immersion coatings. Professor Abbott said they already have a customer using their work to put a silver layer onto the copper tracks of a printed circuit board. He added that, compared to other ways of doing this, "our liquid is non-cyanide, it gives better coating and adhesion, and it's slightly cheaper".

Most of the solvents developed by Scionix are based on vitamin B4 (choline chloride), which is safe and easy to manufacture in large quantities, and does not need registration. By combining the basic liquid with other molecules or salts, the ionic liquid can be tailored to a range of processes.

While the first ionic liquids were discovered around a century ago, they have only become practical within the last 10 to 20 years, with the emergence of new, more stable, versions. Professor Abbott said that in order to industrialise the technology, Scionix and the university have been working with partners via an organisation called IonMet.

"It's amazing how quickly the technology is growing," he added. "There are millions of ionic liquids now, so you can tailor them for a specific process - design a special solvent, in effect."

He said that, while the basic liquids may be more expensive than traditional solvents, there are significant savings to be had in areas such as waste treatment, non-toxicity and process efficiency. "The cost-benefit analysis has been done - it's all in the hidden costs," he declared. [new window]

High-tech welding finds new uses

By Mark Langdon

Welding and cutting specialist ESAB is exploring new applications for hybrid-laser welding technology. Hybrid welding is a combination of laser and MIG (metal inert gas) weld processes acting simultaneously in the same process zone. The use of laser and arc processes in tandem results in an increase in both weld penetration depth and welding speed, compared with each process alone.

ESAB is looking at the technique's use in the shipbuilding industry, among others, where the reduced heat input will result in less distortion and less rework.

Friction stir welding (FSW) is another technique where new applications are opening up. Joining of multi-dimensional joints has been a challenge for FSW, because machines are predominantly built to manage process requirements rather than enabling motion flexibility. ESAB is overcoming this limitation by using high-payload industrial robots. The company says this lets it meet the requirements of 'on-road, on-track, in-the-air industries' for high quality and repeatability, while providing the flexibility of traditional welding robotics.

The Rosio FSW robot is said to be suitable for welding soft aluminium alloys in thicknesses up to 5mm with good repeatability and quality. ESAB chose to base it on a standard industrial robot, to keep down the entry-level costs of the process. The company carried out substantial research to address known challenges such as force capacity and instability, requiring modifications in mechanics and complex control algorithm development to make robotic FSW a viable process for the manufacturing industry.

Top Cat becomes Manx Cat

By Mark Langdon

Burgess Marine in Portsmouth has just completed the world's largest conversion contract for a passenger fast ferry by transforming Incat hull no 050 into Manannan, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co's new flagship vessel.

Manannan was originally built in Tasmania in 1998 and saw commercial service as TT Line's Devil Cat before being renamed Top Cat by Fast Cat Ferries in 1999. It was then chartered to the US Military as HSV-X1 in 2001 for evaluation purposes.

While now over 10 years old, it has significantly fewer hours of service than other vessels of comparable age, which made it ideal for the substantial refit and, inevitably, very attractive to purchase.

Onboard facilities have been improved to include lounges, various bars and eateries, and pre-bookable executive seating.

Engineering safer spaces

By Dominic Lenton

In the summer of 2007, terrorists launched an attack on Vincent Square using a combination of vehicles and suicide bombers that killed hundreds and destroyed surrounding buildings. Now architects have to rebuild the area to commemorate the dead and, at the same time, prevent a future attack.

If you don't remember the incident, it's because it was the fictional premise for a competition launched in the wake of last year's Home Office review of how crowded areas can be protected from terrorism.

'Public Spaces, Safer Place', which was run as part of the RSA's Design Directions student award scheme, asked entrants to imagine that they had been commissioned by the national government to redevelop the site, making a bold design statement but incorporating security features.

The overall winner of the £1,000 prize was Peter Hughes, who graduated from Sheffield University last year and is now undertaking his Part One qualification in architecture. His solution included letters around the edge of the square that spell out the word 'peace' in more than a hundred languages, but are more than just symbolic. Even if a vehicle with a bomb on board was able to mount the stairs to the raised park, each letter can stop a ten-tonne truck.

The corner location of the only building provides easy service access for deliveries, while a glazed façade increases visibility to help with security surveillance. Clearly-defined pathways are designed to make the area easy to evacuate, and combine with curved 'pocket territories' to depict the branches of an olive tree that let people meet without creating secluded places.

Hughes was presented with his £1,000 prize by Home Office security minister Lord West, who said designers should be encouraged to consider counter-terrorism protective security measures at the earliest concept design stage.

Bosses fear downturn will threaten safety spending

By Dominic Lenton

More than a quarter of Britain's business leaders fear that the recession means their organisations will face pressure to cut health and safety budgets, according to a survey which also found that over a third believe the costs of meeting regulations are too much of a burden.

The worrying news emerged from a survey carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prior to the launch of a new strategy this month. Following a formal consultation on the 'Be Part of the Solution' plans, which the HSE says emphasises a common sense approach to risk management, more than a thousand workers and 200 owners and senior managers in firms with up to 500 employees were quizzed about their awareness of and attitudes to health and safety.

Asked whether the costs of complying with legislation are too onerous, 36 per cent of managers agreed. Twenty-six per cent felt that they would be under pressure to cut this aspect of their budget in the current economic climate.

Evidence from previous recessions is that injury rates fall during periods of reduced economic activity as fewer newly hired-people enter the workforce. At the same time, falling demand means people are working shorter hours, which reduces fatigue-related injuries. This, the HSE believes, masks any increase due to cost-cutting by employers.

Between 1989 and 1993, the rate of reported major injuries fell by more than 10 per cent. The effect was most pronounced in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

So far, there is little formal evidence to indicate whether this effect will be repeated in the present downturn. Initial HSE figures for 2008-2009 show major injuries down 1.1 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier. Half of the company directors who took part in a survey carried out by the British Safety Council last month said they would cut bonuses rather than health and safety spending, although the same research found one in ten workers are afraid to raise concerns in the current economic climate.

"When recovery does come, the evidence suggests that this will bring upward pressure on injury rates, as hours worked increase and new workers are hired," said the HSE. "It is not possible reliably to predict the size of the effect. However, the more rapid the recovery, the more marked it is likely to be.

Manufacturers' organisation the EEF marked the launch of the strategy by unveiling a plan for how it will be delivered in the manufacturing sector. This will focus on the two key areas of leadership and targeting musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain and repetitive strain injury, which are the most common cause of work-related sickness.

Steve Pointer, EEF head of health and safety policy, said the organisation's annual survey has shown a huge improvement over the last few years.

"We have been working with HSE over a number of years to promote good practice in health and safety, which is now producing genuine results," he said. "In the last three years there has been a 40 per cent rise in the number of companies who monitor health and safety management as part of their key performance indicators."

Aircraft monitoring techniques help textile conservation

By Lorna Sharpe

Researchers are using a specially-made 'technological tapestry' with optical fibres woven into its fabric to help them find ways to spot early signs of environmental damage in historical wall-hangings.

The tapestry, designed by students at Winchester School of Art and woven at West Dean Tapestry Studio, is on display at the Intech interactive science centre in Winchester, where it is being monitored as part of a collaborative research project between textile conservators and engineers at the University of Southampton.

Frances Lennard, senior lecturer at the university's Textile Conservation Centre, is leading the investigation into strain-based monitoring used by engineers to assess aircraft damage. Here the same techniques are being used to give an accurate picture of damage in historic tapestries before the damage is visible to the naked eye.

The researchers are monitoring a historic tapestry at the National Trust's Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire as well as the new tapestry. Over the course of the project, they have tested two methods of measuring strain: optical fibre sensors and digital image correlation. They say both methods look promising in long-term monitoring tests, "though the ability to take measurements in a historic house, take the digital image correlation equipment away and return it periodically to monitor the same region is proving more challenging than expected."

Tests have demonstrated a very clear correlation between fluctuations in relative humidity and strain in a hanging tapestry. Further work will aim to gain a better understanding of the effects of strain on the yarn and weave structures, and of the inter-relationship between relative humidity, creep and the damage caused by a tapestry's own weight.

Visitors to Hardwick Hall this summer will be able to see the monitoring in progress and find out more about the project.

Bing beats Yahoo! to third place

By James Hayes

Microsoft's newly-launched Bing 'Decision engine' outpaced Yahoo! as the number two search engine in the US and worldwide little more than a week after its launch. Data from StatCounter Global Stats claims that Bing took its share from search market-leader Google.

The online stats tool's analysis for 4 June 2009 found that in the US Bing was used for 16.28 per cent of Web searches. Yahoo! retained 10.22 per cent, while Google continues to own most of the market with 71.47 per cent, StatCounter says.

Globally, StatCounter's data suggests that Bing, at 5.62 per cent, has gained a slight lead over Yahoo! at 5.13 per cent. Google retains 87.62 per cent.

"Steve Ballmer is quoted as saying that he wanted Microsoft to become the second biggest search engine within five years," comments StatCounter CEO Aodhan Cullen. "Following the breakdown in talks to acquire Yahoo! at a cost of $40bn, it looks like Ballmer may have just achieved that with Bing much sooner - and a lot cheaper - than anticipated."

Contributors to the IET's online IT forum had mixed reactions to the UK/beta version in its first week. John Thomson was "pleasantly surprised at how much of an improvement it seems to be over Live Search."; however, Thomson did not see "anything that will make me switch from Google".

'Nimer' reported that Bing was good, but not (so far) outstanding: "I've tried Bing, and haven't noticed anything exceptional when compared to other search engines… All in all, my review Bing is negative. Due to Microsoft's competitive outlook towards the Open Source community, and its inflexible outlook towards the needs and wants of most consumers, [Bing] will never fully establish itself as a viable means to search the Web." [new window] [new window]

Biofuel flight data shows promising results

Results from Air New Zealand's biofuel test flight last December show fuel burn on a 12-hour long-haul flight would improve by 1.2 per cent using the blend it used in the trial, and by 1 per cent at shorter ranges.

The test flight, a joint initiative between Air New Zealand, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell's UOP, took place on 30 December 2008 using a Boeing 747-400 aircraft with RB211 engines. One of the four engines ran on a 50:50 blend of second-generation jatropha biofuel and traditional Jet A1.

Air New Zealand general manager airline operations and chief pilot Captain David Morgan announced the findings from the flight at the recent Eco-Aviation Conference in Washington.

The project partners have produced a report based on analysis of data from the programme of in-flight and ground tests, which they will make available to industry bodies evaluating alternative aviation fuels. They say the biofuel blend they used has demonstrated its potential as a drop-in replacement to Jet A1. They also found that the biofuel's properties offer some performance improvements over Jet A1 because of its higher net heat of combustion.

Combining the benefits of using plant-derived fuel with the reduced burn, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be cut by an estimated 60-65 per cent compared with petroleum-derived jet fuel, the authors say.

View from Madrid

Can high-tech Spain maintain its growth spurt?

By Pelle Neroth

Ave - meaning bird in Spanish - is the name of Spain's high-speed train service. The 300km/h Alta Velocidad Espanola takes the strain across much of the plain.

The Ave is expected to be more extensive than the French TGV network in a few years' time - it will be a symbol of how Spain has sneaked up on the rest of Europe.

Forget straw donkeys; think solar power.

Don Quixote famously tilted at them - but the windmills that shimmer on the meseta horizon these days tend to be of the Vestas variety, generating electricity, not grinding corn. And Jose Luis Zapatero, the socialist Prime Minister, recently announced that Spain had overtaken Italy in the wealth stakes - his ambition is to overtake France.

The economic crisis has hit Spain hard. Ten years of cheap borrowing of the low-interest euro fuelled a large construction boom: there are said to be more skyscrapers in the resort town of Benidorm than in any other location in Europe except London. Spain had a housing bubble as big as the UK's.

Four million immigrants, mostly from Latin America, north Africa and eastern Europe, have arrived in the last few years, many to work in construction; Spain now has Europe's highest unemployment rate at 20 per cent.

Zapatero's recipe for dealing with this is to continue to move at high velocity towards a technology- and knowledge- based economy. He has set aside billions of euros for public research and development, green power initiatives, and further infrastructure improvements.

However, the plan has its critics. Fernando Fernandez, rector and economics professor at the University Carlos II in Madrid, said that President Obama's public structure investment plan in the US may make sense, but "Spain's new motorways and bridges are in much better shape than those in the US, so spending in this area won't boost the economy".

A further criticism is that consumer electricity prices are subsidised, and these subsidies will eat up much, maybe 80 per cent, of the €20bn intended for green energy innovations.

"I am very critical of the stimulus plan. It hasn't been well worked out," Fernandez says.

And despite the shiny look of the new Spain, it lacks the deep research capacities of its European neighbours. In the 2000s, university reforms concentrated on widening undergraduate access to education rather than focusing on research. Carlos Salas, of El Mundo newspaper, points out that Spain has no universities in the global top 200.

All that said, who would have believed a decade ago of Spain that an American transportation secretary could visit the country, as happened in May, and divert money towards developing its own high-speed rail model based on Spain's?

Spain has a climate like California's and an enviable quality of life, both of which would appeal to international knowledge workers. With a political will clearly present, who is to say Spain won't one day be the technology powerhouse of Europe?

WW2 bi-plane to fly again

One of the last British bi-planes to have seen active service, a Fairey Swordfish, is to undergo £1m worth of specialist restoration by engineers at BAE Systems' Military Air Solutions facility at Brough, East Yorkshire.

Work on the Swordfish Mk I, a torpedo bomber first flown in 1934, will include repair of the tail plane, wings and surrounding support work in order to restore the aircraft to flying condition for the Royal Navy Historic Flight (RNHF).

The Swordfish entered service in 1936 and remained in operational service throughout the Second World War, playing a vital role in providing air cover to protect the Atlantic convoys. Its handling qualities made it uniquely suitable for deck flying operations, operating from adapted merchant vessels, the Merchant Aircraft Carriers.

This year is the Royal Navy's centenary year of naval aviation.

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