Concrete Canvas being used for slope protection

Finalists for UK's top engineering award announced

Three technological breakthroughs developed in the UK have been shortlisted for the UK's premier engineering prize.

The UK's longest running and most prestigious national prize for engineering innovation, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, is designed to celebrate outstanding innovation, commercial success and societal benefit.

The three finalists are Concrete Canvas, which manufactures fabric impregnated with a quick set concrete powder; Oxford Instruments, for their X-Max large area detector that chemically analyses samples no thicker than a human hair; and RealVNC, whose software allows a computer, smartphone or tablet screen to be remotely accessed and controlled.

All three technologies were developed in the UK to create future-facing products, which the judging panel believe have opened up new markets and achieved international sales success.

John Robinson FREng, chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “These three innovative and successful companies demonstrate that engineering is thriving in the UK in very different sectors, from ground-breaking start-ups to established world-leaders.

“We have an incredible research base that leads to successful pioneering companies and we are delighted to have shortlisted for the MacRobert Award this year three great examples of the kind of companies that the Academy is championing through its Engineering for Growth campaign."

Concrete Canvas’ product of the same name is a fabric impregnated with a high strength concrete powder that sets rapidly to create a durable concrete surface when sprayed or immersed in water.

It achieves 80 per cent of its strength within 24 hours of applying water and is impossible to oversaturate, so it can be used in heavy rain or even underwater.

The product has been used in major construction projects in extreme environments, such as diverting glacier melt water around a copper mine in the Atacama Desert, Chile, wrapping a pipeline at the bottom of the Red Sea and protecting a slope to prevent dangerous erosion next to a busy railway line in Spain.

With a lifespan of over 50 years and a low wear rate, it also has a safer failure mode than conventional concrete and allows many construction projects to be completed 10 times faster, more cost-effectively and with a lower environmental impact than traditional methods.

The Oxford Instruments X-Max large area detector is used for Energy Dispersive Spectrometry (EDS), a technique used to chemically analyse tiny samples inside a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Examples include the analysis of semiconductor contaminants, gunshot residues, nanomaterials and even meteorite samples.

X-Max detectors can be found in over 1,000 universities and research institutions and is also used by mining companies to analyse ore samples for trace elements and consequently to calculate their economic potential.

Before X-Max, most EDS detectors required liquid nitrogen cooling, and while early versions of Silicon Drift Detector (SDD) technology eliminated the need for dangerous and expensive cooling, typically their performance was not that high.

The X-Max detector introduced several key innovations including a thin vacuum seal window that is more transparent to X-rays, a more efficient electron trap and a large area sensor eight times bigger than before that can capture more X-rays.

The result was a tremendous increase in speed, enabling measurements to take minutes instead of hours without the loss of image quality or spatial resolution.  

RealVNC’s software allows a computer screen to be remotely accessed and controlled and is available on almost every type of computer, smartphone, tablet and even some newer cars.

RealVNC’s technology uses algorithms to only send data about parts of a screen that are changing, rather than all of it, which minimises the amount of data sent and ensures that sharp images are sent quickly.

This streamlined software enables the technology to be embedded in a plethora of third-party products, the only company to offer this.

Initially released as open source in 1998 and then re-written and commercialised, the software was the first to connect smartphones and tablets to computers and is future-proofed so it will be able to be used with new devices with screens that have not yet been invented.

The winner will be announced on 17 July at the Academy's Awards Dinner and receive a gold medal plus a £50,000 cash prize.

Previous recipients include Microsoft Research’s Xbox Kinect human motion-capture system, Arup's 'Water Cube', the dramatic centrepiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and last year’s winner, Jaguar Land Rover’s Evoque SUV.

The 2013 finalists were chosen by a panel of Academy Fellows who have expertise across the range of engineering disciplines as well as personal entrepreneurial experience.

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