The world’s fastest atomic-force microscope, technology simulating occupational ailments of construction workers or 4D tomography of blown-up battery cells, were among projects introduced in this year’s RAEng’s Research Forum.
Organised each year to showcase the best of projects funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), the one-day event covered a wide scope of fields including software engineering, chemical engineering, built environment, electronics and car racing. Each of the showcased projects has received funding under one of the many schemes supported by RAEng over the past five years.
“The Academy runs three main schemes, there are four five-year Professorships co-funded by the Academy and an industrial partner, normally lasting about five years, there are Senior Research Fellowships and we also have research fellowships for young post-doc researchers,” said Professor Ric Parker, Fellow of the RAEng and director of Research and Technology at Rolls-Royce who chaired the meeting.
“It’s obviously a huge amount of activities that we support, we can’t cover it in one event but we are trying to make sure that over the five years of the fellowships, everyone will get the opportunity to present their work and what they achieved with the money awarded by the Academy.”
The event focuses on projects from all fields of engineering in various stages of progress and brings together the research community and partners from industry.
“We always try to have a mixture, we like to have some projects which are in rather early stages, and the research fellow basically just introduces his ideas and intentions,” Parker explained. “But we also like to see people who have already finished their fellowships to come back and say what they got out of the scheme.”
One of this year’s greatest success stories was Professor Dino Distefano, one of the winners of the 2014 Silver Medals, creator of an automatic failure detection software and founder of software company Monoidics.
Having been awarded the RAEng research fellowship in 2009, Distefano has risen to one of the most prominent experts in his field, eventually selling his company to Facebook for which he now works.
Providing a slightly horror-like distraction was a presentation of Professor Alistair Gibb. The Loughborough University researcher, funded jointly by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the European Construction Institute, is developing devices that allow young construction workers and their managers experience what would happen to their health over the years if they don’t take proper precautions.
“Ill health is a big problem for construction, it’s a problem in many industrial applications as well,” Prof Gibb explained. "The reason it is a problem is that compared to safety, these things don’t happen straight away. If you talk to 17, 18, 20, 21-year old workers, they probably think they are invincible and they don’t take seriously the warnings. Designers don’t take seriously the warnings because occupational ill-health happens slowly.”
In the presentation Prof Gibb showcased a vibrating glove that mimics a condition the construction worker would develop over the years of excessive work with vibrating devices. To reinforce the impression, the workers could try on thick rubber gloves developed in cooperation with TV special effects artists simulating severe occupational dermatitis or a condition known as vibrational white finger.
“We also have simulations for occupational asthma, for muscular-skeletal disorders – problems with the lower back and the arms and shoulders, and simulations of tinitus, which affects the hearing and hearing loss,” Prof Gibb added.
Bristol University researchers Oliver Payton and Loren Picco were showcasing their Surfscan enhanced microscope, the fastest atomic force microscope in the world.
“Atomic force microscopy has been around for nearly 30 years,” said Payton. “But most of the conventional devices of this type would only produce one image every five minutes. Our device delivers tens of images every second.”
Practically enabling researchers to observe nanoscale changes in materials in real-time, Payton’s and Picco’s device has already attracted interest particularly from genomics researchers and nuclear energy companies.