Prof Philip Withers

Interview – Philip Withers, Regius Professor of Materials at the University of Manchester

Image credit: Nick Smith

Philip Withers, Regius Professor of Materials at the University of Manchester, discusses his pioneering work in materials research and how a brave new world of collaboration between academia, business and media could help tackle big global challenges facing the planet.

“What I’m interested in is how things break,” says Philip Withers with a pronounced relish for his lifelong interest in “things falling apart”. What this entails for the Regius Professor of Materials at the University of Manchester “is using imaging across many different scales”. This is because a failure will often start on “a very fine level, where wrong atoms in the wrong place can potentially cause a defect that may become larger until, ultimately, you get failure. If you want to understand that progress from a small nucleus to a final catastrophic failure, you need different pairs of glasses, if you like.”

“What we have established here,” says the British scientist, “is a world-class facility to do forensic work, from atomic level to metre-scale, so we can discover why something failed. As you go up the different scales you can identify ways of intervening. You might coat the material to stop the ingress of the environment, or change the chemical constitution of the structure to make it more resistant, or you may reach an understanding of why atoms got to the wrong place.” Talking more specifically about the oil and gas industry, he says: “You may have many hundreds of miles of pipeline, but the failure occurs in just one location. If you can design ways to stop that, people don’t have to repair it.”

Understanding how defects grow is what drives Withers, who at the age of 53 is one of the most highly decorated materials scientists. As well as holding the position of Regius Professor of Materials, he is also director of the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) headquartered on campus at the University of Manchester, and a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. In January 2017, he was appointed as the first chief scientist at the Henry Royce Institute, also in Manchester.

It’s an intimidating portfolio of honours and appointments that speaks of a man at the height of his career and influence. Yet Withers is down-to-earth with a slightly donnish sense of humour and a passion for communicating science to the wider public, preferring straightforward layman’s terms to scientific jargon.

I ask him what differentiates a ‘Regius’ professorship from the more common or garden variety. “I had to look that up on Wikipedia myself,” says Withers with a laugh. “Basically it is an academic chair awarded by Royal Warrant.” The online encyclopaedia will also have informed the scientist that, because of their comparative rarity, they are “prestigious and highly sought-after”, with laureates entitled to be addressed as ‘Regius’. First established in the 15th century by King James IV of Scotland, with early professorships concentrating the field of medicine, they seem to be one of those arcane things of the past. Yet as recently as 2016, as part of her 90th birthday celebrations, the Queen established 12 more such chairs, including one at Manchester in recognition of the university’s work in materials.

Despite that the physical building for the Royce (named after the British engineer and co-founder of Rolls-Royce) is still very much at the architect’s drawing stage, the organisation already exists as a virtual hub-and-spoke model centred on Manchester, working in partnership with Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford and Imperial College London universities, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL).

Withers says the £235m government-funded project will become the “UK’s foremost centre for advanced materials research and commercialisation”. It will see more than 800 researchers working with business partners, with the aim of having a “significant impact for the UK economy.”

Withers describes the chief scientist’s responsibility as “making sure we are doing world-class science.” Part of the significance of naming the institute after Royce is that the car designer met his business partner Charles Rolls in the Midland Hotel down the road. More importantly, they formed the type of strategic alliance between the worlds of engineering and commerce that the 21st-​century institute, with CEO Andrew Hosty on the business side, aims to emulate.

We are sitting in a conference room at BP-ICAM, another hub-and-spoke, this time with three partners in the form of Imperial College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Cambridge. “BP-ICAM came out of a realisation by BP that advanced materials lay at the heart of much of what they do and a better understanding of materials was needed to improve aspects of their business. BP wanted to set up a world-class institute that could generate knowledge they could then exploit within their business.” BP-ICAM was announced at the Olympic Games in 2012, and opened for business in the autumn of that year.

“One of the good things about these really good sets of glasses,” he says, referring to the multi-million pound scientific analysis equipment at his disposal, “is people give you interesting things to look at.” Using X-ray computer tomography (CT), scientists at Manchester solved the mystery of the Jules Rimet trophy, in which there was confusion over whether the surviving World Cup was the original or a replica.

Another headline-making project was to establish the provenance of some metallic beads found in Egypt that seemed to challenge conventionally accepted dates of when humans are believed to have developed the technology to smelt iron. There might have been an archaeological revolution in the air, until X-ray technology confirmed, “the beads were made from a piece of meteorite. The iron they were made from literally fell from the sky.”

Withers says that he knew he was destined to be a scientist from an early age. From the age of nine or ten, after his father died, “I was the person that fixed things, such as a fuse in a plug. It’s hard for people to imagine these days,” says Withers, “that we once lived in a culture where things didn’t work properly. Cars didn’t start or you’d see them on the side of the road waiting to be repaired. Looking back on my childhood I can see that I was probably a closet engineer.”

With no tradition of tertiary education in the family, “off I went to Cambridge for my undergraduate degree in physics”. After which Withers read for his PhD, progressing to a lectureship at Cambridge, which he enjoyed for nine years, despite being asked to lecture on polymers “which was an area I had no background in. In those days it was thought that any academic could lecture on any aspect of their field. I had to go away and learn all about it.” The downside to lectures (either giving them or being on the receiving end) for Withers was that having grown up with the Royal Institution lectures on television, their real-life counterparts could be somewhat prosaic. He remembers the first time he walked into a lecture hall expecting a mad professor to start blowing things up, only to find that “I just had to copy things down for an hour”.

Withers felt the standard Cambridge academic career trajectory of undergraduate to PhD, to lecturer, to dyed-in-the-wool professor wasn’t for him. “I think you need to move around. It’s easy to say that, but at some point in your career you realise that you’ve been in the same place for 16 years.” A chair became available in Manchester and, finding himself in a new environment, “I could see all these things that I could do. I arrived with very little kit, but suddenly we were getting X-ray diffractometers and imaging systems. It was all very exciting, and has been for the past 15 years.”

Of the many changes in science that Withers has seen over his 35-year career to date, one that inspires him today is the way in which business, media and academia now work together. “It’s more synergistic these days. Funnily enough, the other day I was sitting across a table talking with the Northwest Regional Development Agency, British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and so forth. Coming to Manchester made me realise that some of our best problems come from an industrial context.”

He develops this by explaining how today’s academic also needs media skills to assist with public understanding of science. “I think of academia as like a bridge. You have pillars, which provide the solid foundations. In academia, these are the people who spend all of their lives working in a particular area, and if you want to know about a specific area of science you go to them.

“Their particular area may go in and out of fashion, but they remain locked on, like a guided missile, to that topic. Then there are the people who span those pillars, making connections between industry and academia, as well as links with the media. Academia needs domain experts, because you can’t build anything on shifting sands. But you also need the spans, otherwise you can’t reach far into the distance.”

Despite the future becoming more collaborative, there are still significant threats and opportunities, warns Withers. The threats are global challenges related to “creating green energy, personalised medicine, clean water, improved food efficiency and new battery technology. These challenges will be driving science – and materials science in particular – and it is absolutely crucial how we respond to them.”

Opportunities come in the form of “communication, computing power and automation. We used to think that automated transport systems would be put in place because of insurance and risk, but actually young people don’t want to drive cars. They’d rather play games on their smartphones than drive a car. Autonomy presents us with real opportunities for managing how we live.”

However, the problem with the future is we simply can’t be sure what form it will take. Looking back to his undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 1980s, Withers says we couldn’t have predicted the level of technology that we are operating at today. “Remember the first fax? It was like something out of Star Trek, transporting matter from one place to another. Will the world be equally unrecognisable in another quarter of a century?

“The interesting thing is some aspects of our lives hardly change at all. Our need to communicate and interact isn’t changing, but the way in which we achieve this communication is totally different. Yet the ability to connect with people many, many miles away – either synchronously or asynchronously – will drive the way we work. We’re ‘on’ all the time now. Mankind evolves at a very slow rate, but the tools we use to live our lives evolve very quickly and the way we class experience is very, very different.”

The mystery of the Jules Rimet trophy

Scientists at the University of Manchester used state-of-the-art science to solve a mystery surrounding the Jules Rimet trophy, a gold-plated silver statuette of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, otherwise known as the football World Cup won by England in 1966.

The trophy had been on public exhibition in the UK prior to the competition in 1966, but had been stolen, only to be recovered a week later by a dog called Pickles from beneath a hedge in Upper Norwood. Following this, the Football Association had an externally exact replica (the underlying metals were different) made in secret for public events, in spite of the international footballing body FIFA forbidding it. In 1970, as three-time winner, Brazil was entitled to keep the trophy and a new cup with a different design was created.

In 1983, Brazil’s trophy was stolen, never to be seen again. The National Football Museum collection had the other version, but by this time there were rumours circulating that the ‘original’ given to Brazil had been the replica and that the unit now on display in Manchester was the original. These rumours had been triggered by an unpredicted high auction price for the ‘replica’ in 1997, when it fetched £254,000 – 10 times the estimate. The museum decided to solve the mystery by taking it to be scanned at the University of Manchester’s Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility.

Scientists used an X-ray computer tomography (CT) scanner, which was able to view the trophy in three dimensions and reveal its elemental composition using X-ray fluorescence. This enabled its 3D shape to be recorded as a virtual model, and provided information on its chemical composition.

The original trophy was made of silver with gold plating, while the replica’s underlying metal was bronze. The chemical analysis did not find any evidence of silver, but there were strong signals for tin and lead, confirming that the version of the trophy at the National Football Museum was indeed the replica.

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