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Tag archives: industry

Marking time on precision engineering

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK

Adventures in science: the Magna centre in Rotherham, UK.

By Susan Curtis

At a time when the UK steel industry is close to meltdown, it felt quite humbling to be standing inside a disused steelworks on the outskirts of Rotherham. In its heyday in the 1970s the colossal plant employed 3000 people and housed six electric arc furnaces that set new records for steel production. Since closing in 1993, the facility has forged a new identity as the Magna Science Adventure Centre, which offers visitors an insight into the steel-making process and its heritage in the area around Sheffield.

Recently, I was at Magna for the annual TRAM conference, which showcases the latest technology advances in the aerospace industry. Organized by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), one of the UK’s Catapult centres based at the University of Sheffield and supported by Boeing, TRAM highlights how aircraft makers and their suppliers are improving materials and manufacturing processes to reduce cost and enhance performance. But among the talk of powder metallurgy, high-performance machining and the factories of the future, a presentation by Nick English from the UK-based watchmaker Bremont highlighted manufacturing innovation at a much smaller scale.


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Comic book fusion, Nathan Myhrvold on innovation, and picking winners of the Global Physics Photowalk

Comic book physics. (Courtesy: PPPL)

By Hamish Johnston

The comic book artist Frank Espinosa and Princeton University’s Sajan Saini have joined forces to create a comic book called A Star For Us. The book begins with a brief history of our understanding of nuclear fusion in the Sun and goes on to chronicle the challenges of creating a mini-Sun here on Earth.

Espinosa and Saini – who is a physicist turned professor of writing – spent time with physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Espinosa says that he was impressed by the researchers enthusiasm for the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” he explains.

“The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” says Saini. I agree and you can judge for yourself by downloading a PDF of the comic book free of charge.

The physicist and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, has a nice essay in Scientific American about the roles of the private and public sectors in driving technological innovation. He explains that when Microsoft Research was created in 1991, the company was keen on not making the same mistakes as AT&T, IBM and Xerox – which were all in the process of winding down their world-famous research labs. The problem was that these firms funded research in areas that they were not immediately able to exploit commercially. Myhrvold points out that many of the technologies first developed in those labs – including the transistor and giant magnetoresistance data storage – made much more money for fast-moving competitors such as Microsoft than they did for the companies that did the basic research.


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Leaping across the innovation divide

Glasgow's Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of G)

Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre. (Courtesy: University of Strathclyde)

By Margaret Harris in Glasgow

If you’re the first speaker after lunch at a conference, how do you make sure your audience stays awake and engaged?

For Oliver Ambacher – who occupied the dreaded post-prandial slot during Wednesday’s applied photonics conference at Glasgow’s Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) – the answer is simple. You pretend to jump off a cliff.

Ambacher, the director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics in Freiburg, Germany, made his leap (actually, several leaps of varying lengths) to illustrate one of the toughest challenges in applied physics: the yawning gap between what academic researchers can provide, and what industry scientists need to turn that research into innovative products. This gap is sometimes called the “valley of death”, and Ambacher’s point was that the risks of leaping across it are generally higher on the industry side. “If I, whose heart is still in physics, jump into the valley of death, I lose funding, maybe a project,” Ambacher explained. “But somebody from industry, they may lose their job. So they cannot jump so far.”


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Horsing around with some innovative physics

Photograph of three physicists, Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater, holding their IOP Innovation Award

(Left to right) Physicists Giedre Podolyak, Steve Roberts and Snezhana Chater of Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging celebrate their success in the IOP Innovation Awards.

By Margaret Harris

Imagine you’re a veterinarian and a trainer asks you to take a look at a horse. The animal, a champion showjumper, is limping slightly but there is no obvious injury. Exploratory surgery would probably do more harm than good, and the alternative – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – isn’t risk-free either. You’d need to put the horse under a general anaesthetic, and you know horses don’t react well to that; in fact, around 0.5% suffer serious injuries while coming round afterwards. And that’s assuming you can even find a scanner big enough to fit a horse. What do you do?

This might sound like a fairly niche dilemma, but for Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging it has become the basis for a thriving business – a business, moreover, that has just won an IOP Innovation Award for the successful application of physics in a commercial product.

At the awards ceremony – which took place last night in the Palace of Westminster, London, just down the hall from the House of Commons chamber – I caught up with Hallmarq’s operations and technical director, Steve Roberts. After sketching out the scenario of the veterinarian and the injured horse, Roberts, a physicist, explained that Hallmarq’s MRI scanner fits around the horse’s leg. This means that equine patients can simply be led into it, sedated but conscious. Sophisticated error-correction and image-processing software helps the scanner compensate for the horse’s movement, and in 15 years of operation, Roberts estimates that veterinarians have used Hallmarq’s machines to scan more than 60,000 horses.


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A guided tour inside D-Wave’s iconic black box

By Hamish Johnston

Has D-Wave Systems built the world’s first commercial quantum computer? The Canada-based company says it has but some physicists in the quantum-information community beg to differ. Putting aside heady questions like “Does it work?”, I think everyone agrees that the Tardis-sized black boxes that house D-Wave’s processors look great. But what exactly is inside?


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Nanometre-scale printing technique could put its stamp on the electronics industry

By Anna Demming

Qiangfei Xia in

Qiangfei Xia in the lab.

This year marks 20 years since Stephen Chou, Peter  Krauss and Preston Renstrom first published their work showcasing a versatile approach for mass production of identical nanostructures for the electronics industry. This technique is called nanoimprint lithography and it involves pressing a nano-patterned structure into a hot molten polymer. As the polymer cools, the pattern stamped into it sets so that it can be used as a mould to make several identical replicas of the original structure.

Just as the printing press brought literature to the masses, it is easy to imagine how this nanofabrication technique could have a significant impact on the production of integrated circuits. To commemorate the development, Nanotechnology has published a perspective article on the technique, and I had a chance to talk to the author Qiangfei Xia of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst about the technique’s advantages, challenges and outlook for the future.


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Daresbury holds a ‘wedding for microscopists’

Photograph of Quentin Ramasse

Quentin Ramasse in the driver’s seat at SuperSTEM 3. (Courtesy: Stuart Eyres/EPSRC)

By Anna Demming, online editor of

Last month on a rainy grey morning in north-east England I headed to the Daresbury Laboratory as the SuperSTEM lab there celebrated the installation of its latest world-class microscope. Industrial and academic microscopists from around the world gathered for the inauguration, which was described as a “wedding for microscopists” because so many people from the tightly knit microscopy community were there. You can hear the excitement in the audio piece below, where SuperSTEM lab director Quentin Ramasse and other researchers at the event tell me their plans for the new instrument.

Celebrating SuperSTEM 3
Quentin Ramasse, Peter van Aken, Helen Freeman and Ralph Haswell explain why they are looking forward to using SuperSTEM 3
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Celebrating innovation

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe celebrates the winners of the 2014 Institute of Physics innovation awards at the Palace of Westminster 27 November 2014

Clever thinking: Baroness Neville-Rolfe celebrates the winners of the 2014 Institute of Physics innovation awards. (Courtesy: Richard Lewis)

By Matin Durrani

“Commercializing physics” is the theme of the November issue of Physics World and it was therefore timely that last night saw a special ceremony at the House of Commons to celebrate the winners of this year’s Innovation Awards from the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes the magazine.

The awards, which are now in their third year, are given by the Institute to firms in the UK and Ireland “that have built success on the innovative application of physics”.

Four firms were honoured this year: Gas Sensing Solutions, which makes carbon-dioxide sensors; Gooch & Housego, for an opto-acoustic device that can modulate laser beams for industrial processing; nuclear-power firm Magnox for a clever way of refuelling a reactor at the Wylfa power station; and MBDA for a novel “missile-system upgrade”.


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Commercializing physics: how to translate ideas into business

By  Matin Durrani

Some physicists can get a bit grumpy if talk turns to the supposedly dirty business of commercialization. They go into physics out of curiosity alone and have an innate dislike of ever having to justify their resarch in terms of potential spin-off benefits. But they can be thankful for the overall health and vitality of physics that some brave souls do risk their money and careers by setting up businesses to commercialize their findings.

The November 2014 issue of Physics World magazine gives a taste of some of the challenges in commercializing physics, as I describe with my colleague Margaret Harris in the video above. We kick off with one common problem for hi-tech start-ups, which is how to bridge the “valley of death” – in other words, what to do when your research funding has dried up but you’re not yet making any money from your product. Jesko von Windheim then examines why physics-based firms have a harder job than ordinary businesses, where succeeding is simply about finding a market and meeting its need, before we look back at some promising technologies tackled in Physics World’s Innovation column to see how they’ve fared. There are also some real-life lessons from Floor van de Pavert — a physicist who’s been at the business coal face — and we see how crowdfunding websites can help researchers get their ideas off the ground.


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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!


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