Department of Engineering / News / Professor David Cardwell interview for Professional Engineering Magazine

Department of Engineering

Professor David Cardwell interview for Professional Engineering Magazine

Professor David Cardwell interview for Professional Engineering Magazine

Professor David Cardwell

The following article originally appeared in the March 2015 edition of Professional Engineering, the magazine for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) members.

The new facility will be welcoming and facilitating for industry, with clean, open workspaces. New IT options will bring people together electronically and encourage networking, and there will be the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint.

Professor David Cardwell, Head of the Department of Engineering

Professor David Cardwell was installed as the new head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge in October 2014. That’s plenty of time for him to get his feet under the table and to get to grips with running the biggest university engineering department in the country.

Professor Cardwell is keen to talk about the future, but not before he makes an important acknowledgement of the past. “I have to say, my predecessor Professor Dame Ann Dowling, who led the Department for five years before taking up the presidency at the Royal Academy of Engineering, did an absolutely incredible job. She is such a hard act to follow.

“We had a lunch for Ann to say farewell, and I looked through her achievements. In the end, I had to limit them to 10. Everything she did was polished.

“She left the Department in outstanding shape both in terms of teaching and research quality, and she oversaw some stunning appointees that are the future of this Department. As a result, we are in such good shape,” he says.

It’s no wonder that Professor Cardwell is keen to recognise Ann Dowling’s achievements. Under her leadership the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge cemented its position as one of the leading institutions of its type in the world. It is near the top of just about every international ranking, in areas such as size, research turnover and student satisfaction.

The Department now has over 180 academics and researchers of principal investigator status, more than 1,200 undergraduates, 800 graduate students, 260 postdoctoral researchers and a turnover exceeding £70 million. Graduate numbers have risen by half over the past six years, and are expected to expand further still, being heavily over-subscribed with applications from home and abroad.

Professor Cardwell knows the Department of Engineering inside out, having risen through the ranks over the course of the past 15 years. To end up leading it fills him with obvious pride. “It’s an extraordinary department,” he says.

“From the day I arrived as a lecturer, to now as Head of Department, I’ve had nothing but good support from my colleagues.

“If I ask for anything to be done, it gets done, because everyone here is so keen to help. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good this department is. When I see other engineering departments elsewhere, it reminds me how well off I am.”

That’s not to say that the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge cannot be improved – certainly in terms of its infrastucture. The main Trumpington Street site to the south of the city comprises old and scattered building stock. It has the feel of a slightly cramped school, with small rooms located off long rabbit-warren corridors. It’s not the ideal home for a department that prides itself on the collaborative nature of its workings across the many different disciplines that are contained within it.

Professor Cardwell acknowledges these shortcomings, and is fully supportive of plans for a £400 million purpose-built centre in west Cambridge that will allow the engineering department to be housed under one roof.

He says the new facility will transform the way the department goes about its business, from the way that separate disciplines work together to how it goes about incubating new companies, and carrying out industrial research.

“It will change everything,” says Professor Cardwell. “It will be a blank sheet of paper. We can rethink what we do, why we do it, what our strategy is, how we engage with industry, how we teach students, our attitudes to sustainability – everything.”

At present, Professor Cardwell is overseeing a huge consultation process on the proposed move. He wants this to involve everyone within the Department, including students, lecturers, administrators and university management. Industrial partners, such as Dyson and Rolls-Royce, are also being invited to have their say.

Outline planning applications are expected to be put forward in the summer, with full planning admissions lodged up to 18 months after that.

Fundraising will then begin in earnest, with industry expected to provide at least part of the construction cost.

“As part of this development, we hope to increase our graduate numbers by 20-25% so we will be producing even more engineers for UK plc,” he says. “So it’s in everyone’s interest that we get this going.

“What I’m adamant about, though, is that we don’t construct a building and say to companies ‘give us some money and we will stick your name on it’. I want people who are likely to invest to be involved from ground zero. I want companies absolutely ingrained from the beginning. The companies that I have spoken to so far are very enthusiastic about this, they really want to help.”

Professor Cardwell says the move has to happen, as the Trumpington Street site is bulging at the seams. He says that, if a major piece of research work was to become available, Cambridge would struggle to house it. A new facility, the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design, being part-funded by a £2 million donation from the James Dyson Foundation, is currently being built at Trumpington Street, and that will provide new capacity in the short term. But Professor Cardwell is adamant that the long-term solution is to consolidate the Department of Engineering on the west Cambridge site.

So what will the new facility look like? That’s still to be decided in detail. But Professor Cardwell has a vision of a large, modern, open-plan design that encourages collaboration across disciplines. “I’m adamant that the new site will achieve something that the Trumpington Street buildings cannot,” he says. “I want an emphasis on social space.

“I envisage – and it’s all to be agreed yet – a backbone of space right down the new department which may be 200m long. From that space, all our activities will sprout. It will need to be very flexible. There will be a mixture of traditional facilities based on the current structure – but we will go beyond that to develop themes and inter-divisional research centres with less fixed identities to them.

“The new facility will be welcoming and facilitating for industry, with clean, open workspaces. New IT options will bring people together electronically and encourage networking, and there will be the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint.

“It will provide the opportunity for a revolution in the way that teaching is conducted. The building can come alive, using sensors to provide data. We could have heat exchangers, and generate our own energy as part of research projects. I’m absolutely open minded.”

Professor Cardwell describes the move as “the biggest single project in the history of the University of Cambridge”. He says it will go a long way to defining engineering nationally and almost certainly internationally for 100 years.

With a project of such scope, there were bound to be some within the department who thought it was too big a step, and would prove too disruptive. But Professor Cardwell says that the vast majority of staff and students within the department support the move, and see it as crucial to its future.

He says the move will ensure that future students enjoy the best experience possible. “If you make decisions that are in the best interests of students, then they are in the best interest of the university too,” he says. “We are here fundamentally as an educational establishment that has a great research capability. If you offer good duty of care, good structured courses, a good tutorial system, well thought-out programmes, state-of-the-art teaching by enthusiastic people – then everything else falls into place.”

The new role, and the move, means Professor Cardwell will have to give up teaching for at least the time being. The university has also recruited someone to head the research group on superconducting that he has led for many years.

These are trade-offs that have had to be made to enable him to concentrate on the new job at hand. And it’s a role that he is already enjoying. “I think I’m made to do it,” he says.

“I’m a people person, whether that’s research, or admin, or discussions at a higher level. It’s all about people – 100%. The people in this department are so good, I couldn’t have more support than I’m given. If you took that support away, I’d resign, as the job would be impossible. My colleagues are the incentive for me to do this job as well as I can.”

Global leader in superconducting

Professor David Cardwell is a world-renowned expert on superconducting. He has led the Bulk Superconductivity Research Group at the University of Cambridge on the processing and applications of bulk high-temperature superconductors, which can be used to generate very high magnetic fields.

He is an active board member of five international journals, including Superconductor Science and Technology, and has co-authored more than 300 papers and patents. He collaborates widely around the world with academic institutes and industry.

In the summer of last year, Professor Cardwell’s group announced that it had managed to ‘trap’ a magnetic field with a strength of 17.6 Tesla in a high-temperature gadolinium barium copper oxide (GdBaCuO) superconductor, beating the previous record by 0.4 Tesla. The research demonstrated the potential of high-temperature superconductors for applications in a range of fields, including flywheels for energy storage, ‘magnetic separators’, which can be used in mineral refinement and pollution control, and in high-speed levitating monorail trains.

The new record was achieved using 25mm diameter samples of GdBaCuO high-temperature superconductor fabricated in the form of a large, single grain using an established melt processing method and reinforced using a relatively simple technique.

The previous record of 17.24 Tesla, set in 2003 by a team led by Professor Masato Murakami from the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Japan, used a highly specialised type of superconductor of a similar, but subtly different, composition and structure.

Professor Cardwell says: “The fact that this record has stood for so long shows just how demanding this field really is. There are real potential gains to be had with even small increases in field.”

To contain such a large field, the Cambridge team used materials known as cuprates: thin sheets of copper and oxygen separated by more complex types of atoms. The cuprates were the earliest high-temperature superconductors to be discovered, and have potential to be used widely in scientific and medical applications.

While they are high-quality superconductors with outstanding potential for practical applications, the cuprates can be as brittle as dried pasta when fabricated in the form of sintered ceramics. So trying to contain a strong magnetic field within bulk forms of the cuprates tends to cause them to explode.

To hold in, or trap, the magnetic field, the researchers had to modify the microstructure of GdBaCuO to increase its current-carrying and thermal performance, and reinforce it with a stainless-steel ring, which was used to ‘shrink-wrap’ the single-grain samples.

The lines of magnetic flux in a superconductor repel each other strongly, making it difficult to contain such a large field. But, by engineering the bulk microstructure, the field is retained in the sample by so-called ‘flux pinning centres’ distributed throughout the material. The result was the biggest ever trapped field achieved in a bulk, standalone material at any temperature.

“This work could herald the arrival of superconductors in real-world applications,” says Professor Cardwell. “To see bulk superconductors applied for everyday use, we need large grains of superconducting material with the required properties that can be manufactured by relatively standard processes.”

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