Department of Engineering

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Research news

Tom Smith wins The Times newspaper 'One Minute Pitch' competition

Tom Smith, a Phd student here in the Department, has won £100,000 as the winner of The Times newspaper 'One Minute Pitch' competition.

Tom Smith and his prize pump for the world's poor

Tom Smith a Phd student here in the Department has won £100,000 as the winner of The Times newspaper 'One Minute Pitch' competition. Tom won the prize for his development of a cheap and efficient pump with no moving parts designed to help Third World farmers to irrigate their crops.

The judges’ vote was unanimous. His entry was chosen from many thousands in the competition. This week he will be receiving his cheque for £100,000 in person from the editor of The Sunday Times.

Last year Tom was made L’Oréal Science Graduate of the Year by the Royal Institution.

EPSRC award £1.4 million to fund a 'Smart infrastructure' project

Dr Kenichi Soga, Dr Campbell Middleton, Professor Robert Mair and Dr Peter Bennett are part of a team who have been awarded £1.4 million from the EPSRC 'Wired and Wireless Intelligent Networked Systems' (WINES) research grant to fund a 'Smart infrastructure' project.

Smart infrastructure

One of the greatest challenges facing civil engineers in the 21st century is the stewardship of ageing infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the networks of tunnels, pipelines and bridges that lie beneath and above the major cities around the world. Much of this infrastructure was constructed more than half a century ago and there is widespread evidence of its deterioration. Tunnels, particularly old ones, are prone to being influenced by activities such as adjacent construction, for instance piling, deep excavations and other tunnel construction. Excessive leakage and pipe bursts are frequent and usually unanticipated. Importantly, underground structures often cannot be inspected when they are being used by trains or due to other physical constraints. Bridges are susceptible to corrosion from de-icing salts and subject to ever increasing demands as the legal weight limit of lorries has been progressively increased over the years. Vehicular impacts and scour to the foundations of both road and rail bridges have resulted in significant loss of life and major disruption to strategic supply and distribution links. Little is known of the long-term performance of such infrastructure. These uncertainties and the importance of safety to users and consumers prompted the initiation of recent research projects investigating the prospect of damage detection and decision making and the use of novel sensors to mitigate damage.

Future monitoring systems will undoubtedly comprise Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) and will be designed around the capabilities of autonomous nodes. Each node in the network will integrate specific sensing capabilities with communication, data processing and power supply. The project will demonstrate how large numbers of sensors can be integrated into large-scale engineering systems to improve performance and extend the lifetime of infrastructure, while continuously evaluating and managing uncertainties and risks. This is a joint project between the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London and comprises an integrated research program to evaluate and develop prototype WSN systems. Dr Soga is the overall project leader and Drs Ian Wassell and Frank Stajano of the Computer Laboratory (formerly Department of Engineering academic staffs) join the project as communication/security experts. The Imperial College London team consists of experts in water supply, communication and computer science. The main objective of this proposal is to develop generic/pervasive wireless sensor networks that allow sharing of equipment and communication tools for monitoring of multiple types of infrastructures. Three application domains will be studied in detail: (i) water supply systems, (ii) tunnels and (iii) bridges. The project will exploit common characteristics of different infrastructures to advance sensor network design. The complexity of the monitoring system requires the following research areas to be explored : sensor systems, wireless communications, autonomous systems, information management, programming and design tools, trust security and privacy, systems theory, human factors and social issues. Field trials will be carried out with London Underground Ltd., Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Highways Agency and Humber Bridge. Intel Corporation will support the project with hardware for the trials.

Engineering for Sustainable Development

The Department's MPhil in Sustainable Development has a bumper crop of 36 students this year from almost as many countries: the UK, the USA, Malaysia, India, Canada, Australia, Uganda, Argentina, Vietnam, China, Eire, Germany, Trinidad, Kenya, Sudan and Jamaica.

Chris Roe

Kyrea Njuguna

The course has been specially designed to attract top flight engineers early in their careers to spend a year learning how to become more effective in delivering engineering for sustainable development, through enhanced technical skills, through better understanding of the issues surrounding Sustainable Development, and through an improved awareness of the commercial and management techniques to deliver more sustainable practices in their own working environments.

The course is now in its fifth year of operation, and has grown to its present size from an initial cohort of 14 students in 2002. Last year over 130 formal applications for places on the course were received, so competition is very strong. Graduates from the course are now working for a diverse range of organistions including the World Bank, the United Nations, UK Civil Service, US Navy, NGOs such as Save the Children, the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), Dow Chemicals Ltd as well as engineering consultancies such as Mott MacDonald, Black and Veatch, Burro Happold, and Scott Wilson. Other graduates have gone on to successfully complete PhDs and are now holding academic posts. Several more have left to work for City Governments in places such as Vancouver, Trieste and San Luis Obispo, California.

Chris Roe one of this year's MPhil students is from the USA, he describes himself as "A Seattle native", Chris says "I studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington with an emphasis on energy and the environment. After graduation, I entered an engineering rotation program at The Boeing Company. Starting as an aircraft structures engineer, I soon decided to pursue my environmental interests and began working with energy conservation in Boeing's commercial buildings. Through the MPhil program in engineering for sustainable development, I hope to evolve my understanding of the complex environmental, social, and economic challenges that face engineers in industry. When I return to Boeing, I look forward to implementing sustainable practises into the company's energy use, and seek to be an agent of change."

Another of this year's students, Kyrea Njuguna, is from Kenya. Kyrea also plans to use this year of study to prepare for making a real difference. Kyrea says "I have 5 years of experience in the Oil & Gas industry working for major multinational contractors. The MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development should enable me to broaden the scope of my expertise as a Mechanical Engineer. I considered how my skills can be applied in a sustainable manner and especially instil this in future work in nation building in Africa and around the world. In terms of the future I hope to be in involved in project implementation, consultancy and policy making in the Energy industries, with emphasis on field work responsibilities. The renewable energy sectors are one of my interests, as they can be feasible in Kenya, for example. I hope to help create a self-sustainable energy network in developing nations where energy is readily available locally and its regional trade enhances the economic, social and ecological environments."

Kirsten Henson who finished the course last year had the following message for the Centre for Sustainable Development team "You are not simply educating the minds of the future but educating the minds that will ensure there is a future."

Best Engineering Research in the UK


The Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge has come top of the rankings for General Engineering according to the national Research Assessment Exercise. The results were published today and show a superb outcome placing Cambridge far ahead of other institutions in its class.

90% of the research submission by the Department was judged to be either internationally excellent or world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour. Remarkably, the breakdown shows that 45% of the submission achieved the world-leading status; this far exceeds the result for any other submission in General Engineering and is not surpassed by any institution in any other engineering or scientific discipline.

The result represents not only the excellence of individuals comprising the Department’s 132-strong faculty, but also shows the power of uniting these academics in a single integrated department. They span a remarkably wide-range of engineering disciplines and, within this one department, can easily team-up to address the world’s most pressing challenges. Their expertise and capacity for research is augmented by 195 contract research staff and research fellows. 573 research students also play a key role in undertaking research, transferring research skills to industry and, for some of them, becoming the next generation of engineering academics. The scale and quality of the Department enables it to secure the best support staff and facilities. Scale and quality also make it easier for the Department to build long-term relationships with other academic disciplines, other institutions, companies and the entrepreneurial community. These connections for undertaking collaborative research are also vital for transferring outputs to have material benefits for society. All of these factors reinforce each other in a virtuous circle by attracting the best academics, students and collaborators.

The result of the Research Assessment Exercise is a tremendous endorsement of the Department’s staff and strategy, but ambitious plans and continual change are essential if the Department is to keep its world-leading position.

For more information on research collaborations please contact Philip Guildford

Medical jargon 'may harm patients'

Tabassum Jafri, PhD student and Dr Melinda Lyons

Much of the Latin and Greek medical jargon that makes up the exclusive language of doctors should be abandoned because it could be harming patients.

Dr Melinda Lyons of the Department's Engineering Design Centre (EDC) said the "dead language" terminology, dating as far back as the 5th century BC, spreads confusion and could potentially put patients at risk. She wants to see the language of medicine brought up to date and simplified by removing "archaic risk-prone terms".

Writing in The Lancet medical journal, Melinda listed a wide range of prefixes commonly used by doctors which look or sound alike but have completely different meanings. Examples included, "inter" (between) versus "intra" (within), "super" or "supra" (above) versus "sub" or "sur" (below), and "hypo" (low) versus "hyper" (high).

Melinda's paper in The Lancet demonstrates the broad scope of the EDC's focus. The paper highlighted the risks to patient safety due to the confusion over lookalike and soundalike terms that are generated through the sector's reliance on Greek and Latin terms. Unlike previous research, this paper identified the prefixes that pose the greatest risk. The field of healthcare typically manages problems of lookalike / soundalike terms through "quick fixes" such as coloured packaging and handwriting assessments, as well as encouraging "readback" of terms. Radical reforms of the language would rarely be seen as a solution.

In many ways, the challenge arising from the lookalike / soundalike terms is similar to that addressed by the EDC's inclusive design team, which seeks to educate designers to consider those with impairments or disabilities in order to ensure products are manufactured with their needs in mind. The definition of an "inclusive language of healthcare" would ensure that the safety of staff and patients alike is not compromised through misreading or mishearing terms.

Effective design is not just about the work of engineers or designers. By advocating a systems approach, in order to capture the many facets of the design process, the EDC requires the skills of many other professions. For example, in the EDC's healthcare design group, it is necessary to have a good understanding of the needs of the sector. As a result a number of the PhD students have backgrounds in pharmacy, radiography and counselling, whilst Melinda brings expertise in human factors and safety along with extensive experience in the offshore and aviation industries.

Pilkington Prizes honour teaching excellence

Dr Matthew Juniper, back row, first on left, with the other Pilkington Prize winners

Twelve of the University’s very best teaching talents have been honoured at the annual Pilkington Prizes awards ceremony.

This year's leading lights include pioneers of visual and oral archive as historical sources and developers of fresh and acclaimed new courses and qualifications.

One of the winners is Dr Matthew Juniper, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Energy Group. A gifted and dedicated teacher, he's been at the forefront of adopting new technology to animate his lectures on fluid mechanics. It's largely due to his efforts that the popularity of fluids as a specialist area for students has grown significantly in recent years. He developed a new type of online resource to supplement his lectures and clarify difficult aspects of the course.

This year, as part of the University's 800th anniversary celebrations, all winners of the first Pilkington Prizes were invited to join the 2009 nominees for a dinner at Murray Edwards College, along with Cambridge Foundation Trustees past and present, students, University representatives and members of the Pilkington family.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alison Richard awarded the prizes.

The Pilkington Teaching Prizes were established in 1994 by businessman and alumnus of Trinity, Sir Alastair Pilkington during his term as Chairman of the Cambridge Foundation. The aim was to ensure that excellence in teaching at the University was given proper recognition.

Hugh Hunt receives ExxonMobil Excellence in Teaching Award

Keith Guy FRAEng, the chairman of the panel of judges (left) with Dr Hugh Hunt

Congratulations to Dr Hugh Hunt who has been awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering ExxonMobil Excellence in Teaching Award. Due to Hugh's award, the Department is now recognised as an "ExxonMobil Centre of Teaching Excellence" and will be rewarded with a package of benefits worth £50,000. Speaking before the award ceremony Hugh said, "I'm thrilled to get this award. Good teaching is like good theatre - it's the audience that matters. I work hard to entertain my audience and I think it makes a difference."

The ExxonMobil Excellence in Teaching Awards in association with The Royal Academy of Engineering has been established to identify and reward centres of Excellence in Engineering Teaching in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Ian Bowbrick, Head of Professional Formation comments, “The Academy has been greatly encouraged by the effective university teaching practice this scheme has identified, particularly as the current funding mechanism is so heavily weighted towards research output. The Academy is also delighted that a leading industrial company in the shape of ExxonMobil recognises the importance of the teaching of undergraduate engineers to the future prosperity and well-being of this country.

To apply for a Teaching Award ideal candidates need to have shown a commitment to teaching, professional activities, establishing industrial-academic links and promoting engineering as a rewarding and creative career.

New Civil Engineer Graduate Awards

Joint runner-up Chris Lonergan

A last minute surprise awaited winners of the New Civil Engineer (NCE) Graduate Awards when prize money was increased by 50% in recognition of their exceptional talent. A record 140 entries, from countries as distant as India, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, gave the 12th annual NCE Graduate Awards judges a major challenge. Not only did they have to mark them; but the high quality of the entrants made it exceptionally difficult to select the six finalists.

Chris Lonergan who graduated from the Department in 2007 was joint runner-up and won £750. Chris is, he insists, a 110% structural engineer.

At Cambridge University he thought the first two years of general engineering invaluable, as it highlighted the importance of understanding wide ranging engineering principles. "Studying the workings of aircraft or racing car engines taught me to think logically when trying to achieve economic, practical designs," he says.

Also at Cambridge he began living his "greatest achievement", "Just getting to such a great university made me feel immensely proud," he recalls.

Chris joined the Arup division charged with designing sports stadiums. And the now 23 year old has already spearheaded complex foundation designs for a prestigious Middle East stadium.

That his boss trusted him to explain the complex foundation design face to face with the local planning authorities – subsequently securing essential approval – led the Arup director to comment: "Chris is one of the best graduates I have ever worked with."

Now an accomplished lead guitarist in an upcoming group, Chris is a different sort of music fan – one who arrives early at a Wembley or Millennium stadium gig just to admire the structures. "Totally on top of his game – self assured and authoritative," said the judges.

  • Graduate structural engineer, Arup
  • First Class MEng Cambridge University
  • Four year running top of the class academic scholarship
  • Chris has co-authored a paper on 3D software design published in 'The Structural Engineer' Volume: 87 Issue: 3 Thursday 12 February 2009 edition. Title: Use of 3D software in stadia design. Sam Styles and Chris Lonergan of Arup discuss the need for engineers to understand and be able to adapt 3D computer programmes used in design

A new centre will generate the scientists needed for Britain's future


The University of Cambridge has won funding for a new centre that will help generate the scientists needed for Britain's future it was announced by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK funding body for science and engineering.

Cambridge University has a strong track record in taking innovations in Nanomaterials and converting them into commercial endeavours. Here we will expose PhD students at an early stage to innovation, and grow the next general of entrepreneurs to feed the Cambridge phenomenon.

Professor Peter Littlewood, Head of the Department of Physics

The new Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) in NanoScience will equip the next generation of researchers with the skills and experience to become nanoscience entrepreneurs by turning basic science research into future applications.

The DTC offers a unique opportunity to bring together research expertise and best training practise. The EPSRC funding, of over £6 million, will support over 50 PhD students over the next five years for a four year postgraduate training programme spanning a range of disciplines.

By integrating MPhil-level training, including highly rated enterprise components, students will be stretched in new directions. The DTC will provide postgraduates with a broader experience than currently possible in either graduate research or technological innovation.

The training includes a first year of taught nanoscience courses across physics, engineering, chemistry and material science with mini-projects and nano-lab practicals. This is followed by an interdisciplinary PhD placement in one of the nanoscience research groups around the University.

An important element of the programme is exposure to innovation and business courses through the University's Judge Business School.

Drawing together a team from the Physics, Materials Science, Electrical Engineering, and Chemistry Departments it will be led by Professor Jeremy Baumberg and co-directed by Professor Mark Blamire.

Commenting on the announcement Professor Baumberg said: "This is a wonderful investment in young researchers, complementing the strong nano-fabrication infrastructure and world-class interdisciplinary groups across the University of Cambridge".

Professor Peter Littlewood, Head of the Department of Physics, said: "Cambridge University has a strong track record in taking innovations in Nanomaterials and converting them into commercial endeavours. Here we will expose PhD students at an early stage to innovation, and grow the next general of entrepreneurs to feed the Cambridge phenomenon."

Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, announced the £250million initiative which will create 44 training centres across the UK and generate over 2000 PhD students. The students will tackle some of the biggest problems currently facing Britain such as climate change, energy, our ageing population, and high-tech crime.

Lord Drayson said: "Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive. EPSRC's doctoral training centres will provide a new wave of engineers and scientists to do the job."

He continued: "These new centres will help to develop clean renewable energy, fight high tech crime, assist in reducing carbon emissions, and discover new healthcare solutions for an ageing population. This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.

EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training are a new approach to training PhD students, creating communities of researchers working on current and future challenges. 17 of the new centres will be industrial training centres that will equip their students with the business skills they need to turn pioneering ideas into products and services, boosting their impact on the UK's economy.

The multidisciplinary centres bring together diverse areas of expertise to train engineers and scientists with the skills, knowledge and confidence to tackle today's evolving issues. They also create new working cultures, build relationships between teams in universities and forge lasting links with industry.

Students in these centres will receive a formal programme of taught coursework to develop and enhance their technical interdisciplinary knowledge, and broaden their set of skills. Alongside this they will undertake a challenging and original research project at PhD level.

Master's student Daniel Neal and Dr Claire Barlow win prizes for sustainability research posters

Fibre from Stinging Nettles poster

A poster designed by Master's student Daniel Neal together with the Institute for Manufacturing's Dr Claire Barlow has won the £500 first prize in a competition aimed at showcasing new research ideas in sustainability. The poster, entitled 'Fibre from Stinging Nettles' presents the idea that stinging nettles can be used to produce a fine fibre that could be used as a substitute for cotton. The project looks into the benefits of using nettles in terms of the reduced resources they require, and other ways in which the whole plant can be used in order to fit in with the zero waste principles of integrated farming.

A £250 runner-up prize also went to Dr Barlow and students Daniel Neal and Wesley Zheng for their poster Buildings from Waste Paper. In collaboration with Hertfordshire based company Econovate, they are developing a building system based on Papercrete for pre-fabricated houses. Papercrete is a low-carbon version of concrete that uses low-grade waste paper that would otherwise go to landfill. Pre-fabricated housing built using Papercrete would be more affordable and its thermal insulation properties means that they would also be more eco-efficient.

The exhibition was aimed at enabling the wider public to discover what kind of sustainability research is going on in and around Cambridge, and to offer a chance for staff and students from Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University to see each others' work. It was one of a series of events in the Cambridge Consultations 'A World to Believe In' programme, which is part of the Cambridge University 800th Anniversary celebrations. The competition was held in conjunction with Cambridge Environmental Initiatives.

The other posters can be seen and downloaded from the 'A World to Believe In' website; go to the page for Events, then locate 17th-21st November, Great St Mary's - Research for a Sustainable Future Poster Day.


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