For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. British scientists, engineers and inventors have played a significant role in developing engines and the automotive industry that stemmed from them.
Before the internal combustion engine, steam power was revolutionary in progressing industry in Britain.
The first practical steam engine was designed by English inventor Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and was later adapted by Scotsman James Watt in 1765. Watt’s steam engine was the first to make use of steam at an above atmospheric pressure.
The Steam Engine - How Does It Work? Video: Real Engineering
In 1804, the first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made by a steam locomotive design by Richard Trevithick, an inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, UK.
After this, steam trains took off and the steam engine was used in many ways such as powering the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843.
The SS Great Britain in Bristol, UK, today.
Engines at the ready
The conception and refinement of the internal combustion engine involved many inventors from around the world, including British ones.
The automobile, using the internal combustion engine, was been invented in the United States, and Britain picked up on this emerging industry very quickly. These brands are among the most famous and abundant cars on the road today; Aston Martin, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce may come to mind.
By the 1950s, the UK was the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the United States) and the largest exporter.
In 1930, the jet engine was patented by Sr Frank Whittle. He was an aviation engineer and pilot who started his career as an apprentice in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The jet engine became critical after the outbreak of World War II.
Great Britain are still major players in the aviation industry, and engineering innovations continue to be a major part of the British economy. British inventors have gone on to invent the hovercraft, hundreds of different jet designs and a variety of military vehicles.
Spaceflight is a high-risk business. Spacecraft break down all the time and when that happens funding and careers evaporate. Back in the late 1960s, NASA decided to double the odds of success and send two spacecraft on one mission. Voyagers 1 and 2, for example, were the spacecraft that returned the first detailed pictures of the outer planets of our solar system and introduced us to the neighbourhood. Launched in 1977, both are still flying.
Any spacecraft must have three components: a payload, an engine and a fuel supply – by far the heaviest component. But what if we could do away with the onboard fuel supply and replace it with an external fuel supply? Say light itself?
Can you push a spacecraft with light? Video: Physics Girl
The idea of solar sail technology has been floating around for decades. Indeed, the notion of a solar pressure can be traced back to 1610 in a letter that Johannes Kepler wrote to Galileo.
But it was only in the 20th century that solar sails began to be considered as an achievable engineering reality. Broadly, solar sails fall into two categories: those using light from natural sources – the sun and ambient starlight in space; and those using coherent light from lasers.
A huge challenge faced in the pursuit of a mission to Mars is space radiation, which is known to cause several damaging diseases – from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.
And soon, these problems will not just be exclusive to astronauts. Speculation over whether space tourism is viable is becoming a reality, with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights already planned for the near future. The former reportedly sold tickets for US$250,000.
But could questions over the health risks posed hinder these plans?
What is space radiation?
In space, particle radiation includes all the elements on the periodic table, each travelling at the speed of light, leading to a high impact and violent collisions with the nuclei of human tissues.
The type of radiation you would endure in space is also is different to that you would experience terrestrially. On Earth, radiation from the sun and space is absorbed by the atmosphere, but there is no similar protection for astronauts in orbit. In fact, the most common form of radiation here is electrochemical – think of the X-rays used in hospitals.
The sun is just one source of radiation astronauts face in space. Image: Pixabay
On the space station – situated within the Earth’s magnetic field – astronauts experience ten times the radiation that naturally occurs on Earth. The station’s position in the protective atmosphere means that astronauts are in far less danger compared with those travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.
Currently, NASA’s Human Research Program is looking at the consequences of an astronaut’s exposure to space radiation, as data on the effects is limited by the few subjects over a short timeline of travel.
Radiation poses one of the biggest problems for space exploration. Video: NASA
However, lining the spacecraft with heavy materials to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the body isn’t as easy as a solution as it is seems.
‘NASA doesn’t want to use heavy materials like lead for shielding spacecraft because the incoming space radiation will suffer many nuclear collisions with the shielding, leading to the production of additional secondary radiation,’ says Tony Slaba, a research physicist at NASA. ‘The combination of the incoming space radiation and secondary radiation can make the exposure worse for astronauts.’
As heavy materials cannot hamper the effects of radiation, researchers have turned to a more light-weight solution: plastics. One element – hydrogen – is well recognised for its ability to block radiation, and is present in polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.
A thick dust cloud called the Dark Rift blocks the view of the Milky Way. Image: NASA
Engineers have developed plastic-filled tiles, that can be made using astronauts rubbish, to create an extra layer of radiation protection. Water, which is already an essential for space flight, can be stored alongside these tiles to create a ‘radiation storm shelter’ in the spacecraft.
But research is still required. Plastic is not a strong material and cannot be used as a building component of spacecrafts.
Platinum is one of the most valuable metals in the world. Precious and pretty, it’s probably best known for jewelry – and that is almost certainly its oldest use. But its value has become far greater than its decorative ability; today, platinum powers the world. From agriculture to the oil markets, energy to healthcare, we use platinum far more than we realise.
1. Keep the car running
Platinum is needed to make fuel for transport. Image: Pixabay
Platinum catalysts are crucial in the process that converts naphtha into petrol, diesel, and jet-engine fuel, which are all vital to the global economy. The emissions from those petroleum fuels, however, can be toxic, and platinum is also crucial in the worldwide push to reduce them through automotive catalytic converters. In fact, 2% of global platinum use in 2016 was in converting petroleum and 41% went into reducing emissions – a circle of platinum use that’s more impressive than a ring.
2. Feed the world
Nitric acid is a by-product of platinum which is used in fertilisers. Image: Pixabay
Another vital global sector that makes use of platinum catalysts is agriculture. Without synthetic fertilisers, we would not be able to produce nearly as much food as we need. Nitric acid is essential for producing those fertilisers and platinum is essential for producing nitric acid. Since 90% of the gauzes required for nitric acid are platinum, we may need to use more of it as we try to meet the global food challenge.
3. Good for your health
A pacemaker. Image: Steven Fruitsmaak@Wikimedia Commons
Platinum is extremely hard wearing, non-corrosive, and highly biocompatible, making it an excellent material to protect medical implants from acid corrosion in the human body. It is commonly used in pacemakers and stents. It is also used in chemotherapy, where platinum-based chemotherapeutic agents are used to treat up to 50% of cancer patients.
4. The fuel is clean
In addition to powering the cars of the present and reducing their environmental impact, platinum might well be crucial to the future of transport in the form of fuel cells. Platinum catalysts convert hydrogen and oxygen into clean energy, with water the only by-product.
5. Rags to riches
The Spaniards invaded the Inca Empire, South America, in 1532. Painted by Juan B Lepiani. Image: MALI@Wikimedia Commons
Amazingly, despite all this, platinum was once considered worthless - at least in Europe. In fact, it was considered a nuisance by the Spanish when they first discovered it in South America - as a corruption in the alluvial deposits they were earnestly mining and they would quite literally throw it away. It wasn’t until the 1780s that the Spanish realised it might have some value.
Because platinum is essential to so many aspects of our economy, there are concerns about supply meeting demand – particularly as nearly 80% is currently mined in South Africa, which has seen its mining industry repeatedly crippled by strikes in recent years.
Two Rivers platinum mine, South Africa. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Some believe the solution to the issue of supply is space mining, arguing the metal could be found in asteroids.
Others, such as researchers at MIT, are working to create synthetic platinum, using more commonly found materials. Neither approach is guaranteed to work but, given our increasing dependence on this precious metal, we could be more reliant on their success than we realise.