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.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. Discoveries made by British physicists have changed the way we see the world, and are still used and celebrated today.
It is scientific legend that during one afternoon in his garden in 1666, during which Newton was sat under an apple tree, that an apple fell on his head. This led to a moment of inspiration from which he based his theory of gravity.
Gravity is an invisible force that pulls objects towards each other – anything with mass is affected by gravity – and is the reason why we don’t float off into space and why objects fall when you throw or drop them.
An illustration of Isaac Newton in 1962.
The Earth’s gravity comes from its mass, which ultimately determines your weight. As the different plants in our universe are different masses, our weight on Earth is different to what it would be on Saturn or Uranus.
Whilst Newton’s theory has since been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it remains an important breakthrough in scientific history. The apple tree that supposedly led to his theory can still be found at Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Grantham, UK.
Newton’s apple tree. Image: Martin Pettitt/Flickr
The Higgs boson
As a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, physicist Peter Higgs hypothesised that when the universe began, all particles had no mass. This changed a second later when they came into contact with a theoretical field – later named the Higgs field – and each particle gained mass.
The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it acquires and therefore the heavier it is, he postulated. The Higgs boson is a physical manifestation of the field.
A computer generated rendering of the Higgs boson.
Back in 2012, the scientific community celebrated an important discovery made by researchers at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.
After years of theorised work, they found a particle that behaved the way that the Higgs boson supposedly behaved.
The celebration was warranted, as the discovery of the Higgs boson verified the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which states that the Higgs boson gives everything in the universe its mass. It has been estimated that it cost $13.25bn to find the Higgs boson.
Inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Image: Thomas Cizauskas/Flickr
In 2013, Higgs was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Belgian researcher Franҫois Englert, ‘for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles’.
Having avoided the limelight and media since his retirement, Higgs found out about his win from an ex-neighbour on his way home as he did not have a mobile phone!
Beyond the Higgs: What’s Next for the LHC? Video: The Royal Institution
The success of British physics isn’t slowing down either. It was in Manchester that two Russian scientists discovered graphene, which has influenced a wave of new research and investment into the use of this versatile material set to be a cornerstone for the fourth Industrial Revolution.
Installing new energy infrastructure on the Isles of Scilly, UK, is a tricky proposition, given the islands’ location 28 miles off the Cornish coast, and a population of just 2,500 to share the high costs.
But an exciting new project is about to transform the islands’ energy provision, reducing energy costs and supporting clean growth, through the use of a smart energy grid.
By 2025, the Smart Islands programme aims to provide the Isles of Scilly with 40% of its electricity from renewables, cut Scillonians’ electricity bills by 40%, and revolutionise transport, with 40% of cars to be electric or low-carbon. The key to this will be an integrated smart energy system, operated by a local community energy services company and monitored through an Internet of Things platform.
In the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, published in November 2017, it was announced that the Local Growth Fund would provide £2.95m funding to the project, via the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.
The project will be led by Hitachi Europe Ltd in a public-private partnership, along with UK-based smart energy technology company Moixa, and smart energy software company PassivSystems.
Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems, explained, ‘Our scalable cloud-based energy management platform will be integrated with a range of domestic and commercial renewable technologies, allowing islanders to reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels, increase energy independence and lower their carbon footprint.
‘These technologies have the potential to significantly increase savings from solar PV systems.’
Aiming to increase the renewable capacity installed on the island by 450kW and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 897 tonnes CO2 equivalent per annum, 100 homes on the islands (a tenth of the total) will be fitted with rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, and two 50kW solar gardens will also be built.
100 homes will also get energy management systems, and 10 of them will pilot a variety of additional smart energy technologies such as smart batteries and air source heat pumps.
Chris Wright, Moixa Chief Technology Officer, said: ‘Ordinary people will play a key role in our future energy system. Home batteries and electric vehicles controlled by smart software will help create a reliable, cost-effective, low-carbon energy system that will deliver savings to homeowners and the community.
‘Our systems will support the reduction of fuel poverty on the Scilly Isles and support their path to full energy independence. They will be scalable and flexible so they can be replicated easily to allow communities all over the world to cut carbon and benefit from the smart power revolution.’
The burgeoning smart energy industry is attracting serious investment – only this week, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced it will invest up to £8.8 million in new ideas for products and services that use smart meter data to reduce energy demand in small, non-domestic buildings; while Manchester-based smart energy start-up Upside Energy this week announced it had secured £5.5m in its first round of venture capital financing to commercialise and deploy its cloud-based smart grid platform.
Smart energy covers a range of technologies intended to allow both companies and households to increase their energy efficiency. Smart meters are currently being offered by energy suppliers, with the aim of allowing energy companies to automatically manage consumer energy use to reduce bills, for example, running your washing machine when energy demand (and therefore cost) is low.
Battery technology also plays a major role in smart energy, allowing users to store renewable power and potentially even sell back into the grid as demand requires. In the Industrial Strategy, the government announced a new £80m National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility (NBMD) in Coventry, which will bring together academics and businesses to work on new forms and designs of batteries, as well as their chemistry and components.
The Isles of Scilly’s small population and remote access issues make it an interesting candidate for a smart energy project. Image: NASA, International Space Station Science
The funding for this and a further £40m investment into 27 individual battery research projects have been allocated from the £246m Faraday Challenge, which was announced in July.
The Smart Islands project promises a real-world demonstration of how a community can harness the power of the Internet of Things to maintain an efficient, inexpensive, and clean energy system.
English wine is on the rise. In 50 years, production has increased by more than three orders of magnitude, from a negligible 1,500 bottles/year to a respectable 5.3 million.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, grapes are harvested around two weeks before the traditional dates. In the Champagne region, harvest kicked off on 26 August 2017, while the average date for previous years was 10 September. In Burgoyne, home of Beaujolais wines, harvest began on 23 August, also two weeks ahead of schedule. Harvest workers in that area are also doing night shifts to reduce heat stress for the sensitive grapes.
French vineyards are struggling with the changes to traditional harvests. Image: Max Pixel
Both phenomena – the success of English wine and the earlier harvests in France – are linked to climate change. In a few decades, the favourable wine-growing conditions historically enjoyed by the Champagne region may have migrated to England.
As the life cycle of the grapevine – and therefore quality and quantity of the wine obtained – is extremely sensitive to temperature and weather extremes, wine growers have already been noticing the effects of climate change for years. Researchers have detailed how conditions have changed, how they are likely to change further, and what vineyards can do to adapt.
All agricultural products are likely to be affected by climate change at some point, but wine occupies a special position due to its high value. Therefore, wine growers have always watched the weather and its effects on their vineyards very closely, and recorded their observations.
Climate scientist Benjamin Cook from Columbia University at New York and ecologist Elizabeth Wolkovich from Harvard University, have analysed harvest data spanning more than 400 years, from 1600 to 2007, from European regions, together with the weather data.
While many studies have covered the last few decades, this one reaches back to the time before the Industrial Revolution.
Higher temperatures in spring and summer generally speed the whole process and lead to earlier harvests, like the one in 2017, while cool and rainy summers can delay the phrenology and thus the harvest time. Traditionally, the observation was that a warm summer and a period of drought just before grape picking is the best recipe for an early harvest.
Grape picking is easiest after a warm summer. Image: Pixabay
‘Our research, and other work, has clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that climate change is already affecting viticulture worldwide,’ explains Cook, adding that: ‘There are lots of opportunities for adaptation in various locations, such as planting different varieties, but the most important thing is for people to starting planning for the next several decades, when conditions are likely to get even warmer still.’
Adapt or move?
So, what could be changed? Short of pulling up Pinot Noir vines in Champagne and replanting them in Dorset, there are some steps wine-makers can take to ensure a good harvest.
The Chemistry of Wine. Video: Reactions
For instance, growers could add a few days to the ripening cycle by delaying the spring pruning, or by allowing the vines to grow higher above the ground, where the air is slightly cooler than just above the soil. While these changes are benign, other measures, such as reducing the leaf area, may have complex consequences that could interfere with the quality of the wine.
In selecting the plant material, growers could reverse the trends of the 20th Century, when it made sense to select rapidly ripening varieties. Simply by adapting the choice of variety from among the range of varieties already used in a given region to the changing climate, growers can to some extent mitigate the anticipated effects.
Alternatively, wine production could migrate closer to the poles. Wines now coming from California may be produced in Washington State, and the premium fizz we now call Champagne may one day be known as Devon or Kent.
It has been a year since Prime Minister Theresa May announced the launch of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund at CBI’s annual conference. At the time, May said the fund would ‘help to address Britain’s historic weakness on commercialisation and turning our world-leading research into long-term success’.
Since then, Innovate UK has worked closely with the government and research councils to identify the great innovation challenges the UK faces.
‘Innovate UK have been in this right from the very beginning,’ said Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, speaking at Innovate 2017. McKernan explained that the organisation has held several engagement events to find out what ‘industry and researchers see as the challenges of the future and where economic growth can be developed in the UK’.
The first three challenges sponsored by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund were announced in April this year: The Faraday challenge, medicines manufacturing, and robotics and autonomous systems.
Andrew Tyrer, Interim Director of Robotics and Autonomous Systems is now responsible for the £69m investment into research on AI in extreme conditions.
Research projects in this cohort include robotics in deep mining, space exploration, and off-shore energy. ‘One of the challenges is that you cannot put people in these environments,’ he said.
Space is just one of the dangerous environments being researched in robotics projects. Image: NASA
However, the UK does not currently have the research capacity to access the global market, Tyrer explained. For example, he said ‘the nuclear decommissioning market in five years will be at £150bn a year in Europe alone’ – a market the UK is currently struggling to make an impact.
‘The programme is about taking academic and business excellence, linking those value chains together, and building those industries,’ Tyrer said.
On the other end of the spectrum, is the Faraday Challenge – a ‘commitment’ to research into the battery development of driverless cars and an area of research the UK has already seen success in – headed by Jacqui Murray and Kathryn Magnay.
The UK have pledged to have all petrol and diesel vehicles off roads by 2040. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘Automotive has been a real success story in the UK in the last 10 years,’ said Murray, with the UK reaching ‘world-class’ in productivity levels.
However, there are ways the UK needs to improve, said Magnay. ‘In the UK we have a huge gap between the research that we do and how you scale that up in the manufacturing process,’ she said.
This is the inspiration for the upcoming £65m Faraday Battery Institute, which will serve as a hub for universities, as well as other academic institutions and industry partners, to further their science. Magnay said that Innovate UK wants to ‘provide a facility that companies and researchers can go to and take their ideas to trial them at scale’.
Will smart energy solutions be the next challenge?
Further challenges under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are currently unknown, although there are rumours of an early 2018 announcement. Which challenge will be next?