Inside the hangars of a Second World War airfield just south of Swindon sit a host of curious objects, from Daleks to a collection of royal carriages and a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia. It is probably the last place you would expect to find these treasures, which belong to the Science Museum. But the museum group has been storing big items at the former site of RAF Wroughton since it took ownership of the airfield in 1979, and the site also hosts its archives and library.
Searching for low-energy ways to store some of these items in conditions that protect against deterioration brought the Science Museum into contact with Mike Lawrence, a lecturer in low-carbon design at the University of Bath. About two years ago, Dr Lawrence worked on a project with the Science Museum to develop a building material that regulates humidity, which is now in use inside one of the hangars.
The collaboration took an unusual turn when Dr Lawrence began talking to the museum about his desire for a space where he could research full-scale buildings. He wanted the chance to create an open-air laboratory that could be used to test building materials. The Science Museum Group offered to lease him 1ha of the 220ha airfield for a peppercorn rent.
Dr Lawrence approached the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for funding for the project, and it granted him almost £1 million. The Hive, as it is known, will be officially launched by the university’s chancellor, the Earl of Wessex, on 25 September.
It comprises a framework of cube-like “test cells”, each measuring 4×4×3m. Five of the six faces of each cell are sealed, with the remaining one sitting on an outside edge of the building. Researchers can then use different building materials on the sixth face and measure their performance under different weather conditions, because the rest of the environment is controlled.
“It is all very well understanding how things perform in a laboratory, but when you take them up to full scale they perform differently,” Dr Lawrence explained. The set-up will allow researchers and industry bodies to determine the acoustic effect of double versus triple glazing, for example, or see how different materials respond to flooding.
In addition to the Hive, Dr Lawrence also has the relevant permissions to construct 16 small buildings (125m3 each) that researchers can build and demolish over and over again. The whole set-up is known as the Building Research Park, and Dr Lawrence, who noted that it is the first of its kind in the UK, is its director.
“The whole point about this park is that…you start on day one rather than wasting the first six months, or even longer, of your research project trying to find somewhere to put your building, getting planning permission and trying to get through building control,” he said.
The park is currently being used to study a low-environmental impact construction system as part of an EU-funded project that involves a research institute in Spain, and an insulation company is also testing at the site.
Bath’s deputy vice-chancellor, Kevin Edge, said that although Bath has a focus on fundamental research, it also has applications in mind.
“We are very well funded through research councils for fundamental research, but the Hive is an example of both fundamental and applied research that is very significantly supported by the EPSRC,” Professor Edge said, adding that this is a clear reflection that the research council is keen for universities to collaborate with industry.
He explained that business links are coming into “sharper focus” for universities as a consequence of the impact case studies portion of the research excellence framework. “Research-intensive universities in particular are paying close attention to this,” he observed.
The Building Research Park is just one high-profile industry-engaged activity that the university is involved in. It also has a 30-year-old partnership with the Ford Motor Company. “Engine development is something that has been of particular interest to us for a number of years and the fundamental research work that we are doing here is very much valued by Ford,” Professor Edge said.
The university has just been awarded £2 million from the EPSRC to fund equipment to establish a centre of excellence in low-emission vehicle research.
Bath’s relationship with the Science Museum Group continues to expand. Dr Lawrence supervises a conservation officer, employed by the Science Museum, who is pursuing a PhD. The work involves developing a low-energy system for a large centralised store of artefacts at Wroughton, which could be considered for a REF impact case study in the years ahead.
£2m EPSRC funding for a new centre of excellence in low-emission vehicle research
A vice-principal has completed a coast-to-coast challenge by cycling, kayaking and swimming more than 120 miles. Steve Olivier, from Abertay University, crossed Scotland by roads, rivers and lochs to raise funds to support student sport at the institution. He has a target of raising £3,000 to help send an elite student athlete abroad for expert coaching, study and training.
University of Sheffield
An exhibition of sculptures inspired by bioengineering research has opened. All the works in the show, at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, were created by Kate Sully, artist-in-residence at the University of Sheffield’s Kroto Research Institute. One of her works, Illuminate 1 & 2, comprises a pair of eyes and was inspired by the development of a polymer disc that can be loaded with stem cells and inserted into the eye to mend damaged corneas.
A simple colour test that could detect the early onset of a condition that is the primary cause of visual impairment in the UK is being researched at a Midlands institution. A team at Aston University will study whether neovascular age-related macular degeneration can be identified before patients begin showing symptoms of the disease. People who struggle to recognise differences between colours and shades of colours are thought to be at risk of developing the condition.
University of Bristol
A PhD student in Classics is using sewing to create a visual translation of Homer’s Iliad. Silvie Kilgallon, of the University of Bristol, will embroider all 24 chapters of the epic poem. Each letter of the text will be represented by an individual stitch in a designated colour. In the first book, each letter is a different shade of red; with each new chapter, a shade of red will be replaced by a shade of blue. Ms Kilgallon is creating the piece in public and blogging about her progress.
University of Aberdeen
A bronze bust of a university principal who led a Scottish institution for 14 years has been unveiled at the library that now bears his name. The bust of Sir Duncan Rice, who was principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen from 1996 to 2010, was created by Scottish portrait sculptor Alexander Stoddart, “Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland”. It has been placed in the atrium of the Sir Duncan Rice Library, which was opened two years ago.
University of Leicester
Scientists are developing an “electronic nose” to help sniff out highly infectious bacteria that can cause serious gastrointestinal illnesses. A team of chemists and microbiologists at the University of Leicester used a mass spectrometer to identify the unique chemical signatures of various strains of Clostridium difficile, which causes diarrhoea, a high temperature and stomach cramps. It could lead to quicker diagnosis of infections in healthcare facilities and better tailored treatments for patients.
University of Oxford
Electronic music artist Goldie has “mashed up” a recently discovered piece of medieval music with the help of an academic. A fellow at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Music worked with the DJ to create a new work that uses sampling, electronic manipulation and a medieval chant. It takes its inspiration from a fragment of a medieval manuscript found on the Scottish borders in 2009, which was reconstructed by lecturer Matthew Cheung Salisbury.
Brunel University London, Royal Holloway, University of London and University of Glasgow
The French remain relaxed about politicians’ sexual morality, a study has found. Researchers from Brunel University London, Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of Glasgow interviewed voters and found that they distinguished between “public” and “private” misconduct: misuse of public funds was condemned but politicians’ extramarital affairs were tolerated. The British Academy-supported research confirms anecdotal evidence about France’s acceptance of politicians’ liaisons, such as President François Hollande’s recent affair with the actress Julie Gayet.