Excitement in the challenge

August 4, 1995

Engineering and Physical Sciences

All efforts to ensure that science and technology can contribute to national well-being rely for their success on one vital factor; namely the inherent excitement of research for all those involved. A key element in the motivation of the majority of academic researchers remains the intellectual challenge provided by the pursuit of the unknown.

11 = /The excitement associated with research needs to be instilled in young research students, who will form the next generation of researchers in academe, industry and elsewhere. The message to the young must, however, emphasise that industrially-related research can be as challenging and intellectually rewarding as the pursuit of pure curiosity. While it is easy to understand why young people are excited by the mysteries of the quasar and the quark, potentially applicable research in engineering and the physical sciences should be projected first as being of equal intellectual merit, and second as offering the promise of genuine change brought about as a consequence of their research.

11 = /Our universities' key role is to provide the scholastic foundation for the future, but this must be enriched where possible by imaginative and generous consideration of relevance and benefits.

11 = /It is industry and commerce that generate wealth - it is the role of our universities to generate the intellectual excitement which can be the engine of progress, not least in matters of industrial well-being. We need to provide the resources and encouragement to keep the best of the nation's academic researchers in intellectual overdrive.

So where is the excitement being generated in the physical sciences and engineering? It is possible to identify a number of particular avenues for advancement, namely: * the development of entirely new concepts * the development of new capabilities * the fusion of existing technologies * the emergence of unsuspected links * new frontiers.

11 = /In a short article it is possible only to mention a few examples of exciting university research along each of these avenues. A general observation, however, must be that in its academic engineering and science research base the United Kingdom has a national asset which is widely acclaimed, with areas of remarkable capability which keep it at the forefront of international achievement.

Commercial chemical reactions invariably use sequential stages, often in separate plants, usually with their own energy demands and pollutants. Faced with this fragmented situation, chemists are adopting entirely new approaches.

One of the newest and most exciting approaches is called cascade chemistry, in which all the steps needed to make a target chemical are carried out in just one reaction vessel. The challenge is to design each step in the process in such a way that it leads naturally, in terms of reactants and energy requirements, to the next stage (like the cascading of a sequence of waterfalls), so that the overall process has a high yield, uses minimum energy, and produces little waste.

Research in mathematics is providing new ways of addressing real-life problems. Entirely new and unexpected developments have arisen in areas using chaos theory, non-linear mathematics, and fuzzy logic. Although the idea of driving a dynamical system with a periodic signal is commonplace, it is unexpected but nevertheless true that the use of white noise in non-linear dynamical systems can seem to produce greater order.

Control systems used to be based on traditional logic ("is the proposition true or false"); now increasingly they use fuzzy logic (where an answer can be "neither completely true nor completely false", and can still be modelled through mathematical rules). Fuzzy logic is now being used with another triumph of mathematical ingenuity - namely the understanding of neural nets. A neural net is a system which learns from experience, the theory drawing from the behaviour of the brain. Never before have fundamental advances in mathematics been so closely linked with technological advances.

A computer vision system called PRISM can assist in the early detection of breast cancer. It is based on a measuring device developed for a completely different purpose - namely to analyse pictures of the night sky for astronomical measurements. The new approach is to use the device to digitise X-ray pictures of routine mammograms.

11 = /The research challenge is to develop image processing algorithms in order to detect, with acceptable certainty, the key abnormalities which might indicate malignancy. PRISM is just one example of the increasing number of cases where an instrument developed for one purpose can be modified for an unforeseen application.

11 = /The most startling impact of a new capability comes from the power of high-performance computers, linked by high-speed networks. In many areas computer simulation has now been developed to the point where the experimental testing of models can become redundant. Supercomputers provide just one capability in the "tool kit" necessary for world-leading research. Other tools include intense sources of X-rays and of neutrons to probe the structure of matter, and high-power lasers.

The underlying element in many sectors of future technology is the integration of previously separate components and processes, as well as separate research disciplines.

11 = /A few examples are the integration of sensor components (including biosensors) into their controlling systems; the better design of intelligent machines and systems to manage the human/machine interface; the application of modern manufacturing and design principles to the processing industries; the integration of mechanical and molecular elements in the rapidly developing areas of nanotechnology and micromechanics; and "self-assembly" as a means of building complex and useful materials and components from molecular building blocks.

11 = /The most pervasive of the generic technologies is arguably information technology. IT is revolutionising our way of working, our way of studying, our way of communicating. There are few aspects of our daily lives that have not been impacted by the information revolution and this pervasiveness will grow in expected and unexpected ways. Exciting research is being undertaken in such fields as multimedia, telepresence (including, for example, tele-health for remote diagnosis and monitoring), and in the use of virtual reality.

Optoelectronics is one of many fields of research that have had their origins in the UK; and although the focus of application moved to the United States and Far East, a substantial research capability remains here. Light can carry more information more quickly than electrons, with the added advantage that, unlike electrons, photons do not interact with each other and so many laser beams can cross the same space. Opto-electronics has revolutionised communications; it may now be set to revolutionise computing with optics being integrated with electronics using silicon and compound semiconductor technology. Optical computers have the advantage of not needing masses of wiring, as well as power and speed advantages; although there are a myriad of research challenges to be overcome before our friendly PCs go optical.

A traditional frustration for an engineer was that the properties of available materials were rarely the best match to a particular need. Now the particular need can be specified, and a customised material developed. Nowhere is this new approach better illustrated than in the field of biomaterials, where structures are now available which can mimic the properties of natural tissue. Artificial bone is free from the possible contamination of bone transplants, it can fuse with existing live tissue forming a better joint, and it is longer-wearing than the materials that were previously used, for example, for joint replacements.

Micro-machining of materials is producing some fascinating advances. In the new field of nanotechnology, lithographic etching with a precision better than one thousandth the diameter of a human hair (a technique developed in the micro-electronics industry) is producing miniaturised devices for a range of applications such as micro-surgery, smart capsules for controlled drug release, miniature sensors, and so forth. A fascinating discovery is the preferential growth of living tissue along silicon microstructures holding out the promise of a natural interface being developed between the power of silicon-based micro-electronics and living systems.

Physicists investigating the structure of nuclei have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the nuclei of atoms can adopt extremely complex configurations - including bizarre arrangements where clusters of nucleons are strung out like peas in a pod. The conventional picture of nuclear structure was based on a shell model, in which nucleons occupied stable spherical shells. The new evidence of complex structure requires the development of new theories, which are in turn leading to a new understanding of radioactivity and how heavy elements were created in the cores of stars.

Physicists have shown a remarkable ability to push back the frontiers of understanding by developing techniques which are then widely applied across a range of science and engineering disciplines. X-ray crystallography, electron spin resonance, nuclear magnetic resonance, and atomic force spectroscoy have grown from curiosities developed by physicists to become powerful research tools used by researchers from many disciplines.

11 = /Now physicists are opening new frontiers of understanding by conducting experiments at extremes of magnetic field, pressure, and temperature. The application of experimentally accessible pressures can alter the density of solids by factors of at least 2 to 3, and thus bring about dramatic changes in structure and properties. The enormous potential of such research for developing ultra-hard materials for special applications and robust electronic devices is already recognised.

11 = /The above examples confirm the view that the final years of the millennium offer dramatic opportunities for academic researchers. They can, however, only provide a faint flavour of the rich feast of research on offer in UK universities.

The impact of research on national well-being has never been greater, and it is a recognised goal of national policy to support our top research scientists and engineers in their exciting endeavours.

Professor Richard Brook is chief executive and Dr David Clark is director of planning and communication of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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