'Fourth-stream research is vital but difficult'

April 2, 2004

Blue skies or blue chip - which way should research go? Claire Sanders reports

Minoo Patel, head of the School of Engineering, is keen to define and illustrate what Cranfield University means by strategic or "fourth-stream" research.

"It is vital yet extremely difficult to do," he said. "With traditional blue-skies research, you do not have to come up with a solution that works - a theory or greater understanding is often the only outcome.

"While such blue-skies work is important, strategic research is more important to the UK's economic health. It requires the researcher to come up with novel and usable solutions to research problems. Without this, the original investment in blue-skies work is often wasted or does not benefit the UK."

A team headed by Paul Ivey at the School of Engineering has just completed the commissioning of two interlinked icing wind tunnels. The first was developed with £1.3 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Professor Patel said: "Cracking the problem of a fundamental theoretical understanding of icing on aircraft and engines will be a breakthrough and will put the UK on equal footing with the US in this field." It is a classic example of "science in action", he said.

The research involves large-scale testing of aircraft icing combined with theoretical investigation - in collaboration with University College London - into the exact way in which water droplets freeze. The aim is to come up with a full understanding of the icing phenomenon, which will also benefit industry.

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