The appliance of CLRC science

February 5, 1999

Will mobile phones work when it rains? Will sleet make satellite TV unwatchable? The CLRC's Chilbolton Radar is used by a 45-strong research group to answer questions like these.

Under contract to the government's Radio Communications Agency and other organisations, including the Ministry of Defence and the European Space Agency, the group uses a massive steerable radar to look at the way weather affects radio transmission. In additon, the radar can be used to look at the microscale physics behind the ways in which clouds produce rain and snow.

Jon Eastment, senior engineer for the Chilbolton radar, says: "Because of satellite TV, the internet and other new uses, we need to know a lot more about the engineering margins needed for radio systems.

"Now we are starting to get better data and we are also doing more environmental work with British universities."

* When particle physics takes its next step forward, with the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland, it will be vital to detect every possible particle it produces.

Elwyn Baynham, leader of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's cryogenics and materials group, is in charge of the 11 metre "end cap" for one of the detectors that will do this.

The whole detector, he points out, is a mass of cryogenic magnets working about four degrees above absolute zero.

Baynham says: "Our task is to design and engineer the end cap. Then industry builds it and we test it and make sure it works."

* To make a telescope that can view heat from cool objects in space, you need a detector that is colder than they are. This is tricky when, for example, the task is to detect background radiation from the formation of the universe that is seen at just three degrees above absolute zero, especially when the detector has to run for years in space with no maintenance.

RAL space cooler expert Tom Bradshaw specialises in the construction of coolers that work by mechanical methods. They cool gas by expanding it through a series of nozzles, which eliminates the heavy coolant tanks that otherwise have to be carried into space. However, the cooling process itself uses energy, which is at a premium on spacecraft, so Bradshaw and colleagues have worked to make coolers that use under 100 watts of power.

He says: "Some of our coolers have three years on the clock, so they are very reliable. We now build them on contract for the European Space Agency and others, including commercial satellite makers. One we are working on with three cooling stages, for a satellite called Planck, ought to be able to produce a temperature only 0.1 degree above absolute zero."

* Working with the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, RAL microelectronics expert Richard Wade is one of a team that is turning particle physics technology into medical devices for tumour detection using a method called positron emission tomography.

He explains that tumours will preferentially absorb some compounds such as a radioactive form ofbarium flouride. As it decays, gamma rays are emitted that can be amplified to produce a million electrons for every decay event.This means that small tumours and secondaries can be detected and that essentiallythe whole body can be imaged in a singlesession.

At the same time, the method is so precise that it can show, for example, which part of the thyroid has stopped working because ofa cancer, allowing surgery to be planned to yield the best result for the least trauma.

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