Architecture has been borrowing from Mother Nature for millennia. The first structures were made from natural materials; wood, straw, stone and soils. Many common objects that we use today are inspired by plant life too – burdock burs inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro in 1955, and wind turbines are inspired by the fins of humpback whales!
Today, as engineers face the issues caused by climate change and high energy consumption, they are drawing on nature again to change the way we build our homes and offices.
My career in materials engineering and management has been possible through a mixture of hard work and a passion for my subject. However, there have been a few people who have made a big difference to my journey:
Unnamed woman: I met a female chartered engineer on holiday in Turkey at the age of 12. She was so enthusiastic about the application of science through engineering. She inspired me to pursue this career.
My parents: I grew up in rural Dorset as an only child. No one in my family is an engineer. They encouraged me to follow my interest in science. With their support I won a place to study mechanical engineering at Imperial College London.
Dr Sean Crofton: I failed my first year of mechanical engineering at university. Luckily, my senior tutor, Dr. Crofton, threw me a lifeline: “You passed the materials module easily” he said. “If it interests you, why not study materials instead?” I took his advice, and in doing so I found the branch of engineering where I belong.
Russian-UK Raw Materials Dialogue in St Petersburg (myself with another Imperial Materials Science student, Chimdi Igwe)
My first encounter with materials science was in a Design and Technology classroom when I was 13 years old. Tasked with designing a product that used ‘smart materials’ (materials that respond to stimuli such as pressure, heat and light), my imagination ran wild with ideas about how we could incorporate this into clothing. My friend and I came up with the concept of the ‘novel bra,’ which could grow with its wearer through puberty. We presented our design with a mini marketing campaign, explaining how the bra could alter its shape in response to changes in skin pH induced by hormones. The project ignited a spark in me to ask why materials behave the way they do.
I thought: ‘Why do glasses shatter? Why are metals strong? How can you design materials that can withstand extreme heat, e.g. in airplane turbines or rocket engines? How can you create nanoporous structures which give you ‘breathable fabrics’?’
Electronically displayed information is everywhere; smartphones, laptops, TV, advertising billboards, wearables… the list of devices we use goes on and on. These displays are mostly based on either liquid crystal (LCD) or organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology. These are great technologies, but they are not without limitations. We have all experienced the poor readability of a phone screen in sunlight and short battery life, largely due to the high power consumption of the display. Recent research has also shown that evening use of these light-emitting devices can negatively affect sleep and next-morning alertness.
So how can we design the next generation of displays to address these issues? A promising approach is to develop displays which can reflect natural ambient light or room lights to illuminate the screen, rather than using the powerful backlighting used in LCDs. Deployed in eReader devices, reflective displays provide vastly improved power consumption and outdoor readability. But this current form of reflective display technology cannot render good colour, nor deliver video rate refresh rates – a major limiting factor to wider application.
At the end of last year, creative images and video spanning tissue engineering, aircraft engines and nanotechnology won prizes in the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering 2017 ZEISS Photography Competition. Here are some of the incredible visuals that took the top prizes.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.
MIT engineers have taken a critical first step toward making that vision a reality. By embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, they induced the plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours. They believe that, with further optimization, such plants will one day be bright enough to illuminate a workspace.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.