The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress. It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs. However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater. The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before. Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present. In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch. Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen. Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it. Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.
I stayed in Sheffield city centre a few weeks ago and walked past the standard measures in the photograph on my way to speak at a workshop. In the past, when the cutlery and tool-making industry in Sheffield was focussed around small workshops, or little mesters, as they were known, these standards would have been used to check the tools being manufactured. A few hundred years later, the range of standards in existence has extended far beyond the weights and measures where it started, and now includes standards for processes and artefacts as well as for measurements. The process of validating computational models of engineering infrastructure is moving slowly towards establishing an internationally recognised standard [see two of my earliest posts: ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012 and ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014]. We have guidelines that recommend approaches for different parts of the validation process [see ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014]; however, many types of computational model present significant challenges when establishing their reliability [see ‘Spatial-temporal models of protein structures‘ on March 27th, 2019]. Under the auspices of the MOTIVATE project, we are gathering experts in Zurich on November 5th, 2019 to discuss the challenges of validating multi-physics models, establishing credibility and the future use of data from experiments. It is the fourth in a series of workshops held previously in Shanghai, London and Munich. For more information and to register follow this link. Come and join our discussions in one of my favourite cities where we will be following ‘In Einstein’s footprints‘ [posted on February 27th, 2019].
The MOTIVATE project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 754660.
I had slightly surreal time last week. I visited the USA to attend a review of a research programme sponsored by the US Government and reported on two of our research projects. When I arrived in the USA on Monday evening, I went to collect my rental car and was told that I had been upgraded to a pick-up truck because the rental company did not have left any of the compact cars that had been booked for me. I gingerly manoeuvred the massive vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma, out of the parking garage and on to the freeway. I should admit to having owned a large SUV when we lived in the USA and so driving along the freeway was not a totally new experience, except that the white bonnet in front of me seemed huge.
The following morning, I drove to the location of the review and strategically selected a parking space with empty spaces all around it so that I could drive through into the space and avoid needing to reverse the behemoth. As I was walking across the parking lot, someone accosted me and said: ‘Nice truck, how do you like it?’ Embarrassed at driving such an environmental-unfriendly vehicle, I responded that it was a rental car that I just picked up. To which he replied that the best protection against my Tacoma, was his Tacoma. And, that it was his dream car. Then, I noticed that he had parked his black one alongside mine.
Our children learnt to drive in our ancient Ford Explorer and loved it. We all knew that it was wrong to drive something that consumed fuel so voraciously even if it did get us effortlessly through the most horrendous winter storms. However, we have left all that behind and now either use public transport or drive cars that achieve 60 mpg or more on good days. But here I was being admitted to a club that worshipped their pick-up trucks.
We walked together into the review which was held in a small lecture theatre equipped with comfortable armchairs, which was just as well because we sat there from 8.30 to 4.30 for two days listening to half-hour presentations with only short breaks. We were presented with some stunning research based on brilliant innovative thinking, such as materials that can undergo 90% deformation and fully recover their shape and how the rippling motion of covert feathers on a bird’s wings could help us design more efficient aeroplanes. More on that in later posts. Of course, there were some less good presentations that had many us reaching for our mobile phones to catch up on the endless flow of email [see: ‘Compelling Presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018). At the end of each day, we dispersed to different hotels scattered across town in our rental cars. On Thursday, I drove back to the airport and topped up the fuel tank before returning my truck. I worked out that it had achieved only 19 mpg (US) or 23 mpg (UK), despite my gentle driving – that’s almost three times the consumption of my own car! On the plane home I started reading ‘Overstory‘ by Richard Powers, a novel about our relationship to trees and the damage we are doing to the environment on which trees, and us, are dependent.
Six months ago, I wrote about ‘Finding DIMES’ as we kicked off a new EU-funded project to develop an integrated measurement system for identifying and tracking damage in aircraft structures. We are already a quarter of the way through the project and we have a concept design for a modular measurement system based on commercial off-the-shelf components. We started from the position of wanting our system to provide answers to four of the five questions that Farrar & Worden  posed for structural health monitoring systems in 2007; and, in addition to provide information to answer the fifth question. The five questions are: Is there damage? Where is the damage? What kind of damage is present? How severe is the damage? And, how much useful life remains?
During the last six months our problem definition has evolved through discussions with our EU Topic Manager, Airbus, to four objectives, namely: to quantify applied loads; to provide condition-led/predictive maintenance; to find indications of damage in composites of 6mm diameter or greater and in metal to detect cracks longer than 1mm; and to provide a digital solution. At first glance there may not appear to be much connection between the initial problem definition and the current version; but actually, they are not very far apart although the current version is more specific. This evolution from the idealised vision to the practical goal is normal in engineering projects.
We plan to use point sensors, such as resistance strain gauges or fibre Bragg gratings, to quantify applied loads and track usage history; while imaging sensors will allow us to measure strain fields that will provide information about the changing condition of the structure using the image decomposition techniques developed in previous EU-funded projects: ADVISE, VANESSA (see ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014) and INSTRUCTIVE. We will use these techniques to identify and track cracks in metals ; while for composites, we will apply a technique developed through an EPSRC iCASE award from 2012-16 on ‘Full-field strain-based methods for NDT & structural integrity measurement’ .
I gave a short briefing on DIMES to a group of Airbus engineers last month and it was good see some excitement in the room about the direction of the project. And, it felt good to be highlighting how we are building on earlier investments in research by joining the dots to create a deployable measurement system and delivering the complete picture in terms of information about the condition of the structure.
Image: Infra red photograph of DIMES meeting in Ulm.
The INSTRUCTIVE and DIMES projects have received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreements No. 685777 and No. 820951 respectively.
The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.