Category Archives: Real life

Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.


Thought leadership in fusion engineering

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.

Last week I joined the search, or at least offered guidance to those searching, by publishing an article in Royal Society Open Science on ‘An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants‘.  Working with colleagues at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Richard Taylor and I have taken our earlier work on an integrated nuclear digital environment for the nuclear energy using fission [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on january 28th, 2015] and combined it with the hierarchical pyramid of testing and simulation used in the aerospace industry [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018] to create a framework that can be used to guide the exploration of large design domains using computational models within a distributed and collaborative community of engineers and scientists.  We hope it will shorten development times, reduce design and build costs, and improve credibility, operability, reliability and safety.  It is a long list of potential benefits for a relatively simple idea in a relatively short paper (only 12 pages).  Follow the link to find out more – it is an open access paper, so it’s free.


Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Patterson EA, Purdie S, Taylor RJ & Waldon C, An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants, Royal Society Open Science, 6(10):181847, 2019.

On the trustworthiness of multi-physics models

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.

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.

Coverts inspire adaptive wing design

Earlier this summer, when we were walking the South West Coastal Path [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019], we frequently saw kestrels hovering above the path ahead of us.  It is an enthralling sight watching them use the air currents around the cliffs to soar, hang and dive for prey.  Their mastery of the air looks effortless.  What you cannot see from the ground is the complex motion of their wing feathers changing the shape and texture of their wing to optimise lift and drag.  The base of their flight feathers are covered by small flexible feathers called ‘coverts’ or ‘tectrix’, which in flight reduce drag by providing a smooth surface for airflow.  However, at low speed, such as when hovering or landing, the coverts lift up and the change the shape and texture of the wing to prevent aerodynamic stalling.  In other words, the coverts help the airflow to follow the contour of the wing, or to remain attached to the wing, and thus to generate lift.  Aircraft use wing flaps on their trailing edges to achieve the same effect, i.e. to generate sufficient lift at slow speeds, but birds use a more elegant and lighter solution: coverts.  Coverts are deployed passively to mitigate stalls in lower speed flight, as in the picture.  When I was in the US last month [see ‘When upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019], one of the research reports was by Professor Aimy Wissa of the Department of Mechanical Science & Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who is working on ‘Spatially distributed passively deployable structures for stall mitigation‘ in her Bio-inspired Adaptive Morphology laboratory.  She is exploring how flaps could be placed over the surface of aircraft wings to deploy in a similar way to a bird’s covert feathers and provide enhanced lift at low speeds.  This would be useful for drones and other unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) that need to manoeuvre in confined spaces, for instance in cityscapes.

I must admit that I had occasionally noticed the waves of fluttering small feathers across the back of a bird’s wing but, until I listened to Aimy’s presentation, I had not realised their purpose; perhaps that lack of insight is why I specialised in structural mechanics rather than fluid mechanics with the result that I was worrying about the fatigue life of the wing flaps during her talk.


The picture is from a video available at Kestrel Hovering and Hunting in Cornwall by Paul Dinning.