Tag Archives: mechanics

Assessing nanoparticle populations in historic nuclear waste

Together with colleagues at the JRC Ispra, my research group has shown that the motion of small nanoparticles at low concentrations is independent of their size, density and material [1], [see ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017].  This means that commercially-available instruments for evaluating the size and number of nanoparticles in a solution will give erroneous results under certain conditions.  In a proposed PhD project, we are planning to extend our work to develop an instrument with capability to automatically identify and size nanoparticles, in the range from 1 to 150 nanometres, using the three-dimensional optical signature, or caustic, which particles generate in an optical microscope, that can be several orders of magnitude larger than the particle [2],  [see ‘Toxic nanoparticles?‘ on November 13th, 2013].  The motivation for the work is the need to characterise particles present in solution in legacy ponds at Sellafield.  Legacy ponds at the Sellafield site have been used to store historic radioactive waste for decades and progress is being made in reducing the risks associated with these facilities [3].  Over time, there has been a deterioration in the condition of the ponds and their contents that has resulted in particles being present in solution in the ponds.  It is important to characterise these particles in order to facilitate reductions in the risks associated with the ponds.  We plan to use our existing facilities at the University of Liverpool to develop a novel instrument using simple solutions probably with gold nanoparticles and then to progress to non-radioactive simulants of the pond solutions.  The long-term goal will be to transition the technology to the Sellafield site perhaps with an intermediate step involving a demonstration of  the technology on pond solutions using the facilities of the National Nuclear Laboratory.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.


[1] Coglitore, D., Edwardson, S.P., Macko, P., Patterson, E.A., & Whelan, M.P., Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids, Royal Society Open Science, 4:170507, 2017.

[2] Patterson, E.A., Whelan, P., 2008, ‘Optical signatures of small nanoparticles in a conventional microscopeSmall, 4(10):1703-1706.

[3] Comptroller and Auditor General, The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: progress with reducing risk at Sellafield, National Audit Office, HC 1126, Session 2017-19, 20 June 2018.

Crack tip plasticity in reactor steels

Amplitude of temperature in steel due to a cyclic load with a crack growing from left to right along the horizontal centre line with the stress concentration at its tip exhibiting the peak values. The wedge shapes in the left corners are part of the system.

At this time of year the flow into my inbox is augmented daily by prospective PhD students sending me long emails describing how their skills, qualifications and interests perfectly match the needs of my research group, or sometimes someone else’s group if they have not been careful in setting up their mass mailing.  At the moment, I have four PhD projects for which I am looking for outstanding students; so, because it will help prospective students and might interest my other readers but also because I am short of ideas for the blog, I plan to describe one project per week for the next month.

The first project is about the effect of hydrogen on crack tip plasticity in reactor steels.  Fatigue cracks grow in steels by coalescing imperfections in the microstructure of the material until small voids are formed in areas of high stress.  When these voids connect together a crack is formed.  Repeated loading and unloading of the material provides the energy to move the imperfections, known as dislocations, and geometric features in structures are stress concentrators which focus this energy causing cracks to be formed in their vicinity.  The movement of dislocations causes permanent, or plastic deformation of the material.  The sharp geometry of a crack tip becomes a stress concentrator creating a plastic zone in which dislocations pile up and voids form allowing the crack to extend [see post on ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on April 26th, 2017].  It is possible to detect the thermal energy released during plastic deformation using a technique known as thermoelastic stress analysis [see ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th 2015] as well as to measure the stress field associated with the propagating crack [1].  One of my current PhD students has been using this technique to investigate the effect of irradiation damage on the growth of cracks in stainless steel used in nuclear reactors.  We use an ion accelerator at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility to introduce radiation damage into specimens the size of a postage stamp and afterwards apply cyclic loads and watch the fatigue crack grow using our sensitive infra-red cameras.  We have found that the irradiation reduced the rate of crack growth and we will be publishing a paper on it shortly [and a PhD thesis].  In the new project, our industrial sponsors want us to explore the effect of hydrogen on crack growth in irradiated steel, because the presence of hydrogen is known to accelerate fatigue crack growth [2] which is believe to happen as a result of hydrogen atoms disrupting the formation of dislocations at the microscale and localising plasticity at crack tip on the mesoscale.  However, these ideas have not been demonstrated in experiments, so we plan to do this using thermoelastic stress analysis and to investigate the combined influence of hydrogen and irradiation by developing a process for pre-charging the steel specimens with hydrogen using an electrolytic cell and irradiating them using the ion accelerator.  Both hydrogen and radiation are present in a nuclear reactor and hence the results will be relevant to predicting the safe working life of nuclear reactors.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.


  1. Yang, Y., Crimp, M., Tomlinson, R.A., Patterson, E.A., 2012, Quantitative measurement of plastic strain field at a fatigue crack tip, Proc. R. Soc. A., 468(2144):2399-2415.
  2. Matsunaga, H., Takakuwa, O., Yamabe, J., & Matsuoka, S., 2017, Hydrogen-enhanced fatigue crack growth in steels and its frequency dependence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 375(2098), 20160412

In Einstein’s footprints?

Grand Hall of the Guild of Carpenters, Zurich

During the past week, I have been working with members of my research group on a series of papers for a conference in the USA that a small group of us will be attending in the summer.  Dissemination is an important step in the research process; there is no point in doing the research if we lock the results away in a desk drawer and forget about them.  Nowadays, the funding organisations that support our research expect to see a plan of dissemination as part of our proposals for research; and hence, we have an obligation to present our results to the scientific community as well as to communicate them more widely, for instance through this blog.

That’s all fine; but nevertheless, I don’t find most conferences a worthwhile experience.  Often, there are too many uncoordinated sessions running in parallel that contain presentations describing tiny steps forward in knowledge and understanding which fail to compel your attention [see ‘Compelling presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018].  Of course, they can provide an opportunity to network, especially for those researchers in the early stages of their careers; but, in my experience, they are rarely the location for serious intellectual discussion or debate.  This is more likely to happen in small workshops focussed on a ‘hot-topic’ and with a carefully selected eclectic mix of speakers interspersed with chaired discussion sessions.

I have been involved in organising a number of such workshops in Glasgow, London, Munich and Shanghai over the last decade.  The next one will be in Zurich in November 2019 in Guild Hall of Carpenters (Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten) where Einstein lectured in November 1910 to the Zurich Physical Society ‘On Boltzmann’s principle and some of its direct consequences‘.  Our subject will be different: ‘Validation of Computational Mechanics Models’; but we hope that the debate on credible models, multi-physics simulations and surviving with experimental data will be as lively as in 1910.  If you would like to contribute then download the pdf from this link; and if you just like to attend the one-day workshop then we will be announcing registration soon and there is no charge!

We have published the outcomes from some of our previous workshops:

Advances in Validation of Computational Mechanics Models (from the 2014 workshop in Munich), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 51, no.1, 2016

Strain Measurement in Extreme Environments (from the 2012 workshop in Glasgow), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 49, no. 4, 2014.

Validation of Computational Solid Mechanics Models (from the 2011 workshop in Shanghai), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 48, no.1, 2013.

The workshop is supported by the MOTIVATE project and further details are available at http://www.engineeringvalidation.org/4th-workshop

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.

Finding DIMES

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘INSTRUCTIVE final reckoning’ (see post on January 9th).  INSTRUCTIVE was an EU project, which ended on December 31st, 2018  in which we demonstrated that infra-red cameras could be used to monitor the initiation and propagation of cracks in aircraft structures (see Middleton et al, 2019).  Now, we have seamlessly moved on to a new EU project, called DIMES (Development of Integrated MEasurement Systems), which started on January 1st, 2019.  To quote our EU documentation, the overall aim of DIMES is ‘to develop and demonstrate an automated measurement system that integrates a range of measurement approaches to enable damage and cracks to be detected and monitored as they originate at multi-material interfaces in an aircraft assembly’.  In simpler terms, we are going to take the results from the INSTRUCTIVE project, integrate them with other existing technologies for monitoring the structural health of an aircraft, and produce a system that can be installed in an aircraft fuselage and will provide early warning on the formation of cracks.  We have two years to achieve this target and demonstrate the system in a ground-based test on a real fuselage at an Airbus facility.  This was a scary prospect until we had our kick-off meeting and a follow-up brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago.  Now, it’s a little less scary.  If I have scared you with the prospect of cracks in aircraft, then do not be alarmed; we have been flying aircraft with cracks in them for years.  It is impossible to build an aircraft without cracks appearing, possibly during manufacturing and certainly in service – perfection (i.e. cracklessness) is unattainable and instead the stresses are maintained low enough to ensure undetected cracks will not grow (see ‘Alan Arnold Griffith’ on April 26th, 2017) and that detected ones are repaired before they propagate significantly (see ‘Aircraft inspection’ on October 10th, 2018).

I should explain that the ‘we’ above is the University of Liverpool and Strain Solutions Limited, who were the partners in INSTRUCTIVE, plus EMPA, the Swiss National Materials Laboratory, and Dantec Dynamics GmbH, a producer of scientific instruments in Ulm, Germany.  I am already working with these latter two organisations in the EU project MOTIVATE; so, we are a close-knit team who know and trust each other  – that’s one of the keys to successful collaborations tackling ambitious challenges with game-changing outcomes.

So how might the outcomes of DIMES be game-changing?  Well, at the moment, aircraft are designed using computer models that are comprehensively validated using measurement data from a large number of expensive experiments.  The MOTIVATE project is about reducing the number of experiments and increasing the quality and quantity of information gained from each experiment, i.e. ‘Getting Smarter’ (see post on June 21st 2017).  However, if the measurement system developed in DIMES allowed us to monitor in-flight strain fields in critical locations on-board an aircraft, then we would have high quality data to support future design work, which would allow further reductions in the campaign of experiments required to support new designs; and we would have continuous comprehensive monitoring of the structural integrity of every aircraft in the fleet, which would allow more efficient planning of maintenance as well as increased safety margins, or reductions in structural weight while maintaining safety margins.  This would be a significant step towards digital twins of aircraft (see ‘Fourth industrial revolution’ on July 4th, 2018 and ‘Can you trust your digital twin?’ on November 23rd, 2016).

The INSTRUCTIVE, MOTIVATE 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, No. 754660 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.


Middleton CA, Gaio A, Greene RJ & Patterson EA, Towards automated tracking of initiation and propagation of cracks in Aluminium alloy coupons using thermoelastic stress analysis, J. Non-destructive Testing, 38:18, 2019