Tag Archives: science

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.

Engineering as the very spirit and soul of your existence

I wrote some weeks ago about art challenging the way we think and artists being spokespeople for society [see ‘Spokesperson for society’ on August 28th, 2019] and also about ‘Taking a sketch instead of snapping a photo’ [on September 3rd, 2019].  My photo of the sketch taken by Rennie Mackintosh was snapped at an exhibition in Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; and, on the wall of the gallery was a quote from Rennie Mackintosh: ‘All artists know that pleasure derivable from their work is their life’s pleasure – the very spirit and soul of their existence’.  I feel the same way about my work as an engineer and I think that many of my colleagues would agree with me.  In my welcome talk to new engineering undergraduate students last week, I used this quote and tried to convey the extent to which science and engineering is a part of my existence and how I hoped it would become a part of their life.  I am not sure that I convinced very many of them.

Photograph taken on 17th August 2019 by the author at the Rennie Mackintosh Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Engineering correspondents needed

Society’s perception  of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong.  Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering!  Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents.  When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors.  The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK.  A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences.  We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.

For more on the nature of engineering, and its relationship to science, see ‘Making things happen‘ on September 26th, 2018; ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 and ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd 2015.

And on the communication skills of engineers: ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015 and ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018.

Joining the dots

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 [1] 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 [2]; 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’ [3].

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.


  1. Farrar & Worden, An introduction to structural health monitoring, Phil. Trans. R Soc A, 365:303-315, 2007
  2. Middleton, C.A., Gaio, A., Greene, R.J. & Patterson, E.A., Towards automated tracking of initiation and propagation of cracks in aluminium alloy coupons using thermoelastic stress analysis, Nondestructive Evaluation, 38:18, 2019.
  3. Christian, W.J.R., DiazDelaO, F.A. & Patterson, E.A., Strain-based damage assessment of accurate residual strength prediction of impacted composite laminates, Composites Structures, 184:1215-1223, 2018.

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.