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What will be the UK's next big thing in engineering?

04 June 2018

Innovations in healthcare, space and energy go head-to-head for top UK engineering prize worth £50,000 – the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.

Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Engineering
Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Engineering

A pioneering breathalyser for diagnosing disease, a new generation of lighter, retractable satellite antennas, and the application of Formula 1 technology that makes supermarket fridges more energy efficient are in the running to be named the ‘next big thing’ in engineering. These innovations have been selected as finalists for the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Since 1969, the Royal Academy of Engineering has presented the award to the engineers behind the UK’s most exciting and impactful innovations. 

The 2018 finalists are:

• Owlstone Medical for its ReCIVA Breath Sampler, the first device capable of capturing breath samples for analysis in a robust and reproducible way. The system can identify chemical ‘biomarkers’ in human breath for a variety of diseases, including cancer. The company aims to save 100,000 lives by enabling easier and quicker diagnosis and ensuring the correct treatment is prescribed to each patient. 
• Oxford Space Systems for developing a new generation of origami-inspired, innovative and cost-competitive satellite antennas and structures, which will enable satellite missions and services ranging from telecommunications to environmental monitoring.
• Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy for their aerodynamic shelf-edge technology, Aerofoil, which significantly reduces energy consumption in supermarket and convenience store fridges. The device is inspired by state-of-the-art Formula 1 engineering and offers significant potential energy savings. Sainsbury’s is rolling out the technology in all 1,400 of its stores. 

The three finalists are competing for a gold medal and a £50,000 prize. The 2018 winner will be revealed at the Academy Awards Dinner at the Tower of London on Wednesday 27 June 2018 in front of an audience of top engineers, business leaders, politicians and journalists.

The MacRobert Award is the UK’s longest running and most prestigious award for engineering innovation. Previous winners have transformed the world we live in, delivering outstanding innovation, commercial success, and tangible social benefit. The first award in 1969 was won jointly by Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine used in the iconic Harrier jets, and Freeman, Fox and Partners for designing the Severn Bridge. In 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner developed at EMI – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

MacRobert Award finalists and winners are chosen by a judging panel of Fellows of the Academy – some of the UK’s foremost engineers – using a rigorous selection process.

Owlstone Medical has developed the ReCIVA Breath Sampler, the first system designed to reliably capture high-quality breath samples and reproducibly analyse the biomarkers present using the company’s Breath Biopsy services and products. Their Breath Biopsy platform has the potential to accelerate diagnosis by detecting the unique disease biomarkers that could be present in cancer, inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, and infectious diseases like tuberculosis. In addition to unlocking early detection for potentially devastating diseases, the platform could help identify the specific therapy a patient is most likely to respond to. This could significantly improve patient outcomes and help reduce healthcare costs. Owlstone Medical’s clients include global pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca and GSK. The ReCIVA Breath Sampler is already in use at over 100 clinical sites globally.

Oxford Space Systems (OSS) is tackling the space industry’s biggest challenges when it comes to sending satellites into space: weight and size. Getting into orbit currently comes at a cost of up to £50,000 per kilogram. The lighter the systems and structures a satellite carries, the more space there is for technologies delivering useful data and functionality. Using unique materials and original design approaches, such as origami engineering, Oxford Space Systems creates lighter, lower cost satellite structures that are also quicker to build. These offer around 10 percent improvement in mass and stowage volume and are over 30 percent cheaper than current commercial options. The company is making satellite missions accessible and affordable for new organisations. OSS has secured more than £2 million of contracts with the European Space Agency and satellite builders in Europe and the USA, one of which includes deployable technology for space debris removal, shortly due to be demonstrated on the RemoveDEBRIS mission. As well as space junk clean up, OSS is developing novel antenna technology which will be used to monitor the Earth’s environment and pollution levels. 

The collaboration between Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy created Aerofoil, an aerodynamic device that significantly reduces the energy consumed by refrigerators in supermarkets and convenience stores. It is estimated that shops with chillers account for over 10 percent of the UK’s total energy use, and over 40 percent of the energy used by a supermarket or convenience store is used by the refrigerators themselves. Reducing the amount of cold air spilling into the aisles can cut energy use, reduce carbon emissions and provide a more pleasant shopping experience for customers. Use of aerofoils on open-fronted fridges in lab testing yields a 30 percent energy saving, with in-store testing typically yielding 15-18 percent. Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second largest supermarket chain, is installing Aerofoils as part of a significant retrofit programme across its 1,400 stores this year, while all new fridges are now fitted with the technology as standard. 

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “The breadth of the 2018 MacRobert Award finalist innovations show the wide impact engineering can have: from improving healthcare, to the growth of the space industry and reducing energy consumption. These areas present huge challenges globally and these three companies are testament to the positive impact UK engineering innovation can have, across our world and beyond.

“The collaborative achievement in diverse spheres by the teams behind our 2018 finalists reflects the future of engineering itself – truly interdisciplinary efforts that confirm the UK’s global reputation as an innovation nation.”

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