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Metal casting, solar power and singing stars

26 March 2015

Brunel strides the lab-industry divide; Pickles points way to powerful roofs; and while stars might 'sing', we shall never 'hear' them.

There is compelling evidence that the metals casting industry has neither been able to conduct high-level research and development by itself, nor has it been previously supported by adequate academic research at UK universities. Brunel University's Advanced Metal Casting Centre (AMCC) is an exception, and with new funds under its belt, it aims to speed up industrial implementation by providing evidence of successful transition to the demands of factory-scale production.

A £15m award to the university from the UK government will unlock a further £62m of private sector support to span the so-called 'valley of death' that currently prevents lab-based innovations becoming casting industry practice. The funding will allow a second phase of the new AMCC to scale-up processes and innovations that work in the laboratory but fail to achieve their potential on the factory floor.

The size of the new award underlines how important cutting edge casting technology is to the competitive position of every sector of UK manufacturing across automotive, aerospace, defence, energy and general engineering. Brunel's leading metallurgist, Prof Zhongyun Fan led the funding bid and his team will now attempt to speed up industrial implementation by providing evidence of successful transition to the demands of factory-scale production.

The funding will complete the AMCC’s essential range of factory-level metal casting/processing facilities and establish critical supporting research facilities for developing advanced metallic materials, as well as underpin component performance testing and create a suite for process modelling and simulation.

The new centre will conduct high quality research on nucleation, liquid metal engineering, the 
development of advanced materials and more efficient casting/processing technologies. The long-term intention is to establish a National Metals Research Park on Brunel’s campus to further accelerate the industrial take-up of new technologies.

Solar power
Communities and local government secretary, Eric Pickles is encouraging the take up of much larger scale solar power generation (solar photovoltaic) on non-domestic buildings, following his announcement in the House of Commons on Wednesday (March 25).

New planning reforms will allow for a 20-fold increase in the amount of solar power that can be generated from installations on roofs of non-domestic buildings such as warehouses and offices without having to submit a full planning application, so long as it does not have a negative impact on the local amenity. The measure will come into force from 15 April 2015 and it means that rooftop solar panels on commercial property can be increased from the current 50kW to 1MW.

Not surprisingly, the renewable energy sector is very welcoming of this announcement. The Renewable Energy Association's chief executive, Nina Skorupska expressed delight at Eric Pickles' announcement which will now allow factories, farms, hospitals, bus stations and other commercial buildings to generate their own sustainable electricity while also saving themselves money and resources.

“Solar installed on commercial buildings has the potential to generate significant amounts of clean electricity, yet it is a considerably underdeveloped area, and the rigidity of the planning system has long been a major barrier to its progress," says Dr Skorupska. “Increasing the threshold before a full planning application is required for a solar installation is a simple but effective step which will lift the shackles from the sector, and will help developers avoid uncertainty in terms of degression of feed-in tariff rates.”

Are the stars singing?
A chance discovery by a team of researchers has provided experimental evidence that stars may generate sound. When examining the interaction between an ultra-intense laser and a plasma target, the team, which included scientists from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC's) Central Laser Facility in Oxfordshire, the York Plasma Institute at the University of York, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, noticed something unusual.

They realised that in the trillionth of a second after the laser strikes, plasma flowed rapidly from areas of high density to more stagnant regions of low density, in such a way that it created something like a traffic jam. Plasma piled up at the interface between the high and low density regions, generating a series of pressure pulses: in other words, a sound wave.

STFC's Dr Alex Robinson developed a numerical model to generate acoustic waves for the experiment. “It was initially hard to determine the origin of the acoustic signals, but our model produced results that compared favourably with the wavelength shifts observed in the experiment," he says. "This showed that we had discovered a new way of generating sound from fluid flows. Similar situations could occur in plasma flowing around stars.”

The sound generated was at such a high frequency that it would have left even bats and dolphins struggling. With a frequency of nearly a trillion Hertz, the sound generated was not only unexpected, but was also at close to the highest frequency possible in such a material – six million times higher than that which can be heard by any mammal.

According to Dr John Pasley from the York Plasma Institute, one of the few locations in nature where it is believed this effect occurs is at the surface of stars. "When they are accumulating new material stars could generate sound in a very similar manner to that which we observed in the laboratory – so the stars might be singing – but, since sound cannot propagate through the vacuum of space, no-one can hear them,” he says.

Les Hunt

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