Transcript - June 2009
Gareth Mitchell: This is the official podcast of Imperial College London. Hello again. Welcome along to our June edition. I'm Gareth Mitchell of our Science Communication Group and I'm the presenter of the BBC tech show, Digital Planet. Today, a healthy encounter with the humanities with the course where medical science students get to show off their artistic side.
Giskin Day: Imperial is very well known for our science and I think we're less well known for our art side. But we offer this course to students who come and explore the intersection of medicine with the arts.
GM: And we're with the research group that regularly takes the rough with the smooth in the study of friction, lubrication and things that rub against each other. The proper name for the discipline is tribology.
Hugh Spikes: In the exam paper on tribology that I set for the students, which they took yesterday, one question said: state three devices where you actually need to increase friction. For example, shoes. If you have too low friction you fall over. A lot of athletic shoes you very carefully try to maximise friction in rotation or when sliding so that you can throw things better or jump further.
GM: And also this month, I'll be jumping into some of the stories that have put us in the headlines including the notion of a magnetic fridge. It's all right here on this edition of the Imperial College podcast.
But the podcast this month begins in a goods lift in the heart of the campus here in South Kensington. Coming up in this lift with me, this could almost be an elevator pitch, is Dr Colin Turnbull of the Department of Life Sciences. And we're going right to the top of the aeronautics building, in fact the door has just opened here so we're going to open this very clunky door. And Colin where are you leading me to?
Dr Colin Turnbull: Well, I'm going to take you and show you the brand new grow dome, which is part of the plant sciences facilities here on campus.
GM: We've just swiped your card in front of the sensor here. We're just walking to the one section which is incredibly hot. We should say we're recording this on a very sunny afternoon. It's very hot in this bit. But there's another door. It looks like one of these typical laboratory doors. Very thick door with a pane of double glass. Immediately into a holding area that's a lot cooler and now another door into this place. This is absolutely fabulous. What I'm standing in is really the last thing you'd expect at the heart of a university campus, especially one in central London as we are here in South Kensington. This, Colin, as you've already hinted, is the grow dome. So tell us more about this remarkable space that we're standing in.
CT: Well this is a facility that we've always wanted to have on this campus. Because if you want to do research into plants you need to be able to grow plants. It's that's simple. Sometimes the plants are too big to grow in the laboratory therefore you will need something which looks a bit like a glasshouse but in fact isn't made of glass at all. It's made of plastic sheeting. This is going to allow us to grow plants all the year round in a guaranteed constant environment. So 12 months a year we can do our research, which is the first time we've been able to do this on this scale at South Kensington.
GM: And this facility is built really on to the side of the aeronautics building so from various parts of the campus you can crane your neck up and see it. And so it really does look like a rather traditional university building except it has this rather futuristic look to it. And certainly when you come inside, you're still filling the place up but we can see at least six very large benches many of which already have plants growing on them. What plants do we have in here?
CT: Well, the ones we see right in front of us here on the floor are some willow trees. So they might not look like a regular tree but they're part of the College's bioenergy research looking at production of biofuels from plant material. Biomass can be turned into woodchips. It can be turned into bio-ethanol. There's a whole range of applications being studied at the moment. That's the big aim.
GM: So biomass, one of many research areas that this whole grow dome is about. As for the grow dome itself, well, it would be understating it to say this is just a greenhouse. This is clearly a state of the art facility. And I say that partly because of the atmosphere in here. When you walk in it kind of feels just right. I mean the sun is streaming in through these translucent plastic bits of sheeting here that form the structure but it doesn't feel too hot, doesn't feel too cold. It's not too humid. It feels just right, and I'm not even a plant.
CT: If you were a plant you'd also probably be equally happy, and that's the whole idea. We need to be able to grow plants at a sensible temperature all the year round. So in the winter we'd have heating on and extra lights. In the summer we've got quite a lot of cooling going on. We set it at around 23 degrees which is comfortable for everybody. Plants grow happily and therefore it doesn't really matter which season it is outside we can get on with our research at all times. That's a really big advantage.
GM: And you really get a sense as to how effective the cooling systems are because there's a little walkway that you go through to get into this facility which obviously being outside doesn't have the cooling facilities you have in here and it's baking hot with the sun beating down, as it has been today, on to it. In here obviously the cooling is just right. So if I came back in December or February would the temperature be pretty much the same?
CT: We hope so. In here it should be exactly as we dial it in. We'd set it for 23 degrees. We'd have a bit of artificial light because obviously outside there's very little sunlight in December and we need a bit of extra oomph to make the plants grow. Because it's photosynthesis we're talking about. It's essentially a contained facility. We air-condition the air all the time and we bring some fresh air in. Because if we keep the plants running all the time with no fresh air they actually asphyxiate because there's no carbon dioxide. That's the basis of photosynthesis, as I think most science students would understand. Without carbon dioxide you don't make sugars and therefore you don't have plant growth and therefore you don't have any biomass. It's quite simple.
GM: Along the sides of the building here we have a number of units that are made up of three large fans which are clearly doing their bit to recycle the air and blow it around. But also there's a certain amount of air movement in here as well. I notice actually the leaves on these willow trees. They are very gently wafting in the wind breeze here.
CT: That's absolutely deliberate. We need to keep the air moving over the plants because otherwise it's like on a still day if you sit in a very still environment you get baked a lot more than if there's a little bit of cooling air moving over your skin. The plant's surface is more or less like a skin. There's some evaporation happening which helps to keep the leaves cool. So even on a fully sunny day like this where it's almost blindingly bright in here the plants themselves are at exactly the right temperature, not just the air.
GM: So I think we safely established that this isn't just a greenhouse on the side of a building it's a full-on state of the art plant science research facility. How unique is it?
CT: For this College it's unique. There are other similar things at other places around the world and elsewhere in th e UK. I think as a multiuser facility where you can see a lot of sharing going on we know that anybody can request to come in here with a new project and be given space and just get on with it. So rather than having a very complicated system we're encouraging a lot of new projects. And with the recent increase in the amount of plant science on this campus we're expecting a lot of growth in research and therefore a lot more growing plants.
GM: Unintentional pun there or maybe an intended pun but growing research nevertheless. And of course ongoing research. That's the whole point here. You haven't just set this up and said, well, job done, that's it. This is very much an ongoing facility.
CT: That's exactly right. Much of the research we would do is what we call at the pure end where we're discovering new things about how plants tick. How they grow. How their diseases progress. How they might resist disease. As well as more practical things such as the bioenergy projects where we've got a very practical even mind to digest the plant material into something more useable. So we know exactly what the target is. But in this single environment we mix those kinds of research quite readily. Some of it may only be here for a few weeks, some might be here for several years.
GM: And I'm struck by how fundamentally you're saying some of this research is. Because you'd think we already know about plants. I mean Darwin knew a lot about them 150 years ago and yet there's still so much to be discovered.
CT: Absolutely. We know what a plant looks like but we don't know exactly how it works in many ways. The current world climate is changing, as we know, so we don't know exactly how plants will respond to increased temperatures, to changing rainfall, to droughts, to floods and all the rest of it as well as to increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The global population is increasing hugely so by 2050 we'll probably need twice as much food grown on the same planet as we do currently. This is a very urgent issue and requires some very clever solutions to make plants give us more for the same amount of land. So ultimately things we do in here we'd hope would translate one day into a real agricultural field where you're growing either foods or plants for fuels, plants for fibres or purely ornamental plants. These are all things we can do from the research in this space.
GM: Well, Colin, thank you very much for that. So as you're saying, we're clearly going to hear about a lot of research coming from this place over the coming months and years. One of the many places you can find out all about it is via our Press Office. The website address coming up in just a moment. But in the meantime, speaking of news here is some of the latest news from around the Imperial College.
Headlines from around the College
Some of our more chilled-out researchers can be found in the Physics Department. They're working on new super efficient refrigeration technology based on magnetism. The idea is to magnetise metallic alloys thereby heating them up and then remove the heat with water so they cool to their original temperature and then switch off the magnetic field. And that makes the material cool down even further and there's your refrigeration effect. But the challenge is to work out which alloys are best for the job. And writing in the journal Advanced Materials the researchers describe a probe they use to look deep into the microscopic structure of candidate materials. With such detailed information about their makeup the team can then select alloys that have exactly the kind of magnetic and thermal properties that might make them suitable commercially. Though and experimental idea at present the researchers, who are collaborating with colleagues at the Aims Laboratory in the United States, say that magnetic refrigeration could potentially use 20 to 30 per cent less energy than the best available conventional technologies. And that'll have a huge wider environmental impact. Refrigeration and air-conditioning is responsible for a huge proportion of the world's energy demand, 50 per cent in the United States during the summer. So never mind fridge magnets perhaps magnetic fridges could one day be on their way.
And also this month, is the environment damaging our health? A new centre at Imperial aims to address that very question. The Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial and King's College London has just launched. Funded by the Medical Research Council and the Health Protection Agency the Centre will gauge the health of people across the UK and how environmental factors from traffic fumes and noise to chemicals in the atmosphere affect our well being. Researchers reckon that air pollution alone could be responsible for several thousand hospital admissions every year. But with so many factors to take into account it's a real challenge to pinpoint exactly how various environmental factors affect our health. One of the big aims of the new Centre is to nail methods of truly gauging cause and effect.
And that's it for our little news selection for this month but you can catch up with all the latest stories from Imperial, often before they even end up in the newspapers, via our Press Office website. And that's at imperial.ac.uk/news. It's also the place to find out about events here. And indeed one recent event showed that there's more to studying biomedical science or medicine than cell biology, pathology and endocrinology. Because alongside the science students also have the opportunity to explore their field through the arts as part of a programme called Medical Humanities. Well, keen to show their creativity off to a wider audience the students and their course leader hosted an exhibition called Pulse on our South Kensington campus. And Science Media Production MSc student Elizabeth Hawk went along to the opening.
Elizabeth Hawk: I've come along to the Blyth Gallery on the fifth floor of the Sherfield Building this evening for the opening of the Medical Humanities exhibition.
Angie: I'm Angie. I'm doing biomedical sciences. I'm in my final year now and this was my last module. This is the last piece of work I'll be doing for my degree.
EH: So we're standing in front of your artwork now. Can you tell me a bit about it?
A: In the centre it's the World Health Organisation Quality of Life questionnaire. I chose it because it's very standardised. Obviously a committee came together and agreed upon what questions would apply to everyone to see whether they had a good quality of life. And then I went around and interviewed about 40 people and asked them what they think a good quality of life is and what questions they would put on one such questionnaire. And then I took a picture of them and put up their questions next to it.
EH: Let's describe what it actually looks like. So it's a World Health Organisation Quality of Life questionnaire in the centre, which is quite a boring looking form. And then all around the edge there's pictures of people next to questions that are taken from aspects of quality of life. So, for example, there's a girl next to a question that says can you go climbing? There's a chap next to her: are you happy? Can you take care of your basic needs? Can you bend it like Beckham? So in a sense this gives everybody a voice to say what's important about their life and what gives them a good quality of life.
A: Yes, you'll notice that I put an occupation next to every person and their occupation often influences what they decide. For example, all the people in the Army asked a question that was related to whether they could carry out a physical task. And then there's the investment banker who was incredibly concerned with losing her intellect. So depending on what a person's career is or what their passion is what matters to them differs entirely to what's on the questionnaire.
EH: How long did it take you to get all the people and then to assemble it all like this?
A: It took me an incredibly long time to get 40 people. It doesn't look like a lot of people but each person I interviewed personally and it takes quite a while. And then for a variation I didn't want everyone who was in the UK so I called some friends abroad and talked to them online.
EH: It does look like a lot of work. It's very impressive when you walk in. It just really strikes you.
That was Angie, one of the artists who has contributed to the exhibition this evening. And now let's hear from Faharn who actually helped her to create that artwork. Faharn's picture is next to a question that says can you go to the gym or do outdoor exercise? And he's in exercise clothes and looking like he's had a workout. So how does it feel to actually be a part of the artwork?
Faharn: It's interesting that so many people will get to look at you. Because you see yourself with loads of other different people.
EH: How do you come up with the ideas for the art project? Where do you start?
F: That's a tough question. I think the course provides you with an experiential learning process. You don't get taught specific things which you need to learn but it's kind of to give you an overall understanding of what medical humanities is about. And then by participating you're more than likely to find things that inspire you and things that interest you and they can be starting points for your project.
EH: So what do you think having done this course is going to add for you when you leave Imperial?
F: I think it will add a great depth because you can say that you've done something really different. And very rarely in your life, especially if you're a science student or a medic student, could you really do a course that's so vibrant and that's so different. I'm definitely going to read more books and go to museums and keep journals. It's really, really useful.
EH: I've just popped outside with Giskin Day because it's getting rather hot and noisy in the exhibition room there. And she runs the Medical Humanities course here at Imperial. Tell me a bit about the course.
Giskin Day: Well, it's a chance really to give medical students and biomedical science students a chance to exercise their creativity. Imperial is very well known for our science and I think we're less well known for art side. But we offer this course to students who come and explore the intersection of medicine with the arts.
EH: Tell me a bit about the different types of art, as it were, that you cover.
GD: Well, the students create an artwork as part of their final project. And to prepare them for that we take them on trips to galleries. We've been to the National Gallery and the Tate Modern and we've also been to places like the Wellcome Collection and the V & A. And we've also given them workshops. So we've had a wonderful sculpture workshop and we've done some life drawing. And we've also exposed them to other artists working in the field, model makers and sculptures and photographers, so that they get a good feel for how medicine is integrated in the arts and how the arts helps to sustain medicine in wider society.
EH: I think it must be a sign of how successful it is that there is such a range of artwork in there. I mean, every single person must have got something different from the course.
GD: Yes, I think so. It's certainly very gratifying to see students be so involved and engaged and be willing to put the time in.
EH: Do you ever get people coming back and saying that they have carried forward something from this into their professional life?
GD: I regularly get emails from students asking me to remind them of a poem or something that we've covered on the course and also saying how useful it's been to have the opportunity to have done this course. Because I think culture does provide a great deal of solace. One doesn't feel that one is so alone when one can walk into a gallery and see how art is relevant to medicine and the human body. So it helps to step in, to set out. So stepping into a creative environment is helpful for stepping out of one's immediate concerns which can often be overwhelming.
Leon Hossmere: My name is Leon Hossmere and I'm studying physics in the third year.
EH: And you've just come along to the exhibition to find out what it's all about. So what do you think?
LH: I'm impressed actually. From basically photos to sculptures to masks. And in particular the emphasis is on the message. For instance, the picture right in front here is just depicting two stomachs and all the worries and the doubts that the patient mi ght have, in this case she thinks she has cancer, that really touches upon me because I know these feelings. So I like this one.
EH: I'm here with Hamish. He's actually come along to the exhibition to support his girlfriend who's got a piece of art here.
Hamish: It's all to do with emotional detachment of doctors. The centrepiece is a pearl which represents a self-defence mechanism of the doctors developing this self of detachment from all th e hurt and pain that goes on in hospitals. The rest of the piece is split into two halves. One is of the doctor's personal life and one is of their professional life and how everything, even positive or negative, is detached from emotion just as a defence mechanism really. I didn't know, and I don't think most people knew, that there was even an art gallery at Imperial. There is and it's fantastic show of everyone's work. It's been really worthwhile seeing and everything has been really good quality. Really good fun.
GM: That was Hamish ending that report from Elizabeth Hawk currently studying on the Masters in Science Media Production here at Imperial. Well, finally, it's been celebrations all round in the Mechanical Engineering Department where they've just won the College's Research Excellence Award. And the field of study? Tribology. Not sure what that actually is? Well, that's a good opening question for Professor Hugh Spikes who's head of the tribology research group.
Hugh Spikes: Tribology is a word that was invented in the 60s and before that we had the very much less euphonious phrase friction, lubrication and wear. And then in the 60s there was a government report investigation into how to improve friction, lubrication and wear and it was decided that you could save enormous amounts of money, maybe even 2 per cent of GDP, if you got it right. But at the same time it was decided to make it attractive to industry and to students and everybody else they ought to give it a more sexy name than friction, lubrication and wear. So they went back to the Greek and it's tribos which means rubbing and logos of course is knowledge. So it's a knowledge and science of rubbing, of things that rub together. But it includes a lot of activities like replacement hip joints. That's very much a tribological problem of getting the right materials and understanding how they work in the body. Earthquakes is included in tribology because that's very much a rubbing problem. And people in the field do work in that area, although we don't. We don't have enough earthquakes really to get going in London unfortunately.
GM: What is your area then?
HS: My main area is actually the liquids, the liquid lubricants which you get in cars and also in bodies of course and in all sorts of devices. So it's lubricants and how they work and how they can control friction and wear. That's my main interest.
GM: And right at the top of this interview you gave a figure. Was it 2 per cent of GDP that can be saved with more effective lubrication, less friction? You've got a huge amount of money, effectively, that's wasted through energy that's wasted through things not being particularly well lubricated.
HS: One side of the coin is reducing friction and saving energy but another side to the coin is, of course, making it last longer. And ultimately machines and bodies fail, joints particularly. My knee joint at the moment failed through wear and failed through fatigue. So it's durability and it's friction. Often you have to find the compromise between the two because quite often reducing friction doesn't necessarily mean making things last longer. But if you do it right, if you get the science right, you can usually do both. And that's where the savings come. It's from the combination of the two. They both feed, if you like, into the lifecycle of any component making it work better and making it work longer.
GM: I see that you're very careful to say reducing friction. So it's not just about lubrication, although I guess that's one way of reducing friction. But is it like the choice of materials as well helps to reduce friction?
HS: Yes, it's not just about reducing friction either. In the exam paper on tribology that I set for the students, which they took yesterday, one question said: state three devices where you actually need to increase friction. For example, shoes. If you have too low friction you fall over. A lot of athletic shoes you very carefully try to maximise friction in rotation or when sliding so that you can throw things better or jump further.
GM: Is it true as well like the clutch in a car, that uses friction to hold the two plates of the clutch together?
HS: That's actually one we're working on at the moment. It's interesting. You need high friction there but you also, and it's quite unusual, need to try to design the system so that the friction increases with the sliding speed. As you slide more you get higher friction. And the reason for that is if you don't do that, if you get it the other way, then you get what's called stick-slip and you get clutch squeal. Over time lubricant manufacturers and clutch manufacturers have learnt how to produce clutches whose friction increases in speed. But actually it turns out they don't actually know how it works and one of the projects that we have is tying that down. Normally friction goes down as you increase the speed because you generate a thicker and thicker lubricant film. So this works the other way for reasons that there really isn't time to go into here.
GM: I've been reading up on my history of tribology and correct me if I'm wrong here but I think it goes back to Da Vinci who himself was one of the first scientists to explore the notion of friction. I think he worked out that the friction doubles and so on.
HS: Friction doubles with the load doubling. These laws of friction are often ascribed to Amonton, the French guy. Amonton's laws of friction. But actually two of them, the main two, which is that friction is usually proportional to load, so it doubles, and also that the friction doesn't depend on the area of contact. So if you put a brick on its side and slide it along you'll get the same friction as you would on its end and slide it along with the same load. They were actually Leonardo's and in one of his caudexes he has little sketches of bricks standing on the side and on the end. And this was a couple of hundred years before Amonton came along and repeated it.
GM: So it's an age-old field but where's the cutting edge of tribology now? Obviously you've mentioned a load of things that you're working on here but where's it really at? What's the exciting kind of sexy part of tribology?
HS: It depends because actually tribology spans mechanical engineering tribology, which is usually about joints, and bio-engineering tribology which is about all sorts of things. Catheters and toothpastes and contact lenses and skin creams, they're all tribology. But there's also a lot of what we call tribo-physics which is tribology which is, for example, how to lubricate micro machines and make them work. A micro machine is a tiny machine that you make out of silicone parts. And it's very difficult to lubricate and working out how to lubricate that is a big issue at the moment. And also we all in our offices have a very complex lubricating system which is called a hard disk. In the computer over there there's a hard disk. And the hard disk consists of a spinning plate which stores the information magnetically and the tiny head which reads and writes the information. Currently it flies 5 nanometres which is 20 atoms or 30 atoms above the surface of the disk and it reads the information in and out. But how to keep that lubricated is very difficult and there's a lot of very challenging physics a nd chemistry going on in that field. So the cutting edge depends where you come from. Are you a physicist or are you a chemist or an engineer. To my mind, I think the most interesting bit is the molecular bit of mechanical engineering which is how do lubricants interact with surfaces and how can we make the surfaces smarter and interact better with lubricants. But that's completely my taste and nobody else's. It's nice. There's enough space in tribology that we can all do our own thing without falling over each other.
GM: So it means there isn't too much friction between the engineers, the physicists and the others?
HS: Oh, no, there's always some.
GM: Just before I let you go though, congratulations a re in order as well. You've just won a big award haven't you?
HS: Yes, we won the Research Excellence Award of Imperial College. Yes, a nice sum of money for spending on the next generation of research on applying fluorescents to look at individual molecules as they go through contacts, which will tell us a lot about how to design next generation lubricants, I hope.
GM: Well, that went smoothly. Hugh Spikes there. And that'll be roughly it for this edition. But do come back in July when I'll have yet more from Imperial. This podcast is jointly produced by the Press Office here and our Science Communication Group. The theme music is by composer Oscar Buldum. Do come and find us on Facebook, by the way. Just search for Imperial College podcast. Well, I'm Gareth Mitchell and the producer this month has been, well, me really. That's multitasking for you. Thanks very much for listening and I'll see you next time. Bye-bye.