Photo:

Bernard Ennis

Down to the last two...this town ain't big enough for the both of us

Favourite Thing: Definitely has to be working on the synchrotron. The facilities at Diamond Light Source in the UK are just excellent and I get a real buzz when I am there. When I walk through the door I get the feeling that this is were it’s at.

My CV

Education:

Cardinal Wiseman RC School, Coventry (1981-1988); Coventry Technical College (1988-1990), Coventry University (1990-1997), University of Manchester (2013-now)

Qualifications:

BEng and MPhil in Materials Science and almost finished my PhD at Manchester University.

Work History:

Federal Mogul in Coventry; Alstom (GEC) in Rugby and in Montpellier, France. Since moving to the Netherlands in 2000 I’ve worked at a company making ships’ propellers, a failure analysis laboratory in Amsterdam and since 2007 at Tata Steel.

Current Job:

Principal researcher in high strength steel department. I develop advanced high strength steels for the automotive industry (crash cans, bumpers, side impact bars etc) and also fire resistant steels for the building industry.

Employer:

Tata Steel

Me and my work

I make steel better so that you can crash your car into a tree faster and not get killed.

I develop high strength and high ductility steels for the automotive industry. At the moment I am also studying for a PhD (sponsored fully by Tata Steel) at Manchester University. The aim of my PhD is to see whether the way chemical elements are distributed in a steel after casting has an effect on the mechanical properties (it does). The thing I really love about my job is that every answer raises even more questions about how the material really works and how we can apply that knowledge to making products (in this case for cars) even lighter and safer. The crash resistance of a car isn’t only dependent upon the strength though, it also depends on how ductile the material is (ductile means how much you can pull it apart before it breaks). This is really handy because it allows car makers to put groovy curves and folds into their cars without losing too much of the handy crash resistant properties.

I’m also looking at new ways to improve the strength of steel at high temperatures. You might have heard of the twin towers that collapsed after some people flew aeroplanes into them. The reason they collapsed was that the steel supports lost their strength as a result of the fires in the building. What I am aiming to do is increase the strength at high temperature so that people have got more time to get out of a building that’s on fire, before it collapses.

My Typical Day

Cycle 10 miles to work, shower, change into my working gear, drink coffee, do science, cycle 10 miles home again, which sometimes includes having another a shower on the way.

I try to arrange my day so that I do things at the best time. I’m usually quite alert in the morning, so that’s the time to get reports written, analyse data and read articles. After lunch is a bit of a dead time and I start to get a bit slow, so I usually try to arrange a meeting, or do some work in the lab to keep me active. The type of lab work I do is chopping specimens up to look at them, looking at specimens using a microscope or using x-rays, pulling specimens apart using a large tensometer and measuring them up. Sometimes I get to watch the technicians making the material  such as casting liquid metal into moulds, rolling the slabs at high temperatures etc. and heating the material to get the right type of structure. They don’t let me near any of that sort of equipment because (a) I haven’t been trained to use it and (b) I’d probably break something or hurt someone (probably me).

If there’s time I try to squeeze in a meeting to talk about my results (or someone else’s) and to talk about what kind of things we want to look at next. This can also be with scientists from other companies or universities, which can be very interesting because scientists from universities think differently about a problem than scientists from industry.

What I'd do with the money

Arrange a day out to attend a live podcast at Jodrell Bank for the school kids with the best questions.

Since I live in the Netherlands, it’s not so easy to do something in the UK with £500 because it would cost me more than that just to get there. So, what I came up with is an idea for a trip, originally to the synchrotron at Diamond in Harwell, but I got talking to Monique in the chat and I would like to support her live Jodcast idea. The Jodcast is a volunteer podcast about astronomy set up by astronomers based at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank.

Monique mentioned that she would use the money to support a live Jodcast and I for one would love to visit Jodrell Bank as this has had a mythical status for me since reading the name in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So I still intend to hire a coach big enough to take a class of school children and some more or less responsible adults (teachers, parents, that lot) and take them Jodrell Bank to attend the live podcast and have a tour around. There will be scientists and I’m pretty sure we can arrange cake and sandwiches.

In the interest of fairness (who’s interested in fairness) and seeing that we scientists are in a sort of popularity contest, I decided to add a little competitive element of my own. The person who comes up with the best question (which I will define shortly) will win the visit to Jodrell Bank for the whole class, either your form or (for older pupils) the science/physics class; that’s up to you and the school to decide.

So how do I decide which is the best question? For me this is the question that challenges me the most to think about how or why I do science, or indeed lead my life i.e. the sort of question that I can’t find the answer to on-line or in a book or article. Sounds a bit vague doesn’t it. So to make it a bit more objective, I am going to make it the question that takes me the most words to answer. Now that’s nice and measurable.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Brilliant impulsive lazy

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Freddie Mercury RIP

What's your favourite food?

Fried breakfast with real British bangers, thick slices of bacon, black pudding and beans. Yum!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Well this year it was playing in a ska/punk band during an Open Art festival.

What did you want to be after you left school?

Not on the dole, it was the eighties. Seriously though, I wanted to be a doctor.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Yes. Ask me about it in the chat…

What was your favourite subject at school?

Physics

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

One of the materials I developed has been included as a new material classification in an international standard.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Dr. Andrew Baker and Mr. Charles Purnell (my first bosses) gave me the confidence that I could be a scientist, but my inspiration is Richard Feynman.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Probably an out of work musician.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To be six feet tall (5’7″ is small in the Netherlands); to have had more children; to live near the mountains and the sea.

Tell us a joke.

Why is duct tape like the force? It has a light side, a dark side and it binds the universe together.

Other stuff

Work photos:

This is my view as I ride over the locks towards the steel works. They also call this the cloud factory and you can see why myimage1.

After I’ve had a shower and grabbed myself a coffee, I head on over to my office which I share with a colleague myimage2; my side is the neat one (left). Some people say that this is because I don’t do any work, but those are just nasty rumours spread by my enemies….

For me the best bit about working for a steel company is getting to walk around the fantastic factories. My favourite is the hot-rolling mill. This is where slabs of steel are heated up to >1200°C in the reheat oven myimage3 and then rolled from 225mm to around 2.5mm in the mill itself myimage4

The best thing I have done is to come up with a steel that helps to keep you safe in case of an accident. myimage7 This shows the difference between a traditional steel (left) and my steel (right) in a head-on collision. The whole front end of the traditional car is completely crushed in and the driver would be seriously injured. To get the driver out would require the fire brigade to have to chop up the car, before sending him/her off to hospital in an ambulance. The front end with the new steel is also crushed in, but the driver is much better protected and would be able to get out of the car without the fire brigade having to chop the car up.

myimage6 The part of the car that my steel goes into is shown here in light green and connects the crumple zones on both sides (these are the bits that crunch up in case of an accident). It’s vital that this bit is strong enough to be able to transfer load to the crumple zones and this is especially important if you run into a tree, as the crumple zones aren’t usually impacted. If the bar in the middle breaks, the tree will go right through and push the engine into the driver and passenger.

myimage5 This is an image from my PhD showing how different elements are distributed in the structure and this has a big effect on the strength and ductility. To investigate how this affects the properties, I have been using very high powered light at the synchrotron to ‘see’ inside the material. myimage8 When the light particles (photons) hit the material, they generate x-rays which can be measured and these tell me about how the material is behaving from the inside.

I haven’t always worked with steel though. In a previous job I developed bronze (alloy of copper, aluminium and nickel) for ships’ propellers. One of the coolest things I did was to do some experiments for repairing broken propellers. This resulted in the largest repair ever done on a propeller, something that had not been done before. I am very proud of this. myimage9