Article - Issue 17, October/November 2003

The MacRobert Award 2003

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The Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award for innovation in engineering is unusual in that it can be awarded to an entry from any area of engineering or technology. Now in its 34th year, the award is open to individuals or teams of up to five people from any size of company or institution that can show that it has made a major engineering breakthrough that is of benefit to society and has succeeded in commercially exploiting it.

The aim of the Award is to recognise the innovative achievements of an individual or team, and to publicise these to a wider audience. A panel of judges reviews all submissions and visits the short listed companies that have been selected as finalists in order to choose the winner. The judges are drawn from all areas of engineering, each bringing their own expertise to the task.

Dr Robin Paul CBE FREng, Chairman of the MacRobert Evaluation Committee says of the Award:

The importance of the MacRobert Award is that it brings recognition to the exciting level of engineering innovation taking place in the UK today. Successful entrants must demonstrate commercial success and the four outstanding 2003 finalists will be potent role models for publicising the astonishing achievements of our engineers. While the competition is stiff, the rewards are many. The winning team receives a gold medal, £50 000 and the opportunity to mount an exhibition at the Science Museum.

Originally founded by the MacRobert Trust, the Award is now presented by The Royal Academy of Engineering, a prize fund having been established with donations from the MacRobert Trust, The Royal Academy of Engineering and British industry. Previous winners include:

  • CDT Ltd for light-emitting polymers (2002)

  • Sensaura Ltd for 3-D positional audio (2001)

  • Johnson Matthey for the continuously regenerating trap (2000).

The Academy would like to encourage applications from a wide range of individuals/teams. Details of how to apply as well as rules and conditions for application are on The Academy’s website at www.raeng.co.uk, or contact Dr E. Horwitz at the Academy for further details.

2003 Winner

Randox Laboratories Ltd

Randox Laboratories Ltd of Northern Ireland has developed a fully automated diagnostic analyser (evidence®) using protein biochip array technology. The winning team comprises Dr Peter Fitzgerald, managing director, John Lamont, R&D manager, and Ivan McConnell, divisional R&D manager of biochip research, manufacture and instrument design. The Randox vision is to ‘develop a complete diagnostic system that will provide more accurate patient diagnosis and enable selection of the most appropriate therapeutic treatment on an individual patient basis’.

Innovation

evidence® enables the simultaneous detection and quantification of multiple proteins and other compounds associated with disease states in clinical samples on a single biochip. This is the first commercially available protein biochip and assay system. This system replaces multiple reaction wells with a single technology platform, individual tests with multi-test panels and sample re-runs with a unique concept of retrospective reporting.

The biochip (similar to a silicon chip) consists of a 1 cm2 substrate on which discrete test regions have been constructed. Each test region consists of different antibodies or reactive species for each assay. The biochip carrier, a transport vehicle for biochips, is a square object with nine separate reaction wells. A biochip is secured in the base of each well and this is used as a reaction chamber for the patient sample assay.

The biochip assays are based on standard immunoassay techniques. In the test panels antibodies are attached to the biochip surface to which any analytes in the patient sample bind. Chemiluminescence (production of light via a chemical reaction) is used to determine the level of analyte present in a sample. The light emission from the test regions is detected and quantified using a charge coupled device (CCD) camera and the image is then processed using dedicated software designed by Randox Laboratories.

This fully automated analyser performs a great number and variety of diagnostic tests per patient sample simultaneously, thus requiring fewer samples than conventional methods. It is possible to test for up to 25 different proteins on a single biochip. This gives much more information from a single sample than is currently available. This capacity also reduces the need for repeat samples from the same patient. It also allows the possibility of discovering relationships between different proteins involved in disease, thus improving the accuracy of diagnosis.

Commercial applications

The technology is applicable to a wide range of diagnostic parameters, including thyroid hormones, fertility hormones, cancer markers, cardiac markers, allergy testing, infectious diseases, blood grouping, drugs of abuse, antibiotic drug residues and anabolic steroids. At present, more than 3500 tests per hour can be analysed on drug residues, thyroid, fertility, tumour, cardiac, allergens and others, whereas conventional methods can perform only just over 200 tests in an hour. This provides speedier processing of tests for more patients – a great cost saving for both public and private healthcare facilities.

This technology can also be used for drug testing of athletes, clinical trials to test the safety and side effects of new drugs and many other applications. The aim in the future is to have a personalised preventative medical system, where the individual’s health can be monitored to detect any early signs of disease.

Randox has successfully negotiated contracts worldwide with private laboratories and public hospitals to the value of £25 million over the next three years. Evidence is already in use in China, the US, Austria, Greece and Turkey. Within five years worldwide sales are predicted to top £300 million.

2003 Finalists (in alphabetical order)

FT Technologies Ltd

FT Technologies Ltd has developed a small, durable and reliable wind sensor known as the FT702 Acoustic Resonance Anemometer. This is a compact, solid-state instrument with no moving parts, which measures both wind speed and direction. The finalist team comprises Dr Savvas Kapartis, technical director and inventor of Acoustic Resonance Technology, Peter Elgar, managing director for mechanical design and Robin Strachan who is the project engineer for its electronic design.

‘FT Technologies is thrilled to be a finalist for the 2003 MacRobert Award and particularly as we are a small company. This confirms that any company, regardless of size, that possesses a highly capable, committed, dynamic and determined engineering team can produce products that are world-class and which encompass engineering excellence’, remarks the Middlesex-based FT Technologies team.

Innovation

Acoustic resonance airflow sensing is a new patented method for measuring wind speed and wind direction; it uses an acoustic (ultrasonic) wave that is resonated inside a small purpose built cavity. There is a variety of conventional anemometers, the most common of which is the cup type which has a vertical axis and uses three cups to measure wind speed and is also fitted with a wind vane to detect wind direction. Other types include propellers, laser, and hot wire anemometers.

In the FT702 the ultrasonic signals are processed by the on-board Vector Network Analyser. This acoustic resonance sensing technique, coupled with state-of-the-art signal processing, gives the anemometer a wind speed range of 0.01 m/s to 70 m/s. It can measure the wisp of air produced by a falling feather or the destructive winds involved in a hurricane. It can also measure the direction of the wind with an accuracy of ±3°.

As it has no exposed parts, the FT702 is environmentally shielded and can operate under extreme weather conditions; it is compensated against the effects of temperature, pressure and humidity.

Commercial applications

Key market areas for this device are in wind energy; nuclear, chemical and biological weapons monitoring; meteorological measurement and industrial ventilation. In many cases the requirements are based around maintaining a safe working environment for personnel.

Since its inception, the product has been granted patents in Europe and the USA and has achieved considerable international market success with many companies in the process of replacing their existing sensors with the FT702. The basic product has been developed into different versions to meet the needs of specific customers.

Oxford Instruments Superconductivity

Oxford Instruments Superconductivity has developed the ‘Discovery’ 900 MHz superconducting magnet. Superconducting magnets are the power behind NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectrometers and have created new possibilities for research in the fields of proteomics and genomics, allowing the identification of three-dimensional structure of proteins and other biological macromolecules. The 900 MHz magnet represents the latest milestone for Oxford Instruments, who have been manufacturing NMR magnets since 1971, and represents a key advance in enabling life science and drug discovery applications. The finalist team includes Martin Townsend, project manager; senior engineers, Graham Hutton and Marc Simon; and principal engineers George Farmer and Dr Ziad Melhem.

Innovation

By increasing the field strength of the NMR magnet up to 900 MHz, larger and more complex molecules can be studied, their structures and relationships determined, with greater resolution and sensitivity than has ever been possible. At the height of a double-decker bus and weighing 8 tonnes, it has a magnetic field 400 000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field and can wipe a credit card from five metres. The superconducting magnet needs to provide a very stable field at 900 MHz that cannot drift more than 10 parts in 10 billion per hour. The magnet requires around 300 km of superconducting wire, and special techniques were developed to create and fix a wire of this length in place that could also withstand the stresses experienced by the magnet in operation (typically 2000 tonnes of axial load). To prevent the magnet suddenly losing superconductivity, which could result in an energy release equivalent to the power of 4 kg of TNT, special systems were put in place to manage the energy release and to keep the superconducting material at ultra low temperatures (–271 K), which required new developments in cryogenic technology. To achieve this high level of performance, Oxford Instruments has developed and patented several unique magnet features, including new technology for superconducting wire (UltraSN™), coil production (Sigmabond™), superconductor jointing techniques (FemtoOhm™) and an energy management system. These advances are critical for the understanding of disease and the development of pharmaceuticals.

‘The 900 MHz is one of the most technically challenging magnets ever developed’ said Martin Townsend, project manager. ‘It’s wonderful that the commitment and hard work of our workforce has been recognised by the MacRobert Award. The 900 MHz represents the culmination of years of research and planning, with innovation not just in engineering techniques, but also in business practice and infrastructure.’

Commercial applications

Oxford Instruments Superconductivity has already installed the world’s largest commercial wide-bore NMR magnet at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, USA, and a second 900 MHz system at Yokohama City University, Japan. Further orders have been placed worldwide, including two systems co-funded by the UK Government and the Wellcome Trust.

Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce in Bristol has developed a sophisticated propulsion system for the future US/UK Joint Strike Fighter programme of aircraft. The Rolls-Royce LiftSystem™ forms the basis of the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) capability for the Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft. The finalist team is made up of Charles Hughes, former project director; Peter Price, director of engineering; Dave Palfreyman, deputy project manager; Phil Burkholder, chief engineer; and Tony Hewitt, former chief designer.

‘We are delighted to be one of the finalists for such a prestigious award,’ said Peter Price, on behalf of the team. ‘Rolls-Royce has a proud tradition of innovation and engineering excellence, and the development of the vertical lift components for the Joint Strike Fighter is completely consistent with that tradition.’

Innovation

Unlike the earlier Pegasus engine in Harrier jets, this system, with supersonic capability, has the innovative approach of allowing the main propulsion system to be optimised for conventional flight and then be augmented by the novel LiftFan™, which is mechanically driven from a conventional gas turbine, supplying the forward vertical lift, and a separate swivelling jet pipe capable of redirecting the rear thrust from the horizontal to the vertical. The vertical lift or STOVL elements for which Rolls-Royce is responsible comprise the LiftFan™, 3 Bearing Swivel Module (3BSM) and Roll Posts.

The LiftFan™, a 1250 mm two-stage counter-rotating fan capable of generating more than 20 000 lb of thrust, is driven from a conventional gas turbine and supplies the forward vertical lift. The 3BSM is a swivelling jet pipe capable of redirecting the rear thrust from the horizontal to the vertical position. It can rotate through 95° in 2.5 seconds and passes 18 000 lb of thrust. Aircraft roll control is achieved using the Roll Posts mounted in the wings of the aircraft, each of which provides a further 1950 lb of thrust. Lateral stability is maintained by Roll Posts located in each wing. These duct bypass air from the prime engine.

This unique propulsion system has been chosen for inclusion in the US/UK Joint Strike Fighter Programme, a project that is spearheading the development of next generation fighter aircraft and is to dominate the future combat aircraft market. The Rolls Royce LiftSystem™ will create over 1000 jobs in UK industry and is a key enabler in delivering the Joint Strike Fighter.

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