Science & Engineering: Trolley good!

From picnic trollies to giant centrifuges, Britain's university students are innovating on a shoestring.
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like being thrown in at the deep end when learning to swim. The formula can also be applied to budding engineers. Students at the end of their first year in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at the University of Surrey have to present a project they have designed and made from scratch on a given budget.

One team produced a rather splendid astrophotography tracking camera stand - extremely useful for amateur astronomers who want to take stunning pictures of star fields and nebulae. To do this you need an equatorial camera mount, costing around pounds 250. The four-student team at Surrey was given a pounds 90 budget and managed to come up with a superb stand, hand-made and working, and still have a tenner to spare. The team included a woman - Hannah Tew, 20, of Bristol - one of just eight women among 90 first- year students on the material science and engineering course.

Of the many completed projects on display was a collapsible picnic trolley, awarded first prize by an industrial panel of senior managers for "best group effort". The trolley, a truly ingenious invention, had a budget of pounds 60 and had to fit in the boot of a Mini.

The students came up with a trolley that would do all this and more. When it is partially unfolded, the user simply places the box of food onto the base and trundles it all along to the picnic site. There, it would be extended to its full 645mm height. The base, which previously carried the box, is lifted up to become the tabletop.

Its inventors overshot the budget by pounds 6. But what the hell! "We thought it was a prank when we were first told it should fit in the boot of a Mini, but we accepted the challenge," said Richard Cliff, 18, the only native Brit on the team (he's from Harpenden, Herts). If it really was a joke, these youngsters will be laughing all the way to the bank once their brainchild is marketed.

The other members of this international team were Trevor Lambert, 19, from Normandy in France; Lorcan Law, 18, from Hong Kong; Nicholas Vythoulkas, 20, from Athens; and Guglielmo Gottoli, at 25 the daddy of the team, who comes from Verona, Italy. Surrey engineering students are told of their projects in January and given ten weeks of thinking time. They then have four weeks to make prototypes - or the real thing.

"None of our students had ever done anything like this before," said David Pollard, the director of engineering education and training. We introduce this in the first year in order to teach them to work as teams. It's all sound, practical engineering. We don't have losers. No one is awarded `nul points'," Dr Pollard added.

Of course, Surrey was once a Cat (College of Advanced Technology), which is probably why it is much more adept at the practical hands-on experience than many a traditional university. But this does not mean that all other universities lag behind in science and engineering. Far from it.

Only last week, for instance, the University of Dundee opened a giant centrifuge capable of tackling the equally giant geotechnical problems facing offshore engineers and bridge builders. There are only a dozen like it in Europe, and Dundee's state-of-the-art Geotechnical Centrifuge Centre will become widely known for testing foundations, excavations and structures affected by earthquakes, explosions and the flow of pollutants through the soil. Professor Michael Davies, project leader, said it would put the university's department of civil engineering "on the international map for research in this fast moving and highly relevant field".

South of the border, at the University of Hull, three students developed a cost-effective way of cutting pollution from diesel engines. Their work will come as a godsend to Third World countries where older buses and trucks emit waves of exhaust pollution. The "cyclone", a cylindrical device forming part of a normal steel exhaust pipe, helps remove some of the harmful materials continually being spewed into the atmosphere.

A cycling, fume-swallowing lecturer, Dr Kevin Fancey, tired of breathing in poisonous fumes, gave birth to the idea. But its execution was by three engineering degree students: Paul Robinson examined various cheap and effective methods, and came up with the cyclone, which works like a spin dryer and separates particles from exhaust gas; Niell Strickland, a fellow student, devised a method for trapping the exhaust fume particles, using wire wool; and Jaime Palmer Walliker designed a cyclone to remove 50 per cent of the particles.

Not only big universities produce the most up-to-the-minute research in science and engineering. The 4,000-student Bolton Institute of Higher Education has addressed the decline in Britain's songbirds: cats kill the few that remain in and around urban areas, so Bolton has come up with a cat's collar that emits an ultrasonic sound, which scares not the cat but the birds. At night, when all decent birds are asleep, the collar automatically switches itself off, allowing cats to hunt mice instead.

The University of London's federal colleges form a powerhouse of vital research. Professor John Saunders of the Royal Holloway College's low temperature physics group, has developed ultra-sensitive nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers and conducts experiments on matter close to absolute zero. A machine capable of reaching temperatures of 100 micro Kelvin - which is unimaginably cold - has been built. NMR helps in the detection of disease and abnormalities in soft tissues such as tumours.

It is a far cry from a collapsible picnic trolley. However, science and engineering are comparative in their respective contributions towards a healthier and happier life.