From the Stone Age to the era of microchips and graphene, materials have always been at the centre of human discovery and exploration. At Diamond, scientists spend a lot of time researching existing materials and trying to create entirely new ones. And it’s worth the effort; everything – our homes, our roads, our synchrotrons – depends on the properties of matter. Yes, there are many applications for advanced materials, but in this case, we’re looking at things that go Vroom.
To engineer a modern jet plane, you have to start with the individual atoms. Machines like Diamond open up an entirely new world of materials research, allowing scientists to scrutinise and manipulate the particles that make up matter. Understanding the atomic structure means scientists can shape their material to make it more efficient or manipulate the atoms to make it stronger.
Great big machines like ships and jet planes are only able to function because of very small details, like the quality of the alloy and the welds keeping the different pieces of metal together. Consider a jumbo jet – that massive structure needs strong welds to keep it in one piece, but there’s a lot of stress on those joints. What’s more, many welds are safety-critical, especially in bikes, planes, cars, or submarines. In 1985, a BA flight ended in tragedy after an engine fire broke out as a result of failed welding. That’s why it’s so important to monitor and improve the strength of these joints, and scientists at Diamond are on the case.
Howard Stone, David Dye, and Sebastien Rouquette are part of a French/Anglo collaboration currently using Diamond to measure in real time how stresses develop during the welding process. Howard explains: “If you’ve ever cut a carrot vertically in half, you’ll have noticed the two ends curl outwards, that’s because the tension keeping it together has been severed; that same tension is put on aeroplane welds. By monitoring and altering the welding process at the atomic level, we’re looking to reduce the tension in the metal and mitigate the likelihood of weld defects. It’s important work because there’s a lot more at stake than a broken carrot.”
There’s more to materials science than developing new matter; scientists also want to get the most out of materials we currently have. Think of a car from the 1920s and compare that with a modern vehicle – they look very different; that’s because, over the years, clever people have devoted their careers to determining the shape and composition of material that makes the car as efficient as possible. Dave Collins is one of those clever people. A post-doctoral researcher for Oxford University, he’s working for BMW MINI, looking at ways of stretching steel in new ways to make faster and more streamlined cars.