In-Depth

Region of discovery: 6 key North West breakthroughs

Region of discovery: 6 key breakthroughs in the North West

Research and invention have the potential to change the world as we know it, and the North West has seen more than its fair share of ‘Eureka’ moments. From Liverpool John Moores University’s role in the discovery of new exoplanets to the development of the world’s first steam-powered submarine in Manchester, Move Commercial looks back at some of the region’s most important breakthroughs.

Words by Mark Langshaw

 

Out of this world

NASA’s research into the secrets of the universe reached a potential breakthrough this year when a system of seven exoplanets was discovered orbiting the cool dwarf-star TRAPPIST-1.

With assistance from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), the space agency established that at least three of these worlds could be habitable, fostering the belief that it’s only a matter of time before we find out whether we’re alone in the universe.

Remotely controlling a telescope in the Canary Islands, LJMU’s astronomy team helped detect the planets as they passed in front of the star and provided NASA with vital supplementary data to support the observations of its orbiting Spitzer telescope.

According to Dr Chris Copperwheat of LJMU’s Astrophysics Research Institute, who co-led the international team, the university’s involvement in the exoplanets discovery is a win for the region as it could inspire promising scholars to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Astronomy has always been a gateway drug to science,” he tells Move Commercial. “It enthuses people and the response we’ve had to this discovery from children, amateur communities and the general public has been amazing.

“The fact we’ve been involved with this is something the entire region can be proud of. Hopefully it will inspire youngsters in the North West to embark on science-based careers.”

Dr Copperwheat reveals that his team will be involved in NASA’s follow-up research into the TRAPPIST-1 system, and is currently upgrading its telescope to make it more sensitive to atmospheric data as tests begin to establish whether the planets could support life.

 

“The fact we’ve been involved with [Trappist-1] is something the entire region can be proud of. Hopefully it will inspire youngsters to embark on science-based careers.”

 

Super sub

Submarine technology existed before Mancunian clergyman and inventor George Garrett introduced his creations in the 1870s, but most ofit ended up at the bottom of the ocean.

The Moss Side vicar’s work with Swedish industrialist Thorsten Nordenfelt led to the development of the first viable steam-powered sub, armed with torpedoes and military ready.

Garrett founded the Submarine Navigation and Pneumatophore Company at 56 Deansgate in 1878 but had to travel to Wirral to test his prototypes as Manchester lacked water deep enough.

Weighing in at 56 tonnes, the Nordenfelt I was a refined version of Garrett’s earlier inventions Resurgam and Resurgam II – the latter of which sunk off the coast of Rhyl during a trial run – and a lightbulb moment for watercraft development.

Although reliable propulsion tech for submarines would not arrive until the 1880s with the advent of electrical batteries, Garrett’s early work and his collaboration with Nordenfelt paved the way for the modern vessels the world’s most powerful navies later adopted.

 

 

Plastic fantastic

Environmentalists have never been its biggest fan, but it helped save thousands of lives in World War II and revolutionised the supermarket industry. Polythene is the most used form of plastic in the world, and it was first produced in an industrially practical form in Cheshire during the early 1930s.

The breakthrough came in 1933 at ICI Wallerscote’s plant near Northwich by accident when a team of chemists led by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson botched an experiment involving polymers.

The unexpected results yielded a white, waxy residue, which turned out to be polythene – a substance billions of carrier bags would eventually be made from.

It took ICI Wallerscote a further five years to consistently reproduce the chemical but they did so in time to boost the war effort, with polythene proving invaluable for radar cable insulation. This gave Britain the edge in long-distance air warfare and was vital during the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic.

Fast forward to the present day and the polythene breakthrough was a major coup for the North West for many reasons, not least because it’s now essential to a number of industries including food packing and has become an everyday feature in most homes across the developed world.

 

“There is a lot of value in the inspirational work that has taken place at Jodrell Bank.”

 

Getting with the program

In the spring of 1949, with Britain’s postwar recovery on track, University of Manchester researchers Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill made a breakthrough in the fledgling field of computing.

The trio’s Small-Scale Experimental Machine, known as SSEM orthe ‘Baby’, became the first computer to successfully run a stored graphical program.

Following this proof of concept experiment, a full-sized machine, dubbed the Manchester Mark 1 was created at the university, and it went on to form the basis of the first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, which left the production line in 1951.

The birth of the Baby and the Mark 1 – the former of which is on display at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry – were milestone moments for the global computing industry, which is vital to virtually every business in the world today and worth more than £350 billion – and that’s just the hardware market.

 

Making waves

Located in the heart of Cheshire’s countryside, away from the electrical interference of the region’s major cities, Jodrell Bank holds a unique position in the early history of the space age.

The observatory was founded to study the effects of cosmic rays in the earth’s atmosphere but, in 1950 under director Sir Benard Lovell, it earned a place on the map for innovation in a different field.

Using what was then the world’s largest radio telescope, astronomers Hanbury Brown and Cyril Hazard became the first individuals to pick up radio waves from another galaxy when they discovered signals from the M31 spiral nebula in the Andromeda constellation.

 

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This breakthrough resulted in the creation of a new subfield of natural science called radio astronomy, of which Sir Lovell became the world’s first professor in 1951.

Reflecting on the feat more than six decades later Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at the University of Manchester and associate director of Jodrell Bank, says the observatory’s historic discoveries have boosted the North West.

“Discoveries like this one helped develop Jodrell Bank as an internationally leading centre for research and that’s helped attract funding and talent to the region,” he adds. “There’s a lot of value in the inspirational work that has taken place here since then.

“Thousands of school kids come on educational visits here and it has undoubtedly inspired many of those to take up careers in science and technology.”

 

The National Graphene Institute in Manchester

Leading the way

Anyone who’s ever used a lead pencil has created graphene, but researchers had no clue how to isolate and extract the world’s thinnest material until a pair of scientists from University of Manchester cracked the conundrum in 2004.

Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov earned a Nobel Prize for demonstrating to the world how one atom thick, two-dimensional crystal graphene can be separated from graphite.

Ultra-light yet immensely tough, graphene works equally well as a conductor or a barrier and its applications since the University of Manchester duo’s discovery have been many.

The material has already made an impact in transport, medicine, electronics, energy, defence and desalination, and this is merely the beginning.

“Some recent developments which have come to fruition in the past few months alone include evidence that adding graphene to children’s toy Silly Putty can create cost-effective and highly sensitive medical sensors to monitor heart-rate and blood pressure,” says James Baker, graphene business director at The University of Manchester.

“Through a collaboration with watchmaking brand Richard Mille and McLaren F1 the University of Manchester has also been involved with creating the world’s lightest mechanical watch.”

The graphene discovery has helped Manchester secure investment for further research into the material. The £61m National Graphene Institute was established two years ago and the £60m Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre will open its doors in 2018 to ensure the city remains at the forefront of this disruptive technology.