Case Studies

User Engagement & Partnership Development

Forth Road Bridge Closure

Responding to a Major Travel Disruption

When it was announced that structural failure in the Forth Road Bridge would force its closure for three weeks in December 2015, researchers in The Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) with knowledge of major disruptions immediately offered their support to transport planners in Scotland. The closure affected an estimated 100,000 travellers every day, who were faced with large diversions and substantial delays.

Professor Greg Marsden – who had just completed a £1.1 million EPSRC funded project into how transport officials, the business community and the public respond to severe weather and other disruptive events – immediately began discussions with the national transport agency for Scotland (Transport Scotland).

“We saw this as an opportunity to assist Transport Scotland by providing our survey skills to see how people – from local authorities to rail, road and bus networks and their users – were reacting to the closure and incorporating this information into their evolving travel plans,” said Professor Marsden.

Impact Acceleration Account

The project was awarded £10,000 from the University of Leeds EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC.

Previous experience from the EPSRC project had clarified that in order to ensure accuracy of results it is important to survey those caught up in a major disruption during rather than post disruption, so in order to start the necessary work a fast decision on funding was needed. “That is where the IAA was essential,” says Professor Marsden. “Within a week we had the resources to carry out detailed survey work over an extended period on an event that the UK and Scottish governments were describing as ‘unprecedented’ and one that threatened to have a significant impact on the economy and local communities.”

Professor Marsden’s colleague and social survey specialist, Jeremy Shires believes this was made possible because ITS have an in-house survey team to hand with the skills and flexibility to respond quickly. “It was a very busy time for us,” says Shires who played a key role in the survey design and planning. “We had to liaise with other stakeholders and external partners to explore data sources, discuss the design of the questionnaires and agree the terms for data access.”

Insights Into Dealing with Disruptive Events

Through previous research collaborations with Professor Iain Docherty at the University of Glasgow – who also is a former Non-Executive director of Transport Scotland – the ITS team established an early connection with those tasked with developing and implementing a travel plan to minimise disruption.

As a result, Professor Marsden and his colleagues were invited to meet with the Transport Scotland team tasked with managing, evaluating and fine tuning the emergency travel plan response. “Having the support of the ITS was invaluable as we were able to learn from their knowledge of other disruptions which gave us useful insights into our own initial thinking,” said Director of Trunk Road and Bus Operations, Hugh Gillies. “More importantly, the findings from their live surveys were fed into our response and informed the ongoing adjustments to our Forth Road Bridge closure travel plan. We will also use the findings to shape how we deal with disruptive events in the future.”

Evaluating Long Term Effects

While the results of the survey were continuously fed to the travel planners, they were also collated into a much more analytical final report – Forth Road Bridge Closure Survey: Analysis of Commuter Behaviour – which was presented to Transport Scotland in September 2016. This report tracked the impact of the closure on car, bus and train travellers; it looked at the extent to which homeworking increased; how flexible working hours were used; and how people changed their travel behaviour.

This latter point was particularly significant, says Shires. “We found that amid all the negative feelings towards the closure, some 5% of people reported that it had had a positive impact on their journeys, and some of these people indicated that the changes they had made in how they travelled to work, or whether they worked more flexibly, might continue in the future. For instance, compressing work into four days rather than five, or working remotely had proved attractive.”

Also, the fact that some 6% of those questioned declared that they would not be returning to their previous mode of travel to work was especially significant. “There is the potential to capitalise on this latent behaviour change potential during ‘life events’ – for example job and house moves or through more deliberate and targeted behavioural shift strategies – which could be considered as part of the National Transport Strategy,” the report says. The survey data collected during the three-week closure could have an impact far beyond its immediate Lothian location. “There are lessons from this study that have implications for major disruption planning and transport planning across the country,” says Professor Marsden.

Sharing Lessons

Having delivered their final report, the ITS team and their colleagues from the University of Glasgow were invited by Transport Scotland to facilitate a workshop to share their findings and to promote the sharing of lessons learnt from managing the Forth Road Bridge Closure.

“It was a really well attended event, drawing senior figures from more than 20 different organisations involved in managing major disruptions. Our aim now is to take the ideas generated at the workshop, turn them into new research streams to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and to incorporate this into a ‘play book’ to help others more effectively plan for, and respond to disruptions,” Professor Marsden said.

He noted, for instance, that the ITS surveys showed just 19% of journeys were related to commuting or business. “While these are hugely disruptive because they occur in peaks, that leaves 81% of journeys that are much less understood. We need to understand these impacts better. We also concluded that those who are most adversely affected are not always those who complain the most loudly.”

“Often it is those with no voice, such as the elderly and single parents, who are most badly affected. It is important that policy makers recognise the impact these events can have on the more vulnerable, but less vocal, members of the community. To this end the workshop suggested that social impact/vulnerability assessments could be developed to understand this further,” Professor Marsden said.

The workshop also explored the diverse media for communicating with the public and the effectiveness of such media campaigns. “One of the big gaps in our knowledge is what happens to the messages that we send out, how do people respond? For instance, if we say to people that they should only travel if their journey is essential, how do they interpret that message?”

Developing a Resilience Strategy

Professor Marsden said the workshop also examined the idea of community and social resilience:
“All the evidence indicates that the response of businesses matters significantly since the quality of business contingency planning, and a firm’s attitude to flexible working all influence people’s perceived need to travel and makes a material difference to the ability of the economy to adapt to major disruptions, especially in the
immediate aftermath.”

“The implication of this is that we cannot just communicate with individuals about what they should do – we need a much more effective resilience engagement strategy that works at many levels and with different user groups and communities.”

Building that greater resilience will form a key element in the development both of a major disruption ‘play book’ for practitioners. It could also be incorporated into other ideas emerging from the IAA funded project to develop short courses and workshops for professionals around the country who want to better understand the measures they need to take to plan for and respond to events that significantly impact on the transport infrastructure and the mobility of people.

National Robotics Facility

Professor Robert Richardson, Professor of Robotics and Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, is the Director of the Institute of Design, Robotics and Optimisation and Director of the Leeds EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems, a world class, £4.3M facility for designing and creating robotic systems initiated in August 2013. 

The Government has identified Robotics and Autonomous systems as one of the ‘Great Eight Technologies’. The multidisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and clinicians at the University of Leeds are recognised as being at the forefront of robot design and construction. They are developing novel robotics systems and underpinning technologies with the purpose of revolutionising lives, economies and human societies. 

Following the creation of this world leading EPSRC-funded Robotics facility at the University of Leeds, Professor Richardson was the recipient of an award to the value of £30,800 from the Impact Acceleration Account to assist with the Facility’s strategic development. 

Purpose 

The purpose of the award was to initiate and develop new key relationships with industrial and academic partners in the fields of robotics and mechatronics regionally, nationally and internationally within the key themes of: 

  • Exploration
  • Assistive / enhancive
  • Rehabilitation
  • Surgical technologies 
  • Exploring new opportunities in space robotics, civil robotics and agricultural robotics. 

Impact 

As Professor Richardson explains,  

‘the IAA funding enabled us to expand our academic and industrial interface in size and scope. It has led to long lasting strategic collaborations that are mutually beneficial, and well on the way towards generating long lasting impact.’  

Specifically, the IAA funding resulted in: 

  • A review of the Robotics Industry’s needs and how the facility could contribute
  • A review of academics’ needs from the University of Leeds for industrial collaborators including establishing new collaborations 
  • 42 new potential industrial collaborators being contacted
  • Developing new relationships with 14 robotics related companies explored through two collaboration events in Leeds
  • Establishing a relationship with solar transport systems to develop solar powered autonomous cars. A pilot project, business feasibility study and ongoing work to produce a prototype have followed
  • Ongoing closer relationships with more than 10 industrial partners that have supported research grant applications and many have plans for shared endeavours, for example innovate UK applications
  • Working with new industrial collaborators towards joint projects and supporting their activities through the Robotics Facility
  • Putting systems in place to facilitate efficient and effective interactions with industry to build on the industrial engagement strategy developed within this project
  • Industrial partners growing substantially or becoming more focused in their work as a result of having direct access to the Facility and academic expertise.

The development of long-term strategic relationships is the key to the success of the Facility plus growth and focus within industry. The IAA funding has enabled the initial creation and nurturing of those partnerships. Industrial partners benefit from academic expertise. Rather than just manufacturing robotic components at huge expense, academics can advise whether those components would actually work in real life. This has enormous financial implications. Furthermore, society as a whole will be positively affected by robots which improve quality of life and the environment in which we find ourselves.  

Highways Benchmarking

Cost, Quality and Customer Efficiency Network

A fast-growing network of local councils is using performance benchmarking tools developed by researchers at the Institute of Transport Studies (ITS) to share best practice on highway maintenance – a performance improving initiative that could significantly drive down costs, while at the same time maintaining quality and improving customer satisfaction.

Indeed, the Cost Quality and Customer (CQC) Efficiency Network, which now has 84 local authority members, has already allowed participating authorities to demonstrate they have collectively made over £35 million of savings per annum over their 2010 baseline. A further £100 million per annum potential ‘Scope for Improvement’ has been identified.

Impact Acceleration Account

The CQC Efficiency Network is a collaborative venture between ITS researcher Dr Phill Wheat and leading performance and benchmarking company measure2improve (m2wi). Dr Wheat has used £25,000 funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) to refine the tools to support m2i in developing the fast growing network. The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC.

A Tool for Change

m2i are well respected within the highways sector for their benchmarking and auditing work which involves surveying road user and customer perceptions of the services delivered by local authorities,” said Dr Wheat. The company approached him to see if he could develop a more sophisticated way of comparing the performance of different councils against exemplary benchmarks.

Working with Phill and his colleagues has given us access to advanced benchmarking tools that can support local authorities up and down the country to learn from the best,” says m2i’s Sales Director Simon Pinkney, whose company has more than two decades of experience gauging business performance, measuring customer satisfaction, and providing the software tools to improve both.

“There are lots of performance benchmarking products on the market,” says Dr Wheat. “But they tend to measure lots of things, which results in every authority being good at some things and every authority being bad at some things. What we have done at ITS is develop a tool that cuts through the confusion and provides local authorities with a single reliable measure of performance that allows them to see where they stand in terms of cost, quality and customer perception. That is a powerful, collaborative tool for change.”

In developing the tool Dr Wheat drew on the ground breaking work he and his colleagues – Professor Chris Nash and Professor Andrew Smith – had done for the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in assessing the performance of Network Rail.

Our research revealed a 37% efficiency gap in relation to rail infrastructure costs and operations, relative to international best practice. The tools we have developed for the CQC network help us to identify similar gaps relative to best practice within the highway sector,” Dr Wheat said.

The work Dr Wheat and his colleagues did for the ORR resulted in annual efficiency targets being set for Network Rail which reduced costs from £18.2bn to £15.8bn over five years, between 2009 and 2014. So successful has the ITS technique been that the water and sewerage regulator Ofwat adopted the same tools for its periodic review in 2013.

Improving Services

Similar spending constraints are also on the horizon for Highways departments up and down the country. Jason Russell, Deputy Director, Environment and Infrastructure at Surrey County Council, who has worked with Dr Wheat and deployed the CQC tool, notes that the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme says that councils can manage the network and achieve the same outcomes at substantially lower costs by 2020. “This is not going to happen by changing the way we do things slightly – it will take a radical change in the way we do things. CQC gives us a tool to make that kind of radical change ourselves by sharing best practice,” Mr Russell said.

What we are doing in the network is a much more collaborative and iterative process than the setting of national targets. It is a tool for them to learn best practice from one another, to allow them to see what good looks like, and improve services while keeping control of costs,” said Dr Wheat.

Indeed, the Department for Transport (DfT) is now advising local authorities to carry out robust benchmarking audits against best practice to identify any gaps in performance. “It’s a measure of our success that the DfT actually cites the CQC as an exemplary tool to use,” said Dr Wheat.

Sharing Best Practice

But the biggest challenge of all – and the one that the IAA funding helped most in meeting – was the need to build a network of trust amongst different councils so that best practice could be shared. “There is understandable concern that if the results of our work were published they would be used as a stick to beat underperforming authorities. That is not what we are about. This is a collaborative benchmarking network not a regulatory benchmarking exercise, where we respect confidentiality while at the same time encouraging dialogue and collaboration between councils.”

In a bid to reconcile the need for confidentiality with the desire for open collaboration, Dr Wheat and representatives from m2i spent two years running workshops up and down the country, explaining the power of the tools and the benefits they could bring.

The IAA money was vital for this,” he said. “It allowed us to run these workshops, establish a rapport with the delegates and win the confidence and trust of the local authorities – which is essential to the success of the network and the tools it deploys. Without that buy in, it just becomes an ivory tower exercise with no real world impact.”

In order to communicate the benefits of the tools to elected politicians and officers Dr Wheat has developed an easy-to use model that allows council staff to see how the tools work and to discover the insights they can provide. With support from the IAA funding, Dr Wheat says he has been able to do this while at the same time maintaining the academic integrity and independence of his work and that of the ITS which gives him credibility among the authorities.

In addition to this, the flourishing relationship with m2i and the growth of the network has led to the creation of two new roles – ITS post-graduate researcher, Alex Stead, who is now the m2i Research Fellow in Efficiency Analysis and a Network Account Manager at m2i to help develop and maintain the network.

The big success of the CQC efficiency network is that it not only provides local authorities with the analysis and the objective support they need – it also strengthens the research base and reputation of ITS and the University of Leeds.” Dr Wheat added.

Virtuocity

Centre For City Simulation

The world’s cities are growing at an unprecedented rate, resulting in increasingly complex “grand challenges” for designers, planners and government if our urban centres are to be economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. In the face of such complexity, new tools are required to plan and run our cities. A collaborative venture between global design and planning consultancy, Arup, and researchers at the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) has been the catalyst for establishing Virtuocity – the University’s new Centre for City Simulation which aims to provide advanced capability to address these challenges.

Virtuocity builds on our international reputation in the field of simulation,” says ITS Professor Richard Romano, who leads the project and is ITS Chair of Driving Simulation. “It harnesses research talent from across a wide range of disciplines with industry leaders to create a fully immersive, virtual environment in which the design of future cities can be tried and tested.”

Creating a virtual test environment will enable scenarios to be built and evaluated in a fast, controlled and affordable way and perhaps most importantly, will avoid the risks that would be associated with implementing the wrong decisions in a real-world environment.

Arup’s Associate Director, Tim Griggs, who has been pivotal to the success of the venture agrees. “Virtuocity reinforces the collaboration between us through the pooling of resources, ideas, clients and partners to create opportunities that otherwise would not be achievable.”

Impact Acceleration Account

Professor Romano said that £50,000 of funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) was critical to the success of the engagement project. “It gave us the resources to deepen our relationship with Arup by funding two of their key people to work with us to stimulate ideas,” he said.

The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC.

Sharing Expertise

Arup’s senior transport modeller, Anna Vickers, was funded to work alongside researchers at the ITS to help develop collaborative projects with Arup. These range from a focus on the design of smart cities, through to transport simulation and the impact of autonomous vehicles.

A former Master’s student with ITS, Anna says the relationship she built up has already been very productive with a number of potential projects in the pipeline. “The secondment has given Arup the opportunity to see how our different skills can be harnessed in a complementary way.”

Widening The Scope Of Virtuocity

IAA money also enabled Arup to second a senior city modeller, Simon Mabey, to help widen the scope of Virtuocity. “3D city modelling and simulation allows us to build accurate digital representations of an entire city, granting greater precision to project planning. Far more than buildings, this technology also reflects the realities of that environment,” said Simon.

Arup understands that shaping a sustainable future – particularly in the urban environment – is one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century. “As a company we are rising to the challenge by investing in research and innovation,” says Anna. “But we also recognise that we can often make a bigger and better impact when we collaborate with likeminded partners – which is why we are working closely with the University of Leeds on the Virtuocity initiative.”

As a result of the IAA funding, the University has strengthened the link between its own research expertise and Arup’s R&D capability. This has already resulted in the building of an intelligent modelling tool incorporating Arup technologies. In addition, Arup has provided guidance on the procurement and installation of state-of the art Virtual Reality equipment, and loading it with Arup’s own 3D city models.

Fast-tracking the translation of existing high definition 3D city models into our driving simulator has been an important output from the project,” says Virtuocity’s Business Development Manager Dr Erik Thomasson. “It helps create a more immersive simulation experience and, therefore, a more marketable research facility for driving simulation projects.”

But the strength of Virtuocity is much more than its high-tech facilities; “Virtuocity’s strength is in collaboration. It brings industry experts and public sector decision makers into powerful partnerships with cutting edge researchers to transform the way we design and build urban environments in ways that are much more sustainable,” says Professor Romano. “This combined experienced will support policy makers to develop sustainable solutions to some of the most significant social, economic and technical challenges of our time.”

Driving Simulation

An aerospace engineer by training, Professor Romano came to Leeds from the United States where he was a leading researcher in the field of driving simulation, before establishing his own business Realtime Technologies which develops advanced, intuitive simulation and real time tools to drastically reduce the time it takes to deliver interactive simulation, test and acquisition systems.

Here at Virtuocity we have Europe’s most advanced driving simulator,” says Professor Natasha Merat who leads the Human Factors and Safety Group which is investigating road users’ interactions with new and current transport systems and technologies in a bid to advance transport safety. “We also have a pedestrian simulator – funded in part through the IAA in collaboration with Arup – and have recently installed one of the world’s most advanced truck driving simulators. This makes our simulation and research facilities among the most sophisticated and immersive in the world.”

This fully immersive approach is what Virtuocity is all about,” says Dr Thomasson, who cites research currently underway with Highways England as another example of the power of simulation. “They want to know what signage has the most effect on driver behaviour, to enhance the safety not only of their own staff working in a live traffic environment, but also the safety of drivers and other road users.”

Arup and Virtuocity are also leading the way in showing how immersive simulation technologies can shorten design time and reduce cost to industry, developers and the public sector.

It is already happening in the motor industry,” says Professor Romano. As part of a £10 million EPSRC funded collaboration with Jaguar Landrover, he and his colleague, Dr Gustav Markkula, a former driver-modelling specialist with Volvo Group Trucks, are using simulation technologies to give engineers a more realistic perception of what a design might achieve.

Jaguar Land Rover understand that by working with us they can develop tools that will deliver complex new vehicle programmes more quickly. It will also help save costs in product development by reducing the reliance on physical prototypes and have environmental benefits by limiting the number of prototypes that need to be driven and tested in the real world,” said Professor Romano.

Innovative Partnerships

Virtuocity has the ambition to help more than just industry. “We are already in discussions with a number of city councils – including senior officers and elected members here in Leeds – to see how we can help them in the design, planning and construction of major city developments. In Leeds, for instance, we have the ability to simulate what a traffic free City Square might look, feel and sound like to pedestrians: and simulate how the transition could be effected with the minimum of disruption,” Dr Thomasson said.

Since the IAA funding, the network of relationships with Arup’s city simulation teams has extended out from the Leeds office, to now include Manchester, Sheffield and London with whom a number of new opportunities are being developed.

Further collaborative work with Arup includes hosting of the Arup 3D city model in the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics and joint work with Transport for the North on the wider social benefits of transport investments.

Another collaborative venture with Arup is helping Transport for London reduce the number of fatalities and injuries to cyclists and pedestrians caused by buses and trucks turning left at junctions. This work, which currently involves University of Leeds psychologists, could soon be exploiting the recently installed truck simulator.

Referring to the latest IAA project, Arup’s Tim Griggs said: “The six-month collaboration between our two organisations has already yielded a number of ideas and opportunities that support both Arup’s business goals and the University’s research objectives.” In addition, he believes the collaboration will also enable Arup to identify students with the skills and experience that may be attractive to the company in terms of future recruitment or research projects.

We hope that this will be the latest in a series of innovative partnerships between our two organisations through which we can generate value and help shape a better world,” he said.

People Mobility

Accessible Highways

In a country with an ageing population, designing optimal services for older people and disabled groups, and maximising accessibility and mobility has become increasingly essential.  

Accessibility affects individuals’ financial, social, physical and emotional health and wellbeing. Additionally, older people and disabled people represent a significant proportion of the current – and potential – economically active population, and their expenditure can make a major contribution to local business. Failure to address the needs of these groups risks not only foregoing the benefits of their otherwise active involvement, but their inactivity will come at a great cost to society in the form of health and welfare costs. 

Knowledge Transfer Secondment 

Kasia Speakman – an expert in the operational aspects of planning to meet the mobility needs of travellers with disabilities – from the Sustainable Transport Team within Highways and Transportation at Leeds City Council was involved in an Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) funded 12-month Knowledge Transfer Secondment at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. Under the supervision of Principal Investigator Bryan Matthews, a renowned academic expert in the field, Ms Speakman investigated and assessed the impacts and effectiveness of a user-led approach in retrofitting the highways in and around Leeds with disability adaptations and street works. This research involved in-depth interviews with 20 disabled people from across the City who had submitted requests for adaptations to Leeds City Council. 

The secondment aimed to increase understanding of the importance of accessible street environments to people with mobility impairment, as a means of them maintaining or enhancing their independent mobility, their autonomy and their social and economic engagement with their local community; at the same time as reducing reliance on care interventions. As part of this, benefits to district centres from local spend by older and disabled people were explored, as well as less tangible, though nevertheless important factors, such as people’s sense of choice and control and wellbeing.  

The nature of the user-led requests included, for example, ramps and dropped kerbs to provide accessible routes that linked disabled people to the local facilities in their neighbourhoods enabling everyday journeys for retail, leisure and social interaction. This was a demand-led process where the most acute needs were identified by stakeholders – that is, disabled people, their carers, service providers and community groups. 

Transformational impact 

The research into the nature of the retrofitting itself revealed that the implemented changes had transformed the lives of those who had requested them on a financial, social, physical and emotional level. Additionally, by improving accessibility, local services also benefitted. 

Research participants commented as follows in relation to the transformational impact of dropped kerbs: 

‘Having dropped kerbs has changed how much I can get around my local area, and bus stops. Because you see that’s the other thing – the bus stop is all accessible but if you actually cannot get on to that bit of path you can’t get to the bus stop.’ 

‘They have made a real difference to whether I go independently or not, to whether I can go out or not, whether it is safe to go anywhere or not.’ 

‘It has helped me to feel more included – it opens up more avenues that I am able to access. I think it probably gives me the sense of wellbeing.’ 

The key transformational impact on older people’s and disabled individuals’ lives following Leeds City Council’s implementation of user-led requests has meant that they: 

  • Could go out independently and unaccompanied 
  • Didn’t always have to rely on a car, especially one driven by a family member 
  • Could go out more often 
  • Could go to more places 
  • Could reliably get to a place 
  • Could get on the bus whereas before they could not get to the bus stop or cross the road on the way back 
  • Had a reduced need to pre-plan journeys (previously they needed to be planned in terms of where the kerbs were, whether they were likely to be obstructed, e.g. at school times, after work, on bin-days) so there was greater flexibility in where they could go and with whom 
  • Experienced reduced travel costs because there was less reliance on taxi transport 
  • Could stay out longer as the journey was more comfortable, less painful and less stressful 
  • Had leisure journeys, which are crucial to wellbeing 
  • Could interact socially – from meeting strangers and friends to being able to go out with grandchildren.  

The strategy adopted by Leeds, to incorporate accessible design into all programmed street refurbishment works and, beyond that, to seek to be user-led by responding to disabled people’s incoming requests for street modifications, appears to be an effective one; it would, by working directly with users in order to arrive at an agreed solution, also tend toward being collaborative and inclusive in its approach. Consequently, the transformational impact of sometimes relatively minor street modifications, revealed through the interviews was quite remarkable.  

‘We wanted to marry research and real life. “You asked for X. We delivered X. What happened next? You got exactly what you asked for where you wanted it.” We were interested to discover what happened after the change took place. Did it make any difference and what’s the scale and scope of those changes? Once there has been a proliferation of requested changes, is there a bigger effect beyond that on an individual level? It transpired that the changes were “transformational” for people and their carers. They were transformational in what they could do and the ease with which they could do them. Even if it was going to the shop for nothing much in particular. It was the difference between getting out of the house that week or not. Why should they have to do everything in isolation and online?’ Kasia Speakman, Leeds City Council 

‘Technological innovation in transport often means that pedestrians get overlooked. Pedestrians are everyone’s and no one’s responsibility. The industry has become fixated on public transport and ensuring that everyone can board buses and trains, and buy tickets. These are all important but unless you can get out of your house and cross the street in front of your house some of those other things become irrelevant. We need to focus on the mundane yet really important aspects of transport planning: the first and final 50 metres on a journey. This is the last piece of the puzzle to be put in place. Saying that, getting the mundane things right isn’t a reason to put the technology to one side.’ Bryan Matthews, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds 

The Government is investing £173million into public transport improvement in Leeds and the findings from this research secondment have been fed into stakeholder events as part of the Leeds Transport conversation. Furthermore, the research findings were fed back bus operators resulting in improvements in West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s new fleet. 

The Knowledge Transfer Secondment enabled a two-way transfer of knowledge between Leeds City Council and the University of Leeds. The secondment explored the boundaries between theory and practice to the mutual benefit of disabled travellers in Leeds and much further afield through the dissemination of shared research findings at national and international conferences and in journal publications. The University benefited from access to real-world traveller data. 

The secondment has resulted in increased links between the University and Leeds City Council and has been a catalyst for expanded collaborative working between the two organisations.  

EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account 

£26,080 funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) was provided to fund Kasia Speakman’s 12-month Knowledge Transfer Secondment. The IAA is an institutional award funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research makes towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLCs. Leeds City Council provided user-data and access to users as a research resource in a field that is of growing national importance. In so doing, this key contribution enabled the Institute for Transport Studies and the wider Transport Systems Hub to position themselves as research leaders in this field. The company contribution from Leeds City Council in cash terms was an equal share of the staffing costs of the visiting researcher equally with the University. In terms of additional match-funding, Kasia Speakman also brought legacy customer data on disabled people and other hard to reach groups that has been valued at £15,000 (based on recent quotes received by the Institute for Transport Studies for commissioning similar survey work commercially). During the project, Ms Speakman contributed customer data through her substantive post in Leeds City Council with a further estimated value of £7,500. Leeds City Council also provided supervisory input valued at £5,000. Therefore the total industry in-kind contribution was £27,500. 

Segregation in Powder Mixtures

Transferring knowledge to solve industry challenges 

Dr Umair Zafar, Research Fellow from the School of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Leeds, completed a 12-month Knowledge Transfer Secondment with Procter and Gamble (P&G) Newcastle Innovation Centre in 2014. The purpose of the secondment was to investigate the segregation tendency of powder mixtures, specifically dry laundry powder, using methods developed by Professor Ghadiri’s innovative and cutting-edge research team based at the University of Leeds. 

Impact Acceleration Account 

The secondment, led by Professor Mojtaba Ghadiri from the University of Leeds, was funded by £39,000 from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) with support from P&G for travel and consumables. The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC. 

Mojtaba Ghadiri said  

“This award allowed the secondee to not only gain expertise in working with a multinational company, but also to transfer key background knowledge of the process developed at the University to P&G” 

Improving product performance 

Segregation, which is commonly associated with all sorts of powders across various industries, can have an adverse effect on both product quality and performance. Unsurprisingly, reduced product quality and performance has a negative impact on business and consumer interests leading to enormous dissatisfaction. For example, the segregation of active components in laundry powder such as enzyme granules can significantly impair product performance. For the consumer this means that their laundered items aren’t cleaned to the standards they would like. Additionally, segregation contributes to variations in both bulk density and chemical composition, which in turn leads to variations in product performance. 

Current solutions to segregation 

To try and overcome the issues created by powder segregation, the current industry-wide solution is to over-pack the dry detergent powder box. This over-packing alone costs P&G US$20 million in dry detergent powder every year. 

Knowledge Transfer Secondment 

Procter and Gamble has an internal global action plan to address the various elements and mechanisms associated with segregation. A collaborative programme between the University of Leeds and P&G was devised to develop a fast, reliable and simple technique to measure the extent of segregation.  

During the secondment, Umair Zafar examined and addressed the phenomenon of powder segregation using the vibration heap approach, a method developed by his predecessor Massih Pasha at the University of Leeds in collaboration with P&G. This is a fast method for quantifying the tendency and extent of segregation based on image analysis of vibrated two-dimensional heaps. Numerical simulation tools for modelling the segregation process were also developed and implemented. 

For measuring the segregation tendency of binary mixtures of different coloured powders, a user-friendly image analysis method was developed. The only input needed for the software was digital images of the powder heap. A heap test set-up capable of measuring segregation in the horizontal and vertical directions was designed, constructed and used in this work. A vibrating bed set-up was also developed, enabling the measurement of segregation due to vibration for example due to transporting the powder.  

Particle size, distribution, size ratio, vibration frequency and amplitude as a function of vibration time were all analysed to establish their impact on segregation.  

Dr Zafar also examined the effect of the stickiness of powdered surfaces – achieved by adding adhesive coating or binder – on the extent of segregation along with product properties such as flowability and bulk density for binary mixtures. This involved extensive investigation of: 

  • mixing sequences
  • concentration of materials in the formulation
  • fill levels of materials in the mixer
  • nozzle types for injection of non-ionic liquid
  • mixing times 
  • mixing speeds. 

The project also looked at the issue of caking and auto-agglomeration of powders during certain vibration conditions.  

Impact 

While the focus of this secondment was to specifically understand and then identify solutions to the segregation issues commonly associated with dry detergent powders, other industry areas that are negatively affected by segregation could also benefit from the work conducted during this secondment. For example, batteries are adversely affected by variations in porosity. Cough and cold drink sachet remedies are impaired by segregation. As these issues are partly due to segregation, consumers and industry could receive direct benefits in product performance and quality as a result of this secondment. 

Given that over 65 per cent of the output of the chemical industry is in particulate solids form and that segregation is often a major issue, the scale of opportunity is huge. Accordingly, this Knowledge Transfer Secondment, which focused on understanding the segregation tendencies of particulate mixtures – particularly where homogeneity is a critical requirement – is of enormous industrial and consumer interest and benefit.  

As a direct result of the secondment, industrial partner P&G is continuing this project as part of the Chariot programme supported by AMSCI. One role has been created at P&G and two additional PhD students are working on this topic at the University of Leeds. The objectives of the Chariot work are to develop mathematical models and further develop measurement methodologies to assess and predict the competing processes of flow and segregation (by percolation and angle of repose mechanisms) for minor particulate ingredients in bulk mixtures. 

Advanced Modelling of Seed Processing using the Distinct Element Method

In 2016, Dr Mehrdad Pasha from the University of Leeds completed a 12-month Knowledge Transfer Secondment with Syngenta. The secondment was led by Professor Mojtaba Ghadiri and funded by an IAA award from funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The secondment involved the advanced modelling of seed processing using the Distinct Element Method (DEM).  

The main objectives of this ongoing collaboration between the University of Leeds and Syngenta were the: 

  • Development of a generic coating model in DEM simulations for predicting the coating uniformity of the particles
  • Optimisation of process parameters to improve the coating uniformity of corn seeds in a rotary batch coater
  • Establishment of scale-up rules for the rotary batch seed coaters.

While working on his PhD at the University of Leeds, Mehrdad had developed a method for predicting flow, mixing and coating of corn seeds. The technique, which uses cutting edge simulation tools can be applied to large seed processing systems. This was of particular interest to Syngenta who were keen to acquire and imbed it within the company. Syngenta saw this as the first step towards developing a virtual laboratory for conceptual process design of seed processing based on DEM. 

The research conducted by Mehrdad during his PhD, which led to his Knowledge Transfer Secondment with Syngenta, was also recognised to have substantial impact and to be of such significance to both industry and academia that he won several awards including: 

  • Visualisation Award DEM Solutions – Winner of the ‘EDEM Visualisation Contest’
  • Young Researcher Travel Award International Fine Particle Research Institute – Winner of the ‘Brian Scarlet Travel Award’ 
  • Poster Award 7th World Congress on Particle Technology – Winner of ’Excellence in Modelling and Simulations’.
  • UK Particle Technology Forum 2016: Top poster prize.

Why is coating of particulate solids so important? 

The coating of particulate solids by a thin film layer is of significant interest to many industries for use in a variety of applications, such as seed and tablet coating. In seed processing, seeds are usually coated by gradual accumulation of successive layers of an adhesive and protective material comprising fertilisers and pesticides. This makes the seeds less prone to dusting and cracking which in turn reduces the loss of active ingredients.  

Achieving uniformity and a consistent quantity of coating material when treating the seeds is of enormous technological interest, however its analysis is challenging. During the relatively short coating time (typically within a few seconds), the seed particles grow by surface layering, accompanied by various surface phenomena such as wetting, adsorption, abrasion and drying. Fundamentals of these physical mechanisms in seed coating are poorly understood and commercial organisations often consider the practice more of an art. The Discrete Element Method, which simulates the motion and mechanical interactions of particles, is a valuable tool for predicting the processing behaviour of particles.  

Impact 

In addition to an enhanced strategic partnership between the University of Leeds and Syngenta, the secondment resulted in a sharing of understanding about new coating formulations and improved coating uniformity. This has resulted in a reduction in the amount of coating material used. In turn this will bring environmental benefits and will result in improved seed coating quality. As a consequence there will be higher crop yields due to an improvement in the seeds’ enhanced germination potential. On a global level, this will help improve the world’s food supply.  

As Mehrdad Pasha and Principal Investigator Mojtaba Ghadiri explain: ‘Increased insight in key phenomena involved in spray coating for seeds has provided the impact potential for significant improvement of seed quality and germination efficiency for Syngenta products.’ 

Additionally, the understanding developed through seed coating and DEM can be directly transferred and applied to the coating of tablets in the pharmaceutical industry. This will result in the improved targeting and efficacy of medicines in tablet form. 

Following the Knowledge Transfer Secondment, Syngenta decided to expand their in-house expertise and activities in this field. To build upon the understanding developed during this project, they have created an associated role to continue the work, with currently two internal projects emanating from this KTS. They have also purchased computer hardware and a DEM software licence to implement the models in-house. 

At the University of Leeds, a new PhD project at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Complex Particulate Products and Processes (CP3 CDT) was formulated to understand the coating process mainly aimed for tablet coating. The findings and the models developed during this Knowledge Transfer Secondment could be very useful for the CDT project. 

Findings from this Knowledge Transfer Secondment have also been disseminated widely through publications and at conferences nationally (UKTPF) and internationally (World Congress 2014, AIChemE/PTF 2016, PARTEC 2016, Powders and Grains 2017). 

Overall, the outcome has increased insight in key phenomena of mixing and coating leading to better coatings, together with potential plans to develop a virtual laboratory for advanced seed processing. 

C-Capture

Carbon (CO2) capture and storage (CCS) is a key climate mitigation strategy if we are to keep below the 2ºC global warming target of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is clear from a number of detailed studies that CCS must play a key role in decarbonising energy and manufacturing, and any major developments in this area should be of major long term benefit to the UK, and indeed, the planet. 

In 2017 Professor Christopher Rayner from the University of Leeds School of Chemistry was awarded £46k from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) to fund his secondment on a part time basis for 12 months to the University Spin Out, C-Capture, to help the scale up and commercialisation of C-Capture technology in the Biogas upgrading and Carbon Capture and Storage areas.  

C-Capture was founded by Professor Christopher Rayner as a spin-out company in 2009. C-Capture employs both chemists and engineers to work at the interface of the two vital disciplines to develop new methods for separating CO2 from other gases, with particular emphasis on reducing energy requirements for the process, and improved environmental credentials compared to existing chemical solvent based approaches. C-Capture are developing 2 complementary streams; the first, Biogas upgrading is a major commercial opportunity for the company in the short term, the second, Carbon Capture and Storage (the original company focus) is a longer term goal with significant potential impact and returns. 

“The timing of the knowledge transfer secondment worked out particularly well. Whilst C-Capture had been developing its technology over the last few years, it was now ready for deployment and identifying key opportunities for this” stated Professor Rayner mid-way through his secondment in 2018 when describing the two main developments that had occurred that far. 

Firstly, C-Capture had secured its first commercial contract; a £400k pilot scheme at Drax, the UK’s largest power station, where they began converting their coal-fired boilers to biomass in 2012. The objective of the pilot was to demonstrate that C-Capture technology could capture one tonne of CO2 per day, with a capture rate of 90%. This represented the first demonstration trial of Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) in Europe. It was envisaged that this would lead to a further pilot around 100 times larger in scale. Commenting on the Pilot at Drax Professor Rayner stated:  

“We have developed fundamentally new chemistry to capture CO2 and have shown that it should be suitable for capturing the carbon produced from bioenergy processes. 

The key part is now to move it from our own facilities and into the real world at Drax. Through the pilot scheme we aim to demonstrate that the technology we’ve developed is a cost-effective way to achieve one of the holy grails of CO2 emissions strategies – negative emissions in power production, which is where we believe the potential CO2 emissions reductions are likely to be the greatest.” 

Secondly, many of the running expenses of the company were covered under a large grant from the BEIS Energy Entrepreneurs Programme V, ca. £1.2M, which included ca. £250k from the Carbon Capture Project (a consortium of BP, Chevron and Petrobras). This incorporated work at Sintef (Norway) providing an independent evaluation of the technology. The company also had a smaller Innovate UK grant looking at opportunities for cost reduction in their processes. In addition, the company was undertaking discussions with various external investors for a further round of funding to allow exploration of other potential markets.  

Moving to the present-day C-Capture has designed, built and installed a pilot plant which has been operating on site at Drax, with real flue gas, since early 2019. The data gathered from this trial is feeding directly into the design process for a full-scale plant, with a target of 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per day captured from one of Drax’s four biomass fired boilers. A recent development has been the installation of equipment to bottle the captured CO2 to allow other organisations to test their own developing technologies with genuine Drax derived CO2. 

In 2019, based on the initial data from the Drax pilot, C-Capture and Drax were jointly awarded a multimillion-pound grant (c. £5m) by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to further develop the process technology and understand the feasibility of applying it to Drax’s specific situation. Will Gardiner, Drax Group CEO, states:  

“If we scale C-Capture’s BECCS technology up at Drax across all four of our biomass generating units, the impacts will be far reaching. As the world’s first negative emissions power station, Drax could become the ‘anchor’ for a CCS network in the Humber region, capturing carbon from other nearby industrial emitters as well as our own CO2. C-Capture’s technology could enable us to not only make a real impact on reducing our own carbon emissions, but also to deliver clean growth and jobs across the north, as well as new export opportunities for the UK making this project of major significance globally.” 

Funding from BEIS combined with on-going investment from BP, Drax and IP Group (c. £4.7m) has enabled C-Capture to build a team with unique skills and capabilities, including a crop of extremely talented recent chemistry and engineering graduates. The business systems support team is also expanding as C-Capture transitions from a mostly R&D based organisation to one on a firmly commercial footing. Overall, since the start of the secondment in 2017 C-Capture has expanded their team from four to eighteen.  

In January 2020 C-Capture appointed their new CEO to lead the company into their next phase of growth as they work to deploy their unique technology across a broad range of industrial sectors. C-Capture’s technology can help deliver the carbon emission reductions which are essential if the worst impacts of the currently unfolding climate crisis are to be avoided. 

https://www.ipgroupplc.com/media/portfolio-news/2018/2018-05-21  

https://www.c-capture.co.uk/our-story/ 

https://www.ipgroupplc.com/media/portfolio-news/2019/2019-06-27b 

Infrared Oxide Glasses for Lasers

Research and innovation in the engineering sector is key to discovering new technologies for use in areas such as manufacturing, transport, energy and healthcare. At the University of Leeds our expertise in engineering research is helping to make the products of tomorrow possible, as we work alongside industry to identify challenges that require radical change in manufacturing and product design.

Mode-locked Lasers for Precision Surgery

One area where research is leading to new techniques for medical use is in the development of mode-locked lasers for precision surgery, which is being led by Professor Animesh Jha from the School of Chemical and Process Engineering in collaboration with Dr. Tom Brown and Prof. Wilson Sibbett, FRS in the Ultrafast Lasers Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews. Mode-locking is a method to obtain ultrafast light pulses from lasers, to make them more precise in terms of power delivery for medical applications; for example in the restorative process for acid eroded enamel, damaged soft tissue, and damaged bone.

Led by Professor Jha, in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews, the team has received EPSRC and EU funded grants worth £3.5 million for designing a medical device comprising a bespoke ultrafast near-IR laser with engineered tissue material for restorative procedure.

Knowledge Transfer Partnership

Professor Jha’s team initially worked with independent R&D consultancy and testing facility Glass Technology Services (GTS), researching special types of glass for making advanced lasers. This work was funded by a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), a programme partially funded by government through Innovate UK, to help businesses develop and gain a competitive advantage with the help of UK universities. Each KTP creates a unique partnership between a business, the University and a highly skilled graduate to deliver a strategic innovation project.

Impact Acceleration Account Knowledge Transfer Secondment

Following this initial research into manufacturing glass for lasers, Professor Jha was awarded £29.5k from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) for post-doctoral student Dr Billy Richards to complete a year-long secondment at GTS. The secondment enabled the transfer of knowledge on novel infrared transmitting glasses. This transfer created expertise in the company for further developmental activities in this area. Together with the knowledge of market the GTS group geared up the collaboration with industry partners and built capabilities for manufacturing. The process scale-up at GTS was supported via the Innovate UK partnership in collaboration with Leeds.

The knowledge transfer was two-way, providing Dr. Richards with knowledge and experience of new research activities and directions, and vital links to the industry.

As well as being able to pass on my knowledge to GTS, I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed my secondment,” Dr Richards said. “The industry links I gained were truly invaluable. I’ve also been able to continue the knowledge transfer within the University, as I’ve trained another three students in similar areas to continue the research.”

Another result of Dr Richard’s work with GTS was that the University was able to create a manufacturing company, Vitritech Ltd, which will manufacture laser glass and related finished products in future.

Laser Research Projects

GTS have also been able to draw upon the success of the laser research projects with the University of Leeds to successfully bid for a grant from Innovate UK to create a UK centre of high-tech glass research and manufacturing.

The company is now working on a project using laser technology to improve existing glass-cutting techniques, which is set to transform glass processing capabilities across the industry.

The “Bright Slice” project, funded by a £93K grant from the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, addresses issues experienced when cutting flat glass substrates through the development of a novel glass-cutting technique using special lasers. The process aims to deliver a cleaner, safe more cost-effective process, which has the potential to be applied across several other sectors – such as glass fibres, photonics, solar panels and tableware.

The success of the funded laser projects has enabled Professor Jha and his team to engage with larger research networks of industry and academia, thereby facilitating a very high-standard of PhD and postdoctoral staff training.

Since 2008, Professor Jha and his research colleagues have published more than 100 papers in high impact factor journals, as well as regularly presenting invited and contributed papers and plenary talks at international conferences.

Fixing Tooth Enamel Erosion

Through the funded research projects, Professor Jha with the laser teams at St. Andrews University and University of Leeds School of Dentistry discovered that ground-breaking laser technology could be developed for use in regenerative medicine. The team was formed to work on an emerging issue in oral health which is known as the acid-eroded enamel. This is a lifestyle symptom which is prevalent at all ages, and there is no cure. Toothpastes in supermarkets and pharmacies provide symptomatic relief but do not cure the damaged surface by permanently fixing the enamel.

Professor Jha and his team have formulated materials for restoring the enamel surface using the lasers developed. The technique brings together the power controlled mode-locked laser and novel materials onto the damaged surface and restores the exposed dentine with the acid-resistant enamel material. Aesthetic balance is maintained in this process. This is a paradigm shift in laser-based precision surgery which is going to open new opportunities for patient care. “It’s a bit like plastering a wall,” Professor Jha explained. “You fix the cracks in the wall surface with the plaster, which then becomes part of the wall. The synthetic material is actually more acid erosion resistant than natural tooth enamel, so once it’s fixed into place in the patient’s mouth with the laser, we will make their teeth stronger and cure the problem.”

He explained that the lasers the team at St. Andrews has developed are one of the fastest lasers in the world. “You’re talking about one of the fastest clocks in the cosmos,” he said. The beauty of this pulse is it carries energy or power in a way that a normal CW laser would not do.

He added: “Mode-locked lasers carry powerful packets of energy, but it’s being delivered in a way that it doesn’t cause damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.”

In addition to creating the technology, The Leeds-St. Andrews team with industry partners have developed the medical device which will be able to use a compact form of laser. The laser maintenance and operation cost is considered in our design, and this approach will make the medical device cost affordable for use in clinics and hospitals. This area of research on cost-affordability is as important as the technology itself, since they need to work on a commercial scale so that the devices can be rolled out into use in dental surgeries and hospitals. He explained: “If you can make devices affordable it can reach a much wider application space from small surgeries to hospitals etc. That’s very important.”

Further medical applications

Professor’s Jha’s work in advanced lasers and synthetic tissue manufacturing is also leading to further medical applications, such as treating gum disease, developing synthetic bone material and use in diagnosing bowel disease.

Professor Jha explained: “There’s a plethora of applications for surgery. We have a very difficult journey ahead of us, but it’s a learning experience. We must learn and fi x it, then move to the next problem – this is how I see it as an engineer.”

Shaping London’s Clean Air Policies

Ultra-Low emissions Zone Strategy

As one of Europe’s leading authorities on vehicle emissions and air pollution, it was perhaps inevitable that James Tate should find himself invited to play role in shaping Transport for London’s (TfL) ultra-low emissions zone strategy.

TfL had a skills gap that they needed to close quickly,” says Dr Tate, whose research at the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS) has been instrumental in exposing the hazards that modern diesel vehicles pose to people and the environment.

In looking to bridge that gap, TfL got in touch with senior figures on the ITS industrial advisory board who understood both the needs of policy makers and the capabilities of the Institute’s cutting edge research. Dr Tate was immediately identified as the right candidate to give TfL access to air quality and vehicle emissions expertise, including access to state-of-the-art mathematical models of real driving emissions.

Impact Acceleration Account

Dr Tate was awarded £8,000 from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) to support his secondment. “Normally such a project would have taken months and months to secure funding, by which time the opportunity would have passed,” said Dr Tate. “That’s why access to the IAA was crucial to making this happen.” The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC.

Forecasting Vehicle Emissions

No sooner had the EPSRC funding been agreed than Dr Tate was on a train to London. Hot-desking with colleagues across disciplines, he soon became a trusted and highly valued member of the team working to shaping the capital city’s clean air policies. “TfL had a long wish list of things they wanted me to look at,” he said. But the immediate focus was on providing reliable evidence on the real emissions performance of cars, taxis, vans, trucks and buses in London driving conditions. “We combined TfL’s measurements with my own and adjusted my research models to reflect the London fleet and driving conditions. This evidence now underpins the design of air pollution policies including efforts to develop a new, clean London taxi and the Ultra-Low Emission Zone plans.”

I had been collecting my own evidence on the real emission performance of vehicles long before the VW scandal broke. It was clear to me that the figures being cited by the manufacturers and often echoed by policy makers were overly optimistic about how clean modern diesel engines really were,” said Dr Tate, who has since appeared before the House of Commons Transport Select Committee to give evidence on the startling discrepancies between vehicle emissions recorded in the lab and those in the real world.

The forecasting models that he and his colleague at ITS have developed, by contrast, are much more accurate and realistic than those available to policy makers, and it was these insights that the strategists at Transport for London were keen to explore.

They knew their forecasting wasn’t as good as it could be, and they wanted to make a step-change in how they did their modelling,” he added. TfL were impressed with the advanced, dynamic modelling that ITS had developed and that set the benchmark standard.

But what they were able to show Dr Tate was equally impressive. “TfL has more data on the latest Euro 6 / VI vehicles than perhaps the rest of Europe put together: huge data streams that they hadn’t really tapped into or exploited to the full: for a researcher this was a gold mine. They also have high resolution data on bus movements and emissions that allowed me to show the clean air benefits that would come through investing in renewing the bus fleet,” he said.

In addition to clean air – it is estimated that as many as 9,500 people die each year in London because of air pollution – TfL were also keen to limit their impact on climate change. “There is a widespread feeling within TfL that they are under predicting C02 emissions from road transport. So we started talking about how we could do this better,” Dr Tate said. By combining his knowledge and models with the vehicle data that TfL was able to provide, Dr Tate developed a forecasting tool kit that much more accurately predicts the levels of carbon dioxide emissions from traffic in London.

Sharing Expertise

Having James as a member of our strategy team has given us fresh insights into how we can exploit the rich data streams that we have within our organisation,” said Elaine Seagriff, Head of London Wide Policy and Strategy. Elaine is a key player in the development and execution of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and the transport elements of the Mayor’s spatial development strategy. “James has challenged us in a very positive way, making a significant contribution to both the clean air and the climate change dimensions of London’s Transport Strategy.”

Indeed, TfL are now using the toolkit – designed and developed using the knowledge and expertise at the ITS in Leeds – to help them model not just carbon emissions but also the wider air quality impact that traffic has on the city and its people. “Our models are much better at reflecting real world conditions, and especially those in London where there is a lot of slower, stop and start driving,” Dr Tate said.

His work is now being factored into London’s wider pollution model to look at how emissions disperse across the city. “It’s a very exciting development and one we and the TfL team are working on together. We are publishing papers together and leading conferences to discuss and disseminate what we are doing. This is great for the staff at TfL because it raises their profile and shows the contribution they are making to improve the health and wellbeing of the people living and working in London.”

Continuing Support

A measure of the success of the initial IAA funding is that TfL has not only funded two extensions to his original secondment but has developed a much closer relationship with the ITS, which is reflected in a partnership agreement and an application to join a Framework Agreement to become a supplier to TfL. Other collaborative opportunities – including joint provision of CPD – are also being discussed as a direct outcome of the improved dialogue fostered between the two organisations.

Our goal is to develop the tools that will enable London’s policy makers to base their decisions on the best evidence. The access we now have to their data shows the trust and respect that TfL has for what we do. We have shown them just how valuable this information is, and how they can use it for the benefit of London. But TfL also wants to share this information and best practice. We have presented jointly at conferences and I have been promoting it within the research community.”

Dr Tate says there is lasting legacy to come out of that initial funding. “TfL now have a number of toolkits that were made and developed with significant input from ITS researchers at the University of Leeds. This resource is enabling them to blaze the trail in terms of policy advances for improved air quality in our cities,” he said.

Perhaps most controversially, TfL look set to act on his advice to allow older petrol cars to be able to drive freely in the ultra-low emission zone “to make a powerful differentiation between petrol and diesel.” That will not be an easy decision to take, but the evidence is there and TfL have listened and understood the evidence.

Dr Tate is continuing to support TfL with its carbon reduction strategy but he has also been asked to work with the organisation’s Surface Transport (Operations) team – sub-contracted through the internationally recognised traffic microsimulation company TSS (Aimsun). His vehicle emissions models at different levels of detail will be integrated with the Aimsun software which is very widely used across the transport industry.

I have been at the very heart of policy making and now developing tools that will be used widely across Europe. This is also great for my students,” says Dr Tate. “They come to the ITS because they know they will be taught by people who are not only at the cutting edge of theory, but who are also deeply engaged with putting those theories into practice. TfL are regarded around the world as a beacon of transport planning for what they are doing from cycling and health to the environment and clean air. Our partnership with them will only make ITS and the University of Leeds all the more attractive to the best students from around the world.”

Delivering the Low Carbon Economy in Leeds

Building a Better City

Dr Tom Knowland, Head of Sustainable Energy and Climate Change at Leeds City Council, recently completed a 12-month secondment working with the Sustainability Research Institute at The University of Leeds on a part-time basis. The purpose of the secondment was to develop and share knowledge and best practice in two areas of key importance to the city of Leeds: developing a low carbon economy; and supporting low carbon/high quality lifestyles. The secondment has had a far-reaching impact across the city of Leeds and has resulted in the development of significant relationships between academia and industry.

As Tom Knowland explains, “We need to build a resource-efficient, climate resilient city, which will be a better place to live for all of us, but will also make us more competitive and better able to ride out future economic shocks. Partnerships between the University and the City Council could be a profitable way to tackle these issues close to home, as well as producing research outcomes that are of global benefit.”

Impact Acceleration Account

The secondment was part funded by an award of £38,200 from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). The IAA is an institutional award funded by EPSRC to help speed up the contribution that engineering and physical science research make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit UK PLC. Additional support was provided by Leeds City Council for a range of sustainability tasks across the council.

Identifying Priority Areas

The secondment enabled University research into low carbon to be deployed into the city of Leeds. The research identified six priority areas in which to develop major projects:

  1. energy behaviour change
  2. new build housing
  3. transport
  4. bioenergy
  5. energy storage
  6. air quality.

Partnerships

Numerous partnerships were created across the city and further relationships have been identified and built between the Faculty of Engineering, the School of Earth and Environment, the Institute for Transport Studies and the School of Geography at the University of Leeds with over 11 different departments within Leeds City Council. The development of these partnerships has brought a diverse range of benefits to those living and working in Leeds.

Collaborative Projects

This secondment led to more than 25 new collaborative project ideas and 12 new research proposals.

Two new projects have been funded and four postgraduate student research projects delivered. Additionally, two significant pieces of research have since begun in the city, which were both supported in the wider work of the original secondment. Transformational Routemapping for Urban Environments (under the RCUK Urban Living Partnership) is a multi-sector consortium collaboratively diagnosing interrelated urban challenges. The EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems is a £4.3 million national facility which gives researchers and industrial partners access to a suite of technologies for robot design and construction.

A further outcome of the secondment was the development of the Leeds Committee on Climate Change (LCCC). The broad aim of the LCCC will be to advise local partners and decision-makers on carbon emissions targets and prepare reports on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change.

The LCCC would act as a focus for achieving the implementation of measures such as those identified in the Mini-Stern Review for the Leeds City Region, by helping to make the economic case for project development, implementation and investment in low carbon and climate resilience projects in the city.

Specific projects were either progressed, completed or developed to the point of implementation during the secondment bringing substantial benefits to a diverse range of interests such as air quality, bioenergy, energy storage technologies, energy use in social housing, smarter travel solutions, major vehicle fleet analysis, sustainable design and construction, to name just a few.

Sharing Expertise

During the secondment, additional numerous partnership opportunities were identified, of which 11 were recommended for further development.

There’s such a wealth of expertise at the University and it is very rewarding to find ways to apply that expertise in ways that improve the city we live and work in. Through this secondment we opened up a range of new research routes and positive research relationships,” said Dr Alice Owen, Associate Professor in Business, Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement at the University of Leeds.

Joint funding for projects has been pursued, with successes in both attracting funding for specific projects (for example approximately £10,000 for Energy Use in Social Housing), funding for projects being developed in the city (for example about £3 million for Smarter Travel Solution and Energy Storage Technologies) and numerous examples of in-kind support from existing research resources.

Additionally, the secondment led to the extensive learning for the processes and capacities required to ensure effective alignment of University research expertise with Council strategic priorities. Recommendations were developed to put in place improved liaison processes between both organisations.

Overall, the secondment has had a far-reaching impact across the city of Leeds and has resulted in the development of significant relationships between academia and industry.

This secondment took place at a time when both Leeds City Council and the University of Leeds have a mutually shared interest in achieving successful collaboration between both organisations. The experience of “embedding” a Council employee inside the University has been shown to be a vital catalyst in driving collaboration, building up levels of trust within both organisations, establishing networks, increasing communication and creating the environment within which effective collaboration is more likely to succeed.” Dr Tom Knowland said.

Early Stage Commercialisation

uPath

In 2006, the University of Leeds (UoL) initiated joint inter-disciplinary research with the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT) to develop a patented software solution, the Leeds Virtual Microscope (LVM). The LVM is unique as it is the only virtual microscope in the world that:  

  1. Provides pathologists with a field of view that is as large as a conventional light microscope to allow for efficient diagnosis 
  2. Renders virtual slides in real time on the high-resolution displays that are needed for that field of view 
  3. Allows pathologists to interactively view large (100+ slide) patient cases to make complex diagnoses 

The LVM research programme was launched through funding for the capital cost of the original UoL’s School of Computing Powerwall displays (HEFCE, 2005, £40k), systems development (JISC, 2006, £30k), and a case study (Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2006, £5k). This case study (Treanor et al., Histopathology, 2009) led to a substantive 3-year project (NIHR, 2009-2012, £591k) that investigated how high-resolution virtual microscopes should be designed. It produced novel prototypes for single-slide cases and large patient cases. A proof of market study also highlighted some development needs to the LVM, in that it lacked certain functionality that was vital to proving its commercial concept. Using this information, the Leeds based EPSRC Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) funded a £130k proof of concept project to advance the TRL. 

The result of this work led to the award of £37k in 2014 from the EPSRC IAA to fund the employment of a full time software engineer. The engineer, coupled with time from the two co-investigators, allowed specific market led improvements to be made. The technology is now agnostic to the virtual slides that are being rendered. This allows for the broadest vendor reach with richer functionality for interacting with virtual slides, such as tracking techniques that show pathologists the slides/regions they have inspected and importantly, evaluation of the above with pathologists in a field setting. 

The extensive work carried out by the LVM team, together with the funds provided through the EPSRC IAA, has allowed the LVM to progress to a fully commercial product. In 2015, a commercial agreement was signed with Roche, the world’s largest biotech company. Roche have since developed the software further and, in 2019, they announced the launch of uPath enterprise software. This commercial agreement provides both financial return to the University and inventors and a pathway to impact to develop case studies for the REF 2020 exercise. 

“With this launch, we are able to deliver an improved digital pathology experience consisting of the VENTANA DP 200 slide scanner and uPath software, which are the foundation to further enrich our portfolio of automated clinical algorithms for pathologists,” said Jill German, Head of Roche Tissue Diagnostics. “We’re excited to offer pathology labs a high-quality solution to help improve workflow efficiencies, accuracy and precision tools. This launch is another major milestone in our commitment to the advancement of patient care through digital pathology, empowering pathologists to deliver next-level personalized healthcare solutions.” (https://diagnostics.roche.com/global/en/news-listing/2019/roche-launches-uPath-enterprise-software.html) 

Intelligent Data Centre Optimisation

The rapid growth of the data centre market is driving the need for greater efficiency in terms of performance and energy consumption. The industry currently uses 3% of global electricity and this is forecast to rise to 9% by 2030. Competitive and regulatory pressure is mounting and the limits of gains that can be achieved through hardware and cooling design are getting closer. 

In 2014 Professor Jie Xu of the University of Leeds School of Computing, secured £127k backing for a project to develop predictive software technology that could provide data centre operators with advanced decision support capabilities to model scenarios within their data centre, enabling users to make significant improvements in the energy efficiency of their computing infrastructure, a key concern in the industry. This technology was the culmination of eight years of research across six different projects between 2005 and 2013 with a total budget of £3.1million 

The EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account contributed £70k to the project and additional gearing of £37k was provided by the School of Computing together with a £20k in-kind contribution from project partner Adapt a provider of data centre, cloud and business continuity services (now owned by Rackspace). This pooled resource created an investment bridge enabling the development of a prototype demonstrator that was independently validated by a real world data centre and provided the means to seek market calibration with key opinion leaders.  

The project led to the establishment of the spin out company, Edgetic Ltd, which received £450k initial investment in September 2017 and recently secured another £500k investment. The company uses patent IP developed at the University based on long-standing research from the groups of Professor Jie Xu and Dr Paul Townend (formerly of the School of Computing now Chief Technology Officer at Edgetic) licenced to the company. The IP uses Machine Learning techniques to automatically learn the behaviour and characteristics of all the components in a data centre.  

“The timing of the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account was ideal as by the start of 2014 we had developed our award-winning predictive software technology and had a partner in place (AIMES Grid Services) to validate it in a real world scenario. The IAA funding and support of the School of Computing provided us the necessary resource to take our ideas to the next level, the intention was to be in a position to license our technology and to form a spin out company. We are very happy to have achieved both.”Professor Jie Xu 

Edgetic is one of the first companies to successfully harness the power of artificial intelligence combined with deep hardware modelling and simulation to demonstrate the major gains to be achieved using software.  

Building on advanced research in machine learning, hardware modelling, and user and software behavioural analytics, Edgetic has been implementing early versions of its software in conjunction with the leading Swedish data centre organisation, RISE North. Results from RISE North demonstrate large gains in overall efficiency (measured as improvement in performance combined with reduction in power consumption). Edgetic technology has most recently been deployed on over 500 machines located at the RISE SICS North research institute in Sweden, which has resulted in power consumption being reduced by 20%. 

These results show the potential for a paradigm shift in the optimisation of power and performance in data centres. Edgetic is now focusing on improving the breadth of behavioural models, with a machine-learning based modeller for predicting the resource utilisation of workloads being developed. This will be combined with Edgetic’s existing hardware models to further optimise the performance and energy requirements of data centres. 

“Without the funding received through the Impact Acceleration Account and the support that we were able to leverage against it we may still be a long way from the position we are in today. Edgetic currently employs 7 staff, together with a placement student from the University. We are continuing to grow and hoping to embark on a substantial recruitment drive over the next 12 months.” Dr Paul Townend 

Satsense Limited

Small deformations of the ground or manmade structures can indicate a wide range of natural and manmade subterranean processes. Knowledge of such deformation over time can be used, for example, to monitor the stability of structures such as dams and bridges, to determine suitable locations for new oil pipelines or nuclear power stations or to monitor the effects of human activity such as fracking, oil exploration or mining. Additionally, this information can give an early warning of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Information about these phenomena can have major economic and environmental value and so markets exist for ground motion measurements. Ground deformation data can be obtained by distributed networks of GPS monitors or from satellite data and companies exist who can provide this information. Currently, however, obtaining this potentially valuable data is prohibitively expensive or difficult for many potential commercial users. 

Satellite radar interferometry (InSAR) can provide sensitive remote measurements of ground and structural motion/deformation without the need to install networks of GPS sensors. A number of existing commercial satellites can generate this type of data and companies exist to provide bespoke processing and interpretation to paying customers. When data from ESA Sentinel-1 radar satellite and a second sister satellite became available, this provided significantly higher resolution in space and time than was previously available and the raw data was available free of charge. 

Professors Tim Wright and Andy Hooper from the University’s School of Earth and Environment are world leaders in the analysis of satellite data. They spent more than ten years developing advanced algorithms to analyse the Sentinel-1 data as part of ~£4M NERC funded projects focused on understanding tectonic motions and earthquakes in selected regions of Europe. These SatSense algorithms extract usable and reliable measurements of ground motion from satellite radar images.  

SatSense Ltd provides precise and up-to-date deformation monitoring services using data from satellite radar. SatSense uses its in house proprietary software to measure these changes to as little as 1 mm per year providing a vital service to end users in markets that include critical infrastructure companies, the insurance sector and the extractive industries. Subsidence data is relied upon by home buyers, surveyors, mortgage lenders and insurers. Satsense results could also have a much wider use in the continuous monitoring of critical infrastructure such as bridges, railways, dams, as well as oil and gas production sites. The company has already received strong interest from a number of potential clients and partners. 

The commercialisation team at the University of Leeds supported the academics to develop a focused proof of concept (POC) project to validate the technology and its benefits with market leaders across a range of sectors. The project had a total budget £110k (direct costs) from a variety of funding streams, the main one being the EPSRC IAA. This funding drove product development through market testing and created customer networks with high profile companies. The team led activities to define a robust business case to optimise the technology before raising £750,000 in seed funding from investors to enable company start-up. The investment comes from the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund (managed by Mercia asset management), Unipart Rail and the University of Leeds.  

After the investment was secured, the University commercialisation team supported the transfer of technology and commercial customer engagements to the company. SatSense is now building its capabilities and commercial products. 

“While SatSense is a very early stage company, its technology represents a step change in resolution and accuracy over anything that is currently on the market. The team have actively engaged with potential customers and clearly have a product that is in demand. The funding will allow them to take the first step into what is potentially a huge worldwide market.”  

Lisa Ward, Investment Director with Mercia Fund Managers, which manages NPIF – Mercia Equity Finance 

“SatSense is the latest example of converting research expertise into a valuable service which directly benefits industry. The University has an established track record in working with private sector investors and leveraging its own funds to launch successful spin-out companies. We are delighted to support SatSense, not only through investment by the University but by facilitating easy access for business and industry to this new technology. The launch of Nexus, our new innovation centre, will build on this success by providing easier access for business and industry to the University’s world-leading academic expertise. It will bring together a vibrant community of innovators to make collaboration and commercialisation easier.”  

Andy Duley, Director of Innovation Commercialisation at the University of Leeds. 

“Satsense presents an exciting investment for Unipart Rail. The emerging Earth Observation market provides scope for considerable growth over the next decade and Satsense is now well placed to capitalise on this. The resolution and accuracy of Satsense’s Software creates new opportunities to better monitor and manage critical infrastructure. Satsense allows cost-effective continuous and real time monitoring of large disparate asset bases, such as rail networks, in way not possible before. We are delighted to be working with the Satsense team.”  

Noel Travers, Managing Director of Unipart Rail 

“We are pleased to see Mercia Fund Managers collaborating with Unipart Rail and University of Leeds to support Satsense on its mission to bring their innovative and disruptive technology to market. This investment represents what can be achieved when the public and private sector work together and as NPIF moves into its second year, we hope to see even more deals like this across the Northern Powerhouse region.”  

Ken Cooper, Managing Director at British Business Bank 

https://environment.leeds.ac.uk/see/news/article/240/750k-funding-signals-lift-off-for-satellite-data-firm 

https://www.npif.co.uk/750k-funding-signals-lift-off-for-satellite-data-firm/ 

Slingshot Simulations Ltd

Following over 10 years of R&D, two technologies developed at the University of Leeds were combined to form the basis of a spin-out company, Slingshot Simulations Ltd. This is a software company offering simulation and data analytics solutions via a unique ‘simulation as a service’ model.   

The company has developed a user-friendly, web-based service which harnesses the power of the cloud to create an ‘internet of simulation’ platform. This provides a fast and cost-effective route to large scale, real time simulation. Using Google and Microsoft’s open source machine learning engines (TensorFlow and Infer.Net) the solution automatically analyses datasets and generates representative equations and functional models. These can be adjusted by users with instantaneous visual feedback on the possible implications. This same automation engine also facilitates the semi-autonomous integration with 3rd party datasets, tools, and models, allowing the solution to become part of a much larger system. The solution then uses its own proprietary data model and compiler to create simulations that can be run optimally across the available compute resources, demonstrating speeds 10x faster than alternative methods. This all accessed through a web browser placing minimal resource requirement on the user’s computer (or device) and allowing simulations to be shared with no geographical limitations. 

One of the platform technologies was developed as part of the Programme for Simulation Innovation funded by EPSRC and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) (PI Prof Jie Xu), accounting for £1 million of the £9 million awarded across several universities. It provides an online platform and toolset to rapidly connect multiple heterogeneous simulations together into a larger single system simulation. The technology was specifically designed to reduce the complexity of co-simulation (the act of linking multiple simulations together), facilitate larger co-simulations with more individual simulations and to allow engineers to focus solely on their domain challenges/simulations by removing the complexity and computing challenges of simulation integration. The technology was developed with the complex requirements of an organization such as JLR in mind. Throughout the EPSRC-funded project, many use-cases were demonstrated to stakeholders within JLR including a real-time driving simulation with hardware integration and a live design exercise at progressive points in the JLR design process with real-world data.  

The second platform technology was a cloud-hosted domain agnostic simulator technology, initially developed by Dr David McKee at the University of Leeds. This tool provides abstraction from the technical challenges of building and deploying large-scale simulations, and offers optimisations allowing it to run simulations at near real-time. The technology was specifically designed to reduce the complexity of deploying large-scale simulations across computer infrastructure, automate the runtime management of large-scale simulations and facilitate the simulation of larger systems in near real-time. 

The research behind Slingshot Simulations Ltd was based upon the foundation of extensive funding awarded from several sources. £796k funding was initially received from EPSRC & Jaguar Land Rover for the fundamental technical concept demonstration (Grant no. EP/K014226/1). This was followed by £99k funding from the EPSRC IAA for commercial Proof of Concept work. Northern Triangle Initiative (£12k) and EPSRC IAA (£10k) funding was used for Proof of Market studies. A prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship awarded to Dr David McKee allowed for the commercial training and development of the technologies (£60k from the Royal Academy and £8k from the University of Leeds, School of Computing). Finally, EPSRC IAA proof of concept funding (£22k) was used to aid the continued development of the technology with a specific focus on the completion of 3 pilot demonstrators. 

The spin-out company has now secured £750k in scale-up funding. The investment in Slingshot was made by the University and the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund – Mercia Equity Finance.   

“I’ve been very impressed to see the team develop the slingshot platform from some research ideas 7 years ago into a product with a real potential to disrupt the simulation market by linking multiple simulations in an efficient way.”  

David Battersby, Senior Manager in Software Architecture at Jaguar Land Rover  

“Our vision is to define a global standard for an Internet of Simulation so that it could be used by anyone, anywhere. It will allow people to use simulations to communicate and collaborate across industries and organisations.” Dr David McKee, Slingshot’s Chief Technical Officer 

“The University has a strong record in transferring academic research to industry, and that approach continues with our investment in Slingshot Simulations. The company is based in Nexus, the University’s new innovation hub where academics and business collaborate to maximise commercial opportunities. The University’s aim is to see our research contributing to the UK economy.” Dr Arshad Mairaj, Head of Commercialisation at the University of Leeds 

“Slingshot’s ability to democratise complex simulation will enable customers to capitalise on growing data volumes by delivering flexible systems design and rapid optimisation. The investment will fund further product development and help launch customer relationships.” Will Schaffer, Investment Manager with Mercia  

“Since its launch in 2017, NPIF’s impact on new and scaling businesses has been wide-ranging, providing funding to launch new products, employ new staff, enter new markets and acquire new facilities. In addition to helping these SMEs, it is also important for us to tap into the academic resource available and strengthen industry collaboration, so this investment is a particularly exciting one. We are pleased that NPIF is continuing to unlock the North’s growth potential by supporting small growing businesses with vital investment.” Mark Wilcockson, Senior Manager at British Business Bank 

https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/4517/using_synthetic_worlds_to_boost_business_efficiency 

https://www.npif.co.uk/newsletters/issue-8-2-2-2/slingshot/ 

Engineering the Future of Glass

A major challenge facing the global mobile industry is how to create thinner, more flexible screens for smartphones and other electronic devices without making them more vulnerable to cracking. The global market for mobile phone and tablet screens is estimated at $2.1bn and expected to reach $2.5bn by 2025. Currently the average phone screen will break 1 in 100 times when dropped; one survey has found that almost one in four UK mobile users have had a cracked screen in the last two years. Through Optimus Vitrum (Op-Vi) laser technology developed at the University of Leeds will make glass display breakage a 1 in a million event.  

The story of Optimus Vitrum is underpinned by over 10 years of basic and applied materials research at the University of Leeds’ School of Chemical and process Engineering (SCAPE) funded in part by £2.3m direct investment by the EPSRC in Professor Gin Jose’s research together with over £460k of support secured via the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA); Prior to the formation of Optimus Vitrum IAA funding of 94k was used to leverage over £365k of funding from a number of different sources including SCAPE and the University’s Digital Hub.   

In setting up Optimus Vitrum Professor Gin Jose has joined forces with his former PhD students, Dr Matthew Murray and Dr Robert Mathieson, along with glass industry expert Dr Malcolm Glendening and entrepreneur Chris Brill who has been appointed as chair. 

The latest IAA funding secured for the project was focused on qualifying the business interest from the value added glass industries in the University’s patented Ultrafast Laser Plasma Implantation technology (ULPI), together with developing a technical development plan and its capital equipment resourcing. The results of this work were fed into an investment case with Mercia plc and were instrumental in the formation of Optimus Vitrum. 

Rather than using chemicals to treat glass ULPI uses lasers to apply light activated patterns into its surface to toughen it. The technology offers several significant advantages. In the case of consumer electronic displays it allows selective areas of the glass to be treated which produces localised effects to ‘redirect’ propagating cracks, thus confining them to non-sensitive areas. It also achieves a considerably lower process cost. 

“Our process has the potential to disrupt the glass market, in particular the way glass is toughened – a process that has remained largely unchanged for decades. The practical benefit is that industry will be able to make glass that is thinner and stronger and also more resistant to scratches.” Professor Gin Jose* 

Optimus Vitrum, based in Leeds, was formed to exploit ULPI technology. Although the technology has several potential uses (many of which are being explored with IAA support) Optimus Vitrum’s current focus is pioneering stronger display screen glass for smartphones, wearables and tablets. The company has recently applied its technology for scratch resistant foldable phone screens which are based on transparent plastics as well.   

In 2019 the company secured a £600k investment; £250k from the University of Leeds, £100k from investing chair Chris Brill and £250k from NPIF – Mercia Equity Finance, which is managed by Mercia and is part of the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund**. The investment allowed the company to move into its own development laboratory, create advanced prototypes, engage with customers and commercialise its product.  

“This is a great example of how NPIF funding can support innovative businesses in the North of England. The success of companies like Optimus Vitrum will provide the fuel for the Northern Powerhouse and help to redress the current imbalances in the UK’s economy.” Ken Cooper, Managing Director at British Business Bank* 

*Quotes taken from Yorkshire Evening Post article “This is how Leeds University spin out Optimus Vitrum could revolutionise smartphone industry” https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/business/this-is-how-leeds-university-spin-out-optimus-vitrum-could-revolutionise-smartphone-industry-1-9944020  

**The Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund project is supported financially by the European Union using funding from the European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020 and the European Investment Bank. 

LowCat™ (STFC IAA)

This case study is taken from the booklet “From Knowledge to Impact: STFC Impact Acceleration Account” which contains further case studies from Universities across the country.

Previous STFC funding resulted in the identification of the novel catalyst, LowCat™. This was found to have beneficial properties in the conversion of carbon monoxide to Carbon Dioxide (CO2), following a STFC funded study of the atmospheric chemistry of Venus. It was also discovered that it was able to catalyse the conversion of nitrogen oxides (NOx) to nitrogen and oxygen at significantly lower temperatures than current state of the art catalysts. This suggested that it would an ideal candidate for use in diesel engine exhaust remediation, which was confirmed by a PoC project funded through the STFC IAA.

However, the original reaction procedure used to synthesise LowCat™ was inefficient and required optimisation, taking several weeks to prepare the small amounts of catalyst necessary to prove the process in laboratory trials. To make the catalyst attractive to industry, it was important to reduce preparation time to a few days at most and develop a scalable route to produce up to 1 kg initially.

In a short project between the School of Chemistry and the School of Chemical and Process Engineering, funded by a further STFC IAA award, Dr Alexander (Sandy) James and Professor John Blacker were able to carry out a series of experiments, initially at 1 litre scale, to learn more about the limiting factors in the synthesis and to test ways of speeding up the reaction trials to confirm that the catalytic activity of the material was retained.

The final stage was synthesis at larger scale to produce batches up to 1 kg of catalyst.

The outcome of this project was vital to the future commercialisation programme for LowCat™. It also played a significant part in the recent award of an IPS grant from the STFC, which will allow us to build and test a full-scale catalytic converter and carry out vehicle trials with our project partner, Cats & Pipes, a leading after-market supplier of catalytic converters for exhaust remediation.

Exhaust emissions contribute to poor air quality in urban areas, which in turn is linked to chronic ill health and death. A report from Public Health England in 2019 estimated that between 28,000 and 36,000 people a year die from long-term exposure to air pollution.

While it is true that the use of diesel engines will start to decline by the introduction, for example, of the UK Government ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030, most of the these vehicles are likely to remain in use for many years after this, and the ban does not apply to heavy vehicles, such as lorries and buses, and to trains and ships, which extensively use diesel propulsion. In other parts of the world, where power transmission is less well developed, microgrid diesel generators are widely employed.

Traffic fumes in urban areas often come from vehicles operating at lower temperatures because they are either idling or moving at low speed. As a result, conventional catalytic converters under urban road conditions may be operating with less than 50%efficiency. LowCat™ is able to convert nitrogen dioxide at ambient temperature and has the potential to improve air quality significantly, thus offering societal and health benefits, particularly to poorer areas of the world, often with high population density.