Pioneer podcast June 2009

Supplementary content information

The EPSRC pioneer podcast showcases the cutting-edge science and engineering research tackling 21st century challenges. Hear leading researchers talk about the latest breakthroughs and find out how research is improving lives for the better.

In this edition find out how scientists have recreated Bach's forgotten horn, and created a virtual human and a hydrogen powered barge.

These stories and more can be found in Pioneer our new quarterly magazine which highlights funded research through engaging features, personal profiles and thought provoking opinion pieces.

James Harrison – Narrator [JH]

The Pioneer podcast from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - presented by Jane Reck.

Jane Reck – Narrator [JH]

Welcome to the Pioneer Podcast, highlighting UK research in Engineering and the Physical Sciences.

Coming up, why one day a computer might be better placed to determine your medical needs than your GP.

[Extract from e-Science]

In a post genomic world where in the future we will be seeing more and more of this genetic information, the challenge then is to utilise that to the maximum and the way one could do that is to be able to perform simulations which are specific to the patient, which can then be used to resolve which of the multi various drugs on the market should be used for this person.

[JH]

And, how work to recreate an historic long lost trumpet-like instrument has led to a piece of music by Bach being performed as the composer may have intended for the first time in nearly 300 years.

[Extract from Bach’s forgotten horn]

The versions which have just been made in Basel are very light wood, several metres long, and end up in a pretty small bell. The player holds this instrument out in front of them and it’s a rather marvellous appearance, a very long thin elegant instrument.

[JH]

But first, 200 years ago the manufacturing heart of Birmingham was pumping out its fair share of long-term environmental pollution as the industrial revolution took hold. Today things couldn’t be more different. Not far from the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which once transported the raw materials needed to power Britain’s coal driven industry, lies the University of Birmingham.

Here, Professor Rex Harris, a specialist in hydrogen storage materials and rare earth magnets, has helped develop a hydrogen-powered canal barge, to demonstrate that there is life after oil. James Harrison went to meet him.

[JH]

As the Ross Barlow slips through the water at a steady four miles per hour, its hydrogen-powered electric motor producing a satisfying hum, one becomes acutely aware of just how intrusive the combustion engine has become and how wedded we are to everything it represents.

Professor Rex Harris and his fellow scientists have a powerful tool in the shape of this former British waterways maintenance boat, for it ably demonstrates that carbon neutral transport isn’t just a dream, it’s a reality. Combining over 40 years of experience, Professor Harris has taken the theory and turned it into practice, but it seems, like the speed of the barge itself, we are dragging our heels when it comes to making alternative fuels the norm.

Professor Rex Harris [RH]

We were working on rarer magnets in latter years, Neodymium Iron Boron, which are incredibly powerful strong magnets and we have been working on hydrogen storage and there is a link between the two, because the magnets are manufactured by a hydrogen process which we developed at Birmingham so there’s a good link between those two areas. And, I just thought I’m getting close to retirement, I really would like to put the things, we have been working on, into a practical demonstrator and that’s where I came up with the boat. I love the canals, I think that there is a future for canals as well as a past and a boat represented a very nice way of putting these bits of research and development into practice.

[JH]

The power needed to propel the barge comes from stored hydrogen, a technique that’s been refined by the University of Birmingham team, together with input from international research groups and funding from the EPSRC.

[RH]

It’s very much like a battery but of course you supply the two electrodes with the fuel, in our case its air and from the air you get the oxygen and from the other electrode you provide the hydrogen, which on the boat comes from a metal hydride store. That’s where the EPSRC come into the picture of course, because they’ve been funding a big programme on sustainable hydrogen energy and so that provided the research background to the hydrogen storage activity.

[JH]

This carbon neutral barge demonstrates ably how hydrogen as a fuel source is a serious contender for more conventional forms such as diesel. Its only bi-product is hot water which itself can be recycled and noise levels are considerably lower, an aspect which will prove appealing to anyone seeking respite from the noise of the combustion engine.

Rex, if we just take a walk towards the front of the boat, the bow, and have a look at what you’ve got here this is the first stage of the technology really. A 1kW fuel cell, tell me what’s behind the panel here?

[RH]

Yes I’ll take this panel off, this is a bulkhead really.

[JH]

It’s all very neat, I think the one thing I notice is that there is no smell of diesel, there’s no oil, I mean it’s clean, you can feel that it’s clean, you can see that it’s clean.

[RH]

Yes absolutely, and there is no noise pollution either of course. Now here’s the fuel cell, to develop 1kW we need 15 litres of hydrogen a minute and instead of being one stack, which is the fuel cell, we’ve divided it into six separate stacks and that means that if one goes down, you can pull that out and replace it with a spare. And there’s superb software with this so we can monitor the state of each individual stack.

[JH]

So this is the fuel cell, let’s go to the other end of the boat and talk about this magic motor.

[RH]

There’s a spare motor which we carry with us to give you an idea of the size of the electric motor.

[JH]

That’s tiny. It looks like the size of a sort of big vacuum cleaner motor or lawn mower motor.

[RH]

Yes that’s right, it’s heavy but not impossible to lift. It’s probably equivalent to a Morris Minor engine in terms of its output.

The motor we have on here is only 10kW and this boat weighs 12 tonnes. Permanent magnet motors are revolutionising electric transport and Neodymium Iron Boron motors. The one we have on the boat is a British invention and it’s called a lynch, motor but we’ve also got very good contacts with Professor Geraint Jewell’s group in Sheffield and he is building us a brushless Neodymium Iron Boron motor to replace the existing one, that will be about 20kW.

[JH]

So can I just ask you, because you have been piloting this boat today, what is it like to be involved in this sort of technology for you personally?

Boat Pilot - [BP]

We all do our bit towards saving the environment, and this plays a big role in reducing the CO2 emission. It’s completely zero emission.

[JH]

Are you fairly confident that the way this technology is developing, we will see hydrogen technology more and more?

[BP]

We’ve got no choice but to follow this path otherwise we’ve got no world to live in.

[JH]

But there’s still much work to do. Not only in creating hydrogen production plants and the infrastructure for refuelling, but also in winning hearts and minds and moving society away from its obsession with oil.

Professor Harris believes that there’s every chance that the current downturn in the economy could be seen as an opportunity to develop alternatives. Not just in hydrogen technology, but solar power and wind turbines and the storage of the energy these power generators can produce.

[RH]

I think if we could grow out of this in a sustainable way and have a measure of guidance as to where the investment goes in terms of electric transportation and developing energy storage, which is so important in sustainable technologies like solar energy and wind and so on, I think that in ten years I would hope to see a major penetration of electric transportation into the system.

[JH]

Professor Rex Harris, from the University of Birmingham, ending that report from James Harrison.

[JH]

EPSRC, improving quality of life through excellence in research.

[Sound of singing and a horn being played]

[JH]

A motet composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and first performed in 1736 calls for a lituus, a very long trumpet-like instrument. Today there are no original surviving examples of the lituus, however research funded by the EPSRC and carried out at the University of Edinburgh has led to Bach’s forgotten horn being recreated and used in an experimental performance in Switzerland earlier this year. The research work was supervised by Professor Murray Campbell who explains more about the background to the project.

Professor Murray Campbell [MC]

From my point of view the story actually starts with an email out of the blue from a gentleman called Mike Duprose currently working at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, this is one of Europe’s leading music conservatory specialising in early music. The lituus was specified by Bach for one particular piece of music, a cantata or motet called ‘O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht’.

The versions which have just been made in Basel are a very light wood, several metres long and end up in a pretty small bell. It’s been known as Bach’s forgotten horn because Bach specified it in this particular Cantata, but nobody knows what he meant, there are no instruments known to have been around in Leipzig in Bachs’ time which were called lituus’s, no lituus players appear on any rolls of musicians, no one knows what exactly he meant.

[JH]

So how do you go about recreating an instrument that no one alive today has touched, heard or played? The EPSRC-funded PhD student who worked on the project was Dr Alistair Braden, he developed the computer modelling or optimisation software that led to the recreation of the instrument. Two other EPSRC-funded PhD students at Edinburgh helped in the recreation work using Alistair’s software. Alistair describes the information he had to work with.

Dr Alistair Braden [AB]

Well we were given some indication of how they expected it to play, like say tone quality, what notes it was expected to be playing and so on. They sent us cross sections of instruments that they believed to be similar, so we had this as the starting point and we were given some indication of what shape it is, for example, if you imagine a modern trumpet it curves round on itself, whereas the lituus, the instrument that we were asked to design, is completely straight, there are no curves in it at all and so they gave us, what for them, was their best educated guess as to what shape they thought it was.

[JH]

So Alistair’s computer modelling work set out the design of Bach’s forgotten horn so it could be made up into a working musical instrument. Alistair describes how his work builds on computer modelling systems that are already available, but the difference is that his optimisation software gives unprecedented precision.

[AB]

Optimisation software is essentially a computerised tool for instrument manufacturers and designers. It allows them to try out new designs without the expense of building them and it allows them to solve problems. For example, I’ve got this trombone in front of me and I really like it apart from this one note which is a bit out of tune, or it doesn’t respond in the way that the other ones do, the manufacturers would then be able to use the optimisation software to adjust this one feature of the instrument that they don’t like, while keeping all the features of the instrument that they do like the same, as much as this is possible. So the optimiser can be used to take these rough ideas, these fragmentary historical information that we’ve got and turn them into usable instruments. Some of the past attempts done before I started work on this were able to give instrument shapes which in theory would have the desired properties. But the real difficulty with them was that you would get these quite sort of jagged shapes. What my technique does that is new, is the ability to optimise and design plausible instrument shapes reliably, so we can be sure that when we have designed an instrument using this optimiser, what we are going to get out of it is going to look like a brass instrument, it’s going to have the right kind of smoothly flaring bell shape that we are all familiar with. You can then hand this blueprint to a manufacturer and he’ll immediately be able to build it.

[JH]

In the long-term the potential uses of the research go much further than work with musical instruments, as Murray Campbell explains.

[MC]

We have also had collaborations with firms like Rolls-Royce who are actually interested in the study of commercial ducts and pulling tubes and equipment which are not necessarily easily accessible for measurement and which are therefore particularly useful for non-invasive acoustic measurement. That’s got a lot of industrial applications, of course, for looking at tubing which is relatively inaccessible, but for which a leak could be catastrophic.

[JH]

We can only speculate as to why the lituus didn’t survive as an instrument. Perhaps its cumbersome size had something to do with it, after all being extremely long and built in one long section, it’s not something you can pop into a rucksack and take along to music practice. The extracts we’ve played from the experimental performance that took place earlier this year, also show it’s rather difficult to play. So, apart from the historical significance of the work to recreate the instrument, Alistair explains what the future could hold for his research.

[AB]

The ultimate dream, if you like, is to have marketable instruments, instruments on the market that have been developed with the assistance of the software. Ultimately it would be the manufacturers who designed the instrument, but the optimisation would be a tool that helped them. In the same way as say a chisel is the tool that helped Michael Angelo to build David, you wouldn’t say that David was chisel approved, but the chisel was very useful to Michael Angelo to get the shape of David out of the marble. And the idea of the optimiser is to be a chisel for the designers, for the manufacturers to make it easier for them to get the shapes and the sounds that they want out of their instrument.

[JH]

The Pioneer Podcast from EPSRC.

[JH]

When it comes to medicine and healthcare, finding just the right treatment is often based on trial and error. With minor ailments this might not be a problem, but for conditions such as cancer and heart disease, the consequences of any inaccuracy could mean life or death. Now scientists are developing computer based simulations that will help determine the best course of drugs and treatment for an individual patient.

James Harrison has been finding out how e-Science is helping doctors and clinicians towards the perfect prescription.

[JH]

Since none of us shares the same physiology, the use of averages to determine which medicine is best for us becomes more of a lottery than a precise science. But all that may change with a study being undertaken by Professor Peter Coveney at University College London. Based on computer modelling, Professor Coveney and his team are developing the virtual physiological human or VPH using access to the world’s new phenomenal computing power and processing speeds.

Professor Peter Coveney [PC]

It revolves around deploying methods from physical sciences and engineering in a medical setting and it really does depend on the power and the speed with which we can run large scale and complex simulations today, so it’s deeply coupled with the evolution of computing technology, especially what we call high performance computing.

[JH]

As Professor Coveney suggests, this isn’t about studying one aspect of human physiology, the VPH is concerned with the whole.

[PC]

The wider picture of the virtual physiological human, goes beyond a single level like that of the organs, which themselves are challenging to model and simulate. There’s a certain degree of blue-printing through our genetic make-up and so a lot of things that happen on the physiological level are controlled by our genes and molecular activity.

[JH]

So Peter, how does it work? Give me a sort of practical consideration as to how this works.

[PC]

Well there could be many examples to choose from. The one we were looking at most recently is an infectious disease problem that’s to do with HIV. We know thatHIV is driven by a retro-virus, but the problem with the retro-virus is that it has a very high mutation rate, so over the period of 20 or so years there have come to be around nine drugs to treat an enzyme target called Protease and a doctor in general terms can’t be sure which one of those drugs to administer to a given patient. However, HIV / AIDS sufferers are routinely subject to so called genotypic assays by a virologist. We then get very detailed molecular information on the sequence of the virus that’s causing the infection. The genetic information in the virus gets spliced into the host cells and then codes for these various proteins, but in principle each virus may have a different RNA sequence and therefore a DNA sequence which ultimately translates into a unique sequence for a given patient. And so in a post-genomic world, where in the future we will be seeing more and more of this genetic information, the challenge is then to utilise that to the maximum and the way one could do that is to be able to perform simulations which are specific to the patient, which can then be used to resolve which of the multi-various drugs on the market should be used for this person.

[JH]

Together with accurate modelling, speed is also of the essence. Professor Coveney believes that in order to make these kinds of studies relevant to clinical decision making, the timescales involved are paramount.

[PC]

We can’t get results fast enough, clinicians simply aren’t interested in what we have to say. So each particular pathology infection etc could have a different timescale, in the case of HIV it’s typically regarded as around two weeks from some kind of viralogical study to treatment. It’s vital to choose the treatment and start administering it within that time frame. So that’s the challenge for someone doing modelling and simulation – can I perform the large scale modelling and simulation required fast enough to get the results back to a clinician who can then use it to help with a clinical decision.

[JH]

There’s little doubt that the creation of a fast accurate medical profiling system that would determine precisely the correct treatment regime for an individual patient is one of sciences most ambitious goals. But the fact that Professor Coveney and his UCL team have brought us a step closer with the development of the virtual physiological human, is an exciting prospect to contemplate.

[PC]

It’s really the confluence of many things that, in my personal case, I have been involved in actively for a long time, which is developing and exploiting computers to advance science. Now we are at a stage where medical research can benefit from this, so the whole area of computational biomedicine is really just beginning to take off. And it’s predicated on the technology, the infrastructure, the super computers, the e-Science, and the connectedness of everything, the ability to produce results on timescales that make our results relevant in life or death decisions. This is very motivating.

[JH]

Professor Peter Coveney talking there to our reporter James Harrison.

Well that’s it for this edition of the Pioneer podcast. Thanks for listening and our next edition will be out in three months’ time.

[JH]

You’ve been listening to the Pioneer podcast from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Our Pioneer publication is available online at www.epsrc.ac.uk, or you can have a copy sent to you by emailing your details to the Pioneer team.