The stuff of nightmares

Andy Pye revisits his Alma Mater to see how the latest generation of materials scientists are being educated.

40 years after leaving the Cambridge University Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, I was invited back for an Open Day at its new premises on the Cavendish, West Cambridge site.

Aside from some of the former colleagues I met who had changed out of all recognition, perhaps the most noticeable thing was how the science of studying materials has also transformed. Electron microscopes and the like now have user-friendly HMI interfaces and don’t have to be operated in cleanroom, controlled atmosphere conditions. I last saw an equivalent to the one I used to use in the Philips Museum in Eindhoven!

A few of the machines were familiar, and students are still let loose on the Hounsfield Tensometer, which doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal. I remember a fellow student catching his long hair in a Hounsfield, which ripped out a very sizeable chunk of his barnet, and there are now more risk assessment forms around, which can only be a good thing.

Even some of the materials being studied are familiar – shape memory materials are still in evidence, and even turbine blades from Rolls-Royce engines. These are all developing in interesting ways, but are at least broadly recognisable.

But the engineering of materials has moved from the macro to the micro. No longer are the subjects of study focused around the properties of bulk materials (in my day mainly steel, with a bit on non-ferrous metals and a passing wave to non-metallics), but materials are now being engineered on the atomic scale, or at the very least on the nanoscale.

Materials are being built up, layer by layer, or atom by atom, in a way that means that they are uniquely designed and built for the job in hand, rather than selected from a range of bulk materials available.

Work on graphene, the form of carbon consisting of planar sheets which are one atom thick, with the atoms arranged in a honeycomb-shaped lattice, was strongly in evidence. Another project examined how the triboelectric properties of materials on the nanoscale could be exploited as an energy source to power components on a circuit board. Still more remarkable was a process for growing thin films called Atmospheric Pressure Spatial Atomic Layer Deposition or SP-SALD. A postgraduate student called Ravi proudly showed me how he could build up coatings, atomic layer by atomic layer – in a standard fume cupboard!!

And then it happened. The room with the old photographs and examination papers. The photo of the 1972 undergraduate class was shocking enough (although it does feature at least one Baroness!), but then, staring me in the face, was THAT practical paper. That awful question about dismantling a tyre pressure gauge and explaining what each part was made of and how it was made.

I remember on the way out a fellow student asked me what the bearings were made of. And the cold sweat I felt when I realised that I hadn’t found any bearings. I can only assume that they fell off the bench without me noticing and probably rolled down the laboratory floor, probably ending up somewhere near the department’s old site in Pembroke Street. And for all I know, they may well still be there.

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