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FEATURE: Pee power to smart prosthetics – our top 5 UK innovations of the year

Joseph Flaig

Glastonbury, where the Pee Power urinal harvested energy from urine (Credit: iStock)
Glastonbury, where the Pee Power urinal harvested energy from urine (Credit: iStock)

Engineers are constantly looking forwards; what problems are arising, and what solutions can be provided?

Preparing and adapting for the future is key across all sectors and enables success for companies, universities and entrepreneurs. But as the afternoons darken and the Christmas tunes get louder, it can be equally useful to look back and examine the year’s success stories for inspiration.

It was another innovative 12 months for UK engineering, with a dizzying array of new approaches to commercial work and research. Here, we look back at some of the most exciting, interesting and downright weird concepts.

Although we tried, we could not include everything; some fantastic projects, including biofuel from aluminium foil, intrepid autonomous robots and falcon-inspired aircraft “skins” did not make the cut. But perhaps that is a sign of the sheer creativity and innovation on display.

Harvesting ‘pee power’

The Pee Power urinal (Credit: University of the West of England)

The Pee Power urinal (Credit: University of the West of England)

All festival goers dread a trip to the stage-side toilets; navigating through welly-deep mud, pinching the nostrils and struggling to find a loo with a basic level of hygiene.

But researchers from the University of West England in Bristol sought to turn the dreaded toilet-trip into a more positive experience at this year’s Glastonbury festival with their Pee Power installation. Dealing with up to 1,000 litres of urine a day, the 40-person urinal used bacteria to convert chemical energy in liquid into electricity.

The team used organic compounds in the urine known as electroactive micro-organisms to generate a flow of electrons between an anode and a cathode, successfully powering message boards providing festival updates.

The process, which can also clean waste water, could provide lighting and charging points in so-called “smart toilets” and one day even power independent robots.

Black holes and broken bones

black-holes

A pair of black holes (Credit: iStock)

Massive, star-consuming and vital for holding some galaxies together, black holes are a continuing fascination for scientists. On Earth, doctors and biomedical engineers search for better ways to fix broken bones ahead of a forecast jump in the number of older people worldwide.

This year, scientists claimed UK technology could shed light on both issues. In September, researchers claimed a world first after precisely measuring a collision between two black holes using a network of three observatories. The detectors included the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the US, which used British-made technology to remove natural and human-caused vibrations from the observations, so the minuscule distortion caused by gravitational waves could be accurately detected.

Researchers are also testing the technology’s ability to fix bones. By reversing the process using a technique known as “nanokicking”, it can vibrate stem cells thousands of times a second to stimulate the production of bone cells, which could heal fractures and fill gaps.

Good vibrations on track

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 10.24.48 copy

Sensors are fitted to the underside of a Great Northern Train (Credit: Govia Thameslink Railway)

Innovative vibration-powered technology could help avoid delays and breakdowns on the tracks, said Govia Thameslink Railway in September.

The operator installed new sensors from University of Southampton spin-off Perpetuum on all 40 of its trains running between Cambridge, Peterborough and London King’s Cross. The devices analyse “vibration signatures” in the vehicles, detecting potential defects such as faulty wheel bearings or gearboxes before they occur. The sensors then automatically email engineers, letting the operator fix potential issues before they cause problems.

The sensors are also powered by the vibrations themselves, creating a sustainable and low-maintenance network.

Smart prosthetics

newcastleuni_bionic_hand_main

The bionic hand (Credit: Newcastle University)

Biomedical engineers constantly strive to improve people’s lives with ingenious inventions. One field that has seen rapid advances in recent years is prosthetics, and this year UK teams contributed some potentially life-changing work.

At Newcastle University, researchers created a bionic hand that allows amputees to “automatically” pick up objects without conscious thought, using images from a 99p webcam. The process, which uses computer vision to automatically analyse things in front of the hand, lets users move the prosthetic within milliseconds.

Another advance made at the University of Glasgow could help restore the sense of touch to amputees. Researchers used graphene to create a solar-powered “electronic skin” for prosthetic limbs, capable of generating power and making sensitive pressure measurements.

Super-powered spider silk

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(Credit: iStock)

In a comic book role-reversal, spiders received superpowers after innovative work from Nicola Pugno from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Trento in Italy.

Led by Pugno, a team of researchers fed carbon nanotubes and graphene to spiders. The result was super-strong silk, 10 times tougher than usual and comparable to the strongest carbon fibres. The team said the discovery could pave the way for new high-strength and fire-resistant materials.

Similar fibres could also create blast-proof and shrapnel-resistant clothing, sails and parachutes, said Darshil Shah from the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the research but published a paper on artificial silk in July.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily reflect the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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