Crumpets, Chewy Sweets, and Solar Panels

Technology translator is a new career option for engineers and scientists of all disciplines. The role of a technology translator is to translate industrial problems and requirements into basic scientific concepts and to source academic expertise from the UK knowledge base. He or she then facilitates collaborative research between industry and academia, and, finally, converts the scientific results into commercially exploitable information.

Joining the Smith Instituteas a technology translator represented a big step in my career. It gave me the opportunity to expand my experience and knowledge in many different industrial sectors, as well as in many different areas of mathematical research. Now I am TT for our projects in the food and textiles industries, but it doesn't stop there--I'm also involved in the maths of medicine and of solar power!

A good example of the projects we are assisting is one that integrates solar cells and flexible materials. One of the problems when using curved solar cells is that having different angles of incidence between the solar cell and the sun can drastically reduce the power output. Mathematics can help manufacturers optimise the way solar cells are interconnected so that the areas in shade, or not at 90° to the sun (which therefore act as resistors in the circuitry), have minimum impact on the power output of the solar panel.

You might wonder why people would want to make flexible solar panels in the first place. There are several reasons. The United Kingdom has pledged to produce 10% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010. The sun is just one of these; it is free, readily available, and here to stay. But why flexible? Modern architecture is becoming more organic in nature--that is, tending toward curved surfaces, and consequently, an increasing number of buildings are being constructed from flexible materials. Also, if we could produce very flexible (and lightweight) solar cells, it would be possible to transport them to remote places and provide power for disaster relief, or for places that just aren't connected to the grid--outer space, for example.

But enough about solar cells! My day-to-day activities as a TT at the Smith Institute are very varied. I might be researching areas for potential and existing projects, or visiting companies to find out which of their problems could be solved with the aid of maths, or looking in on a university to find out about its particular areas of expertise. I also organise workshops at which I act as the "interpreter" between potential collaborators.

It is also the job of a TT to identify where a particular technology in an industrial sector has as-yet-untapped applications in another one and to facilitate technology transfer. All this means that you have to be good at communicating ideas to people, whatever their level of expertise. It also helps to have experience in supervising collaborative projects from both the industrial and academic perspective, so that you understand the benefits and potential problems.

My route to becoming a TT was through a B.Sc. in mathematics, followed by a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. The latter involved using maths and materials science to predict the temperature at which chocolate solidifies during the manufacturing process, because that, in turn, is related to the temperature at which it melts in your mouth. This, of course, is vital for manufacturers to know, because it's no good if a chocolate bar melts on the shop shelf before it gets to the customer! The mathematical model of chocolate solidification has, then, been used to improve the manufacturing process for perfect results every time.

After receiving my Ph.D., I worked in the industry for a few years, applying maths to all sorts of problems in the confectionery business, and actually supervised a Ph.D. student also working with chocolate. I then went on to become a technology translator at the Smith Institute, where I get to find out about the amazing science behind everyday products and processes. There's also a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from finding solutions to problems that companies have been struggling with, whether it's through an in-depth research project or just a relatively simple method they haven't tried before.

The Smith Institute currently has a team of four TTs who work individually (due in part to the institute's virtual structure), so motivation is very important, as are initiative and tenacity. However, there are also committees of scientific and industrial advisors, so there's plenty of expertise to draw upon.

Technology translators are employed by Faraday Partnerships, organisations at the interface of industry and academia, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Research Councils. There are currently 18 Faraday Partnerships in areas as diverse as technical textiles and intelligent sensing. The Smith Institute is the Faraday Partnership for industrial mathematics and system engineering, funded jointly by DTI and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The number of Faraday Partnerships is soon to increase from 18 to 24, and some of the established partnerships are also expanding and in need of more technology translators. So it is likely that a number of TT positions will become available in the near future! The full list of Faraday Partnerships is available here, so you can find out there if there's a partnership in your area of interest. The Smith Institute itself is currently looking for two more technology translators; further details are available here.

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