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Making a material difference

Brunel University is making a research impact through its six specialist institutes

150 years ago this autumn, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great British engineer and innovator, passed away. (He suffered a stroke while watching the trials of his steamship, the Great Eastern, and died a few days later).

Seventy five years after his death, the University that bears his name was born.

This 150th anniversary affords the opportunity to reflect on the great man?s legacy and for the University to take stock of its achievements and plans for the future. It is clear that since its inception Brunel University has established itself as a major force within British higher education, making a distinctive and impressive contribution to many fields of research and doing so in ways that have delivered measurable social, cultural and economic benefits.

However, over the last few years there has been an acceleration in the pace of the University?s development which is exceptional even in a world where change is now the norm. No aspect of the University?s life work has not been reviewed and refreshed ? with the result that there is now significantly increased student numbers; a new organisational structure; the consolidation of the University onto one campus ? and a consequent investment in the estate and facilities; the recruitment of additional world-class researchers and academics; and a new and striking sense of purpose.

Underpinning these changes is the University?s singleminded determination to be a truly research-intensive institution of undoubted international standing. As well as generating new knowledge and understanding for the benefit of UK and overseas communities, research at Brunel is also designed to promote high-quality, innovative training and teaching. Multidisciplinarity, the integration of learning and research and an unerring commitment to address real problems are the hallmarks of the University in its pursuit of research excellence.

The University is located at Uxbridge in West London, a mile or so from Heathrow, and situated between two of the most economically dynamic sub-regions in Europe: the Thames Valley and West London. The University is home to 15,000 students and 1,770 academic and related staff on a custom-built campus which has recently enjoyed a massive £300 million investment. This year alone has seen the opening of the Antonin Artaud building, housing specialist facilities for the School of Arts, and a new flagship building for the School of Engineering and Design. And the transformation of the University?s estate and facilities continues, with work just beginning on a £35m state-of-the-art building for the University?s Business School.

Hand in hand with this physical redevelopment has been the investment of £20m to support 100 new academic posts in areas of existing or emerging research strength. Between 2003/2004 and 2007/08, research income increased by 70% and stood at £18,500,000 (£21,5 million in 2007/2008). There has also been a step-change growth in income generated through other knowledge transfer activities ? consultancy income, for example, has grown by 21% over the same period.

As a result of this investment, the University now has six self-supporting Specialist Research Institutes, 71 Research Centres and four multidisciplinary Collaborative Research Networks. These ensure the University has the depth and breadth in research capability to make a significant impact across a remarkably varied range of intellectual endeavour and practical application. The University?s increasing research income, range of research programmes and collaborations with worldclass academic and business partners are testament to the success of its investments and new strategic direction.

But nowhere is this success better demonstrated than in the results of the national 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which confirmed decisively Brunel?s status as a research-intensive university and its arrival as a university of international standing. Highlights of the RAE include:

  • 54% increase in the funding granted to the University for research (ninth largest increase in the country).
  • 10% of the University?s research was deemed to be amongst the best in the world.
  • 82% of staff conducting research were judged to be of an international standing.

In addition, the University was ranked top in the country for Library and Information Management, fifth for General Engineering and eighth in Mechanical Engineering, Sport and Health Services Research. Moreover, the University had the highest percentage of staff classed as Early Career Researchers in the UK, which clearly bodes well for the future growth in the research profile of the University.

To give some flavour of the University?s work in just one area, here are some pen portraits of the centres involved in materials research ? one of Brunel?s major strengths. The focus of this activity ranges from polymers to phosphors, liquid metal processing to lighting and biomedical materials to biodegradable packaging.

The Wolfson Centre for Material Processing investigates high-performance polymers, ceramics and metals for highperformance applications, including nano-composites and bioactive ceramics. Significant current research focuses on the use of renewable raw materials for biodegradable products. These applications have included biomedical products with potential as artificial bone and a unique lightweight and adjustable spinal brace. World-leading research is also undertaken in Phosphors and Display Materials generating micrometer and nanometer-size particles for the next generation of lighting and displays. This work has led to the creation of new high-value industrial materials providing competitive advantage in commercial applications.

Professor Jack Silver:

The Brunel Centre for Advanced Solidification Technologies (BCAST) is internationally renowned for its research in liquid metal engineering, and in particular for its underpinning solidification research, strategic technology developments and user-led industrial applications. The Centre has pioneered the development of a unique rheo-diecasting process enabling the production of onestep high-integrity components with improved mechanical properties and reduced production costs. With vast applications in the automotive and aerospace sectors, commercial collaborators have included Ford and Jaguar. In developing the science and technologies that enable the production of lighter materials using recycled metals, the Centre is transforming the metallurgical industry.

Professor Zhongyun Fan:

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, The Experimental Techniques Centre at Brunel University combines high-level microscopy and surface science with a focus on industry interaction. ETCbrunel conducts materials, engineering and environmental research work, particularly in industrial partnerships, and in addition provides an accredited consultancy service and continuing professional development courses. Recent research work includes developing environmentally sustainable materials for aerospace, thin-film technologies for energy-efficient manufacturing devices, smart biomedical implants and improvements in forensic fingerprint detection.

Dr Ben Jones:

The Brunel Institute for Bioengineering (BIB), the brainchild of one of the UK?s best-known academics, Professor Heinz Wolff, has since 1983 pioneered work in Bio Process Engineering, Biosensors, Medical and Rehabilitative Engineering. Current work includes a novel countercurrent chromatography process for purifying pharmaceuticals and other mixtures in the liquid phase. The process has been successfully scaled up for use in the manufacture of new drugs, greatly speeding up the time to market. The technology has been patented worldwide and commercialised by a University spin-out company.

Professor Ian Sutherland:

The Cleaner Electronics Research Group investigates and develops novel technologies and smart materials aimed at reducing the environmental impact of electronic consumer products. They led the development of new electronic inks for the lithographic printing of electrical circuits and batteries ? this is now being used on an industrial scale in the UK and abroad.

Professor David Harrison:

The great man would surely have been pleased with the achievements and direction of his University but there is no doubt that he would be urging the University not to pause for a moment.

Indeed, as we begin a halting claw-back from the global economic downturn one thing is clear: research and innovation have never been more important than they are today. Doing things smarter ? ie more efficiently, sustainably and cheaper ? is no longer just desirable; it is essential. Achieving this requires that centres of research excellence and application in universities and companies increasingly work together.

Brunel University is keen to build on its proud record of collaborating with industry to address this challenge and undertake work that really does make a material difference. There is no better way of realising the legacy of the great man himself.

Contact details:
Brunel University, Uxbridge Middlesex UB8 3PH

Corporate Relations
Tel: 01895 2679698

Tel: 01895 266206

Added the 06 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

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