Star Trek science

Features Posted 16/10/17
Teamwork is powering up to meet the energy challenges of the next 30 or 40 years.

As I drive up to the front of the smart Gnosys offices on Surrey Research Park, I have no doubt I have reached an area of intense scientific activity. A smart young man in a white lab coat and protective goggles indicates my parking space and smiles a welcome.

I suspect he’s not on permanent parking duty, having a much a higher role to play within the company, but nevertheless I’m impressed.

The warm Gnosys welcome continues as I am ushered upstairs to meet the MD Professor Gary Stevens, who greets me looking cool and comfortable despite the heat of the day in a short-sleeved, tailored shirt.

This is obviously a highly technical business, described on its website as “a multi-disciplinary science and technology development company, specialising in innovative and advanced material/product development, research support, analytical and technical consulting.”

To help me understand further, Professor Stevens calls up a power point presentation on the company which he painstakingly talks me through.

In the simplest terms, he says, Gnosys “deals in the long life of materials, possibly for the next 30 or 40 years.” The company’s team of specialists particularly focuses on the power and energy industry, notably on how to improve the life of underground cabling and how to make it more environmentally sustainable. “In future,” Professor Stevens explains “the component parts of power cables will be recyclable.”

Before we get into more details about what the company does, I ask Professor Stevens for a brief biography. He tells me his background was in research and development, specialising in the stresses and strains on materials. “Monitoring how they react in certain conditions helps select them for purpose and helps assess the condition of the materials,” he adds.

Professor Stevens’s degree in solid state physics was followed by a PhD in polymer physics. After working with the Central Electricity Generating Board in the mid-1970s to develop radiation-resistant materials and fire-resistant cables, he set up a polymer research centre at the University of Surrey, and later Gnosys. The name comes from the Greek for “knowledge”, by the way.

It is a small company, with just 17 employees – 10 of them PhDs. “We are PhD-heavy”, Professor Stevens admits with a smile. The wide range of specialisms, from physics through chemistry and material science to electrical engineering and the age profile of early-20s to mid-40s is carefully balanced. As a result, Gnosys has developed a reputation for research and development within its specialist field and offers “a wide variety of problem-solving techniques and support services” to other companies.

Professor Stevens leans across the desk to speak enthusiastically about developments within the power industry which will transform the sustainability of materials in the next decade or two.

“The next generation of power will rely on renewables (wind, wave etc) and the cables will need to respond to peaks in the flow,” he says. “They will need to withstand extremes in temperature and provide high-performance. They are known as ‘suscables’ – ‘sustainable cables’ – which can be recycled, using self-repairing materials.”

Self-repairing? I remark that this sounds like something from Star Trek, to which Professor Stevens nods in agreement, pulling up a slide on his presentation to demonstrate a Spectrometer similar to the Tricorder from the popular 1960s TV series. It monitors faults remotely and sends instructions for repairs.

Professor Stevens also briefly explains the use of nano science to enhance the properties of existing materials and explains that “solid polymers” will in future have built-in “sub-sheaths” to self-seal if water leaks in.

“We are already developing these ‘self-healing’ cables which can act without intervention,” he adds. “They are undergoing trials and will be available within 18 months to two years.”

Professor Stevens helpfully describes self-healing cables as “like how a cut will clot, heal over and eventually fade”. He assures me these materials will be particularly useful in areas that are difficult, or impossible, to reach – for example where underground or offshore power cables run under or alongside urban landscape features – or on the seabed.

“Naturally, a failure in a cable of this type will cause significant disruption while the fault is located and rectified, where such faults incur significant lost time and repair costs”, Professor Stevens explains. “In most cases, the failure is not brought about through a sudden, catastrophic event (barring third-party mishaps) but rather because of the steady deterioration from defects and damage sites that in many cases are unremarkable but can have insidious and serious longer term consequences.

“Gnosys’s self-healing materials are capable of autonomously resolving these defects as soon as they arise; effectively allowing the cable to maintain itself. By preventing defect formation, we can substantially enhance the resilience of the cable and reduce the likelihood of unexpected failures, allowing asset managers to develop longer-term plans, confident in the reliability of their self-protected assets.”

All this research and development costs money and much of Professor Stevens’s work is in attracting funding from a variety of sources. Before we part, he tells me “R&D companies must re-invest to develop their technologies. We need to generate revenue to drive activity and we seek grants from the UK government and elsewhere.”

I leave the building impressed at the power and enthusiasm generated around me and, once again, full of admiration for science and those who push its boundaries daily. There’s no sign of the white-coated parking attendant. I notice. He’s obviously off doing experiments in the lab to assist the development of cabling for our future.

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