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Engaging with innovation: The University of Cambridge Alumni Festival 2017

The University of Cambridge is consistently ranked one of the top universities in the world.  With 221 patent family applications filed between 2009 and 2014, the University of Cambridge is also amongst the world’s most innovative universities. Through Cambridge Enterprise, academics transform their research for the global market.

Now in its 27th year, the annual Alumni Festival draws more than 1500 alumni, spanning seven decades, to almost 100 events. Amongst these events are lectures from prominent academics, provoking thought and giving unrivalled insight into the benefits of their innovations.

 ‘What if computers understood physics?’

Dr Phillip Stanley-Marbell, University Lecturer in the Internet of Things at the Department of Engineering, is focussed on sensor-driven systems that operate off scavenged energy and techniques to reduce energy usage. With 1.8 billion Internet of Things devices conservatively estimated to be sold annually by 2020, worth $2.7 to $6.2 trillion by 2025, power efficiency and energy life are limiters.  Dr Stanley-Marbell shared challenges and solutions of four key aspects: sense & measure, communication, physics-aware computers and display & perception. Using a factor of 9,000 times less power, an altimeter may a viable alternative to a global positioning system (GPS) for characteristic geographies, where a need for positional accuracy may be balanced against power conservation. Moving data costs energy: from 10 – 100 pJ/bit on-chip to 1,000 – 10,000 pJ/bit off-chip. By being smart with approximations, energy usage may be halved without detriment. Programming computers to have physics-aware capabilities enables sensor usage to be optimised for specific applications, giving power savings of 3 orders of magnitude or more. Displaying colour on an OLED display costs energy so by understanding human perception of colour, a 12% reduction in power consumption can be achieved for a tablet device.

‘Should we automate?’

Professor of Industrial Information Engineering at the Department of Engineering and head of the Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory within the Institute for Manufacturing, Professor Duncan McFarlane explored socioeconomic impacts of automation. While automation spans sensing, analysis, decision making and actuation, emphasis has been traditionally on the latter – exemplified by robots, for example. The motivators for automation, including increased productivity, efficiency, reliability & repeatability and health & safety must be balanced against the direct and indirect costs: job losses, capital costs, complexity, loss of flexibility and loss of skills. With 250,000 new industrial robots annually, Professor McFarlane raised also the concept of robot tax. Automation is extending in application beyond industry, military and transport. By 2050, automation is expected to be part of the solutions to sector-specific challenges, including automated surgery and in-home care.  Professor McFarlane highlighted two reminders: tasks get automated, not jobs but remain suspicious of any suggestion that automation will in itself bring new jobs.

‘From aerospace to medical imaging – the power of mathematics’

Professor Nigel Peake is the Head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), having particular interest in the aeroacoustics of turbomachinery and jets. As explained by Professor Peake, aircraft noise on landing approach is dominated by fan, airframe and turbine noise. So what lessons in silent flight are to be learned from the acoustics of the owl? Barn owls mitigate noise by natural design – having wings characterised by leading edge combs, trailing edge fringes and downy upper surfaces. In this way, flight noise in a prey-sensitive frequency range of 2 – 6 kHz is almost entirely eliminated. Mathematical modelling of these characteristics has resulted in the development of finlets and rails for trailing edges of aircraft wings and wind turbine blades – the latter already undergoing trials in Denmark.

Dr Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb is a Reader in Applied and Computational Analysis at DAMTP and head of the Cambridge Image Analysis group (CIA). Dr Schönlieb specialises in seeing more in pictures – solving imaging problems challenged by data sparsity, noise, complexity and time-dependency. Phase contrast microscopy may be used to follow treatment by anti-mitotic drugs in cancer research, but determining mitosis duration and cell fate distribution from thousands of time-elapse images demands a computational solution. Dr Schönlieb presented also forest conservation analysis that combines Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and hyperspectral data, providing unique views of forests that differentiate individual trees.

‘Energy: latest developments in efficient generation, storage and use’

In a multi-disciplinary panel discussion chaired by Professor David Cardwell, Dr Sohini Kar-Narayan, Dr Siân Dutton and Dr Enass Abo-Hamed introduced emerging materials and structures for energy harvesting, storage and generation, respectively.

Dr Kar-Narayan is a University Lecturer working in the Device Materials Group, Department of Materials Science, aiming to develop efficient and clean solid-state cooling technology based on the electrocaloric (EC) effect associated with phase transitions in ferroelectric materials. These materials also exhibit piezoelectric and pyroelectric properties that are attractive for energy harvesting applications. While traditional materials for these applications typically include lead, Dr Kar-Narayan is particularly interested in organic materials which demonstrate enhanced effects at the nanoscale.

Dr Dutton is a Winton Advanced Research Fellow at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Her research is focused on exploring the properties of complex oxides for energy applications including batteries and solid state magnetic cooling. Lithium ion batteries have high energy densities but are cost-prohibitive for other than small scale applications. For applications such as grid stabilization, sodium ion batteries may be favoured.

Dr Abo-Hamed is the co-founder and CEO at H2GO Power Ltd, an award winning spin-out company from the University of Cambridge, developing safe and low-cost hydrogen production and storage technologies.

The discussions were passionate – choices for energy are often determined politically, rather than technologically, socially or economically. With the dependence on renewable energy continuing to increase, technological development is required to deliver global access and sustainability.

Appleyard Lees in Cambridge

In January 2017, Appleyard Lees opened a new office in Cambridge as part of our growth strategy to provide market-leading support to some of the most innovative companies worldwide. We have a network of UK offices in Leeds, Halifax, Manchester and the Alderley BioHub, providing clients globally with a full spectrum of advice and a fully integrated approach to all aspects of IP.

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