Reporter 426, 2 November 1998

Faraday successes put the bloom on the White Rose

When, in 1831, Michael Faraday discovered electro-magnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator, the benefits outside the laboratory were clear. Electricity, which had previously been a nineteenth- century research curiosity, could now be harnessed as a powerful technology for Britain’s fledgling industry and was used as a tool in the revolution that quickly followed.

Nearly 170 years later a research partnership bearing his name and co-ordinated at the University is focusing on re-establishing and improving this link between industry and the research base. The White Rose Faraday Partnership, a collaboration between Pira International, the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York and Cambridge Consultants Ltd, is creating strong links to increase the flow of research results between academia and the packaging industry.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) initiated the Faraday schemes in 1996 to improve transfer of research findings, and to channel university activity towards supporting the research and development needs of a specific industry. The EPSRC received over 200 outline proposals for Faraday partnerships and the White Rose bid was one of only four allocated. It broadly focuses on the better use of packaging materials, providing greater customer benefits in product design and reduced environmental impact through reduced weight and better recycling. “We identified the packaging industry as it covers the entire span of the supply chain and much of the industry involves small and medium sized companies which aren’t particularly research active,” said Professor Tony May, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research. “We have now committed out initial £1m grant to seven research projects identified as being the highest priority by the industry.”

The research projects (that the £1m award has been used to initiate) are expected to last for up to three to four years. However, Professor May anticipates that the initial success of the Faraday partnership will attract further private investment and public funding. It also includes an Innovative Concepts Forum in which the universities, research and technology organisations, and industrial members will come together to identify new packaging concepts.

The projects include a detailed analysis of the packaging supply chain, paying particular attention to the decision making process and what constraints affect it (for example communication delays). They also include the development of an interactive printed antenna within the packaging which can be used for tagging it for security and condition monitoring and a fundamental study of the polymer forming process.

The White Rose collaboration between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York was pioneered in 1997 and has recently been launched as a limited company. It was set up to pool the resources of the three institutions and to promote research into a diverse range of subjects that carry important implications for the world of business. In addition to the £1m funding secured from the EPSRC for the Faraday partnership, the White Rose partnership obtained combined grants worth a further £500,000 in its first year. This funding includes £200,000 from the Department for Education and Employment regional development fund to train research postgraduates for employment, and £250,000 from the Department of Trade and Industry to promote the commercial exploitation of innovative biotechnology (see Reporter 409). Ten postgraduate studentships are also offered each year under the White Rose umbrella. The students are jointly supervised by two of the three universities and have access to both institutions’ facilities.

This year’s White Rose students have just begun their research projects, which include a study to compare the social barriers to parenthood experienced by mothers with physical and learning disabilities. This research is being jointly supervised by academics in Sheffield’s Department of Sociological Studies and the Disability Research Unit at Leeds.

The three universities have also identified several areas for further research collaboration. These include gender studies, biodiversity, health, finance, food, media technology, bio-materials, environmental engineering and rail transport. The three are also co-operating in staff training, joint bids for equipment procurement and regularly share data on topics such as research income to allow them to appraise their own performance. “By collaborating on research projects and equipment the work of the universities will add up to more than the sum of its parts,” Professor May added.The White Rose universities have also recently cooperated on the university challenge fund, launching a joint bid for a £5m fund which is intended to assist the exploitation of research findings. “Essentially it’s the D of R & D,” explained Professor May.

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