The Reporter
Issue 491, 16 June 2003
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From bungee jumping to oil platforms: if you want strength and safety, think textiles


Say textiles, and many people think first of clothes and furnishings: fabrics made for style and comfort. But would their thoughts run to oil platforms, aeroplanes, soft-top cars and bungee jumping? Modern textiles are so strong, light and flexible that they have many industrial uses, from fixings to safety fallbacks. But tiny changes in specifications can still make the difference between life and death. Experts at the University are helping companies design textiles for some of the most demanding conditions and situations around the world.

Russ Tebay
Tension tests - Russ Tebay with the testing equipment and (above), the kind of rope he's ensured will stand the stress

Emma Cooper bungee jumpingIf your convertible sports car starts to handle badly at 70mph and makes you feel sick, you’re unlikely to be too impressed. You might not realise it, but the problems would be caused by faulty design of the fabric in the soft top, and the same fault could reduce the safety of the car if it crashed. This was the difficulty faced by an Italian company working for a UK sports car manufacturer, who came to Leeds for help in sorting out the problem.

Technical textiles researcher, Dr Russ Tebay explains: "When the wind hits a car, it creates pressure waves. These aren’t a problem for hardtops, but with convertibles they can be transferred into the car, making the passengers feel sick. It’s a question of the fabric structure, and how it’s tensioned, which also affects its safety. We had to work out exactly what was happening to cause the problem, and what the manufacturer needed to change, but without increasing the cost or changing the ultimate appearance of the car."

Leeds is the only place in the world able to do this kind of testing and the equipment at the department of textiles and design is unique. Originally built in 1988, it was refurbished in 1999 under Professor Carl Laurence, who began to market its use to industry. The equipment now does over £100,000 of industrial work each year. But it’s not just a case of having the right equipment - though clearly that helps. Leeds also has the people with the expertise to use it, and apply the findings to textile design.

Each time you take a flight, it’s likely that your safety is partly assured by work carried out at the University. Leeds has helped ensure the security of the breaking system at the end of runways - a big net which appears if the plane's own brakes fail – on behalf of the Civil Aviation Authority. The department has also tested material developed to contain aircraft engines if they explode, to prevent damage to the rest of the aircraft. The specifications of this fabric were very challenging: able to cope with -50 degrees outside the aircraft, rising to up to 200 degrees in case of engine fire or explosion, yet be extremely lightweight.

Textiles are also replacing metal in securing oil platforms to the sea bed. As oil exploration moves into deeper seas, the size of chain needed would end up being heavy enough to sink a platform and impossible to transport by ship, so textile rope provides an alternative. The specifications for this rope are being drawn up by the University in a collaborative research project for some of the major oil companies. Russ Tebay said: "The rope required is so big - 2m diameter - that it’s impossible to test the whole thing. We test one strand at a time."

Prototype Any shape or size - one of the prototypes made at the Keyworth Institute

If you think bungee jumping is taking your life in your hands, it was even more so before the department of textiles began health and safety testing to determine how long bungee-jumping rope could safely be used for continuous jumping. Luckily the department found existing rope specifications to be safe, and set a limit of 1,200 jumps before fatigue set in to prejudice safety.

So whether driving, jumping or flying, textiles research at Leeds has helped ensure you do it safely.

* Facilities used by industry can help 'knowledge transfer' across University departments as well. The rapid prototyping facility in the Keyworth Institute is used to create models of anything from engine parts to the winder on a garden parasol quickly and cheaply, so companies can carry out tests prior to full production.

But increasingly the equipment is used for internal work, such as models of spines for medical imaging, propellors for fuel and energy, and medical operating tools for rheumatology and rehabilitation. For more details, see or email ext 32213.


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