When the geologist met the mathematician and the microbiologist - Financial Times – Paid Post by BP

Exchanging Ideas

The BP Institute at Cambridge is seen as a pioneer of the multidisciplinary approach, while also representing collaboration between academia and the commercial world. Established 16 years ago with a £22m endowment from BP, its aim is to investigate all aspects of ‘flow’ – how gases and fluids move. It is cited for its work in surface science that has led to advances in enhanced oil recovery and in automotive lubricants.

“I see scientists start to approach one another rather than trying to solve something themselves and taking longer to get to an inferior answer”

At the Institute, scientists present their findings at weekly seminars to encourage the free flow of ideas.

For the younger generation, multidisciplinary working is changing how scientists tackle problems, says Isabella Stocker, an alumna of the BP Institute who now manages research projects within BP itself.

“As a manager, I see scientists start to approach one another rather than trying to solve something themselves and taking longer to get to an inferior answer,” she says.

“Researchers are more aware that somebody else might tackle a problem better because they have a different background.”

From academia to industry

BP Institute supplies pipeline of scientific talent

Seeing scientific ideas become commercial reality is among the rewards of moving from academia to BP for Andrea Kuesters and Isabella Stocker, two former BP Institute researchers and PhD students.

“The best thing is seeing something go all the way to the end user,” says Dr Kuesters, now a BP drilling technology engineer. “It is great to know [the technology] is being used and is valuable.”

Meanwhile Dr Stocker, a chemist, says she has had to adjust to working in a team after the independence of being a PhD student: “You can’t do everything any more. Everyone has their speciality, their expertise. Learning when to hand over to someone else was a challenge.”

Applying research

She appreciates the work focus and discipline of BP, a contrast to the more discursive atmosphere of academia, and enjoys managing and commissioning projects rather than being a hands-on scientist.

“I always especially loved the analytical side. Now I have time to put the pieces together,” she says. “I still face very interesting research questions. I can focus entirely on what they mean for science or for the business.”

Manchester, City of Science

Manchester is fast becoming a global hub for advanced materials research, helping it to reclaim its place as a leading city of science

Expertise in materials forms a thread through the scientific heritage of Manchester, this year’s European City of Science, which also lays claim to splitting the atom and creating the first computer with a stored program and memory.

Some 150 years ago, Manchester was all about cotton. Its factories were at the heart of the world’s largest and most productive cotton-spinning centre.

More recently the city has achieved fame as the birthplace of graphene. The thinnest material known to man was first isolated by scientists at The University of Manchester, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their efforts.

Creating a hub

Today a massive investment in materials research is helping Manchester to reassert its position as a leading modern scientific centre, something that will also bring benefits for the north of England and help the development of the “northern powerhouse” outlined by Chancellor George Osborne.

The BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) opened in Manchester in 2012 as the focus for a four-way university partnership that also includes the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Backed by BP with a $100m investment over 10 years, its aim is to understand the fundamental properties of materials as they apply to the oil and gas industry and more widely across the energy sector. The National Graphene Institute opened in 2015. Soon the two will be joined by the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre and the £235m Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research. Manchester will be a hub for innovation in this fast-moving field of advanced materials and benefits should accrue from developing a critical mass of expertise and investigation in the city.

“We can do things imaging-wise that we could only dream of decades ago.”

Developing new understanding

The BP-ICAM partnership is already showing promising findings in areas related to materials for energy use. These are being boosted by developments in research technology that allow scientists to carry out forensic examinations of materials at the atomic level. “We can do things imaging-wise that we could only dream of two decades ago,” says Dr Robert Sorrell, BP’s vice president for public partnerships. “Take hydrogen. It’s a very small molecule that’s very hard to detect, but once it gets inside steel it can build up, expand and literally destroy the steel from the inside out. Using some cutting-edge technology they have at Manchester we can now observe and begin to understand exactly what’s happening. And we’ve developed what looks like quite a promising hydrogen-resistant steel, which has been patented.”

The aim is to achieve a better understanding of fundamental processes in order to develop improved ways of tackling problems. New knowledge about the causes of corrosion, for example – which is a major issue for the transportation of oil and gas – is making it possible to rebuild materials to be more resistant, develop better strategies to slow down the process, and develop smart coatings which can self-repair and give some warning that a problem may be about to occur.