Tell us a little bit about Oxford nanoSystems:
Oxford nanoSystems has created a structured metal surface which enhances heat transfer via boiling. Boiling heat transfer is used throughout the industries of heat transfer, refrigeration and energy generation. For example refrigeration works by something boiling in your fridge or in an air conditioner; 80% of electricity we use actually comes from boiling water. This could be from a nuclear reactor or a coal fired powerstation or even on the end of a gas turbine. So basically what we want to do with our nano-coatings is make that process more efficient.
How is your technology connected to CERN?:
We’ve recently just become the first company to join the STFC CERN BIC at RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), and our project involves supporting the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. Our aim is to improve the refrigeration around the silicon detectors right in the heart of the Large Hadron Collider around where the particles interact. The detectors track the positions of the particles, (of which there are billions passing through every second), but what’s vital for detection is that they are kept cool to keep their noise floor low. What CERN wants to do is decrease the mass of the refrigeration system and reduce the interaction of the system with the particles themselves in order to create that the world’s most efficient refrigeration system.
We’ve just started a year’s development as an STFC CERN BIC company and we’ve already organised our first deliverables with the RAL Engineering Group. These are basically long tubes with our nano-coatings on the inside of them and will be tested at CERN this summer. CERN will do some experiments with heat-loads to see if our nano-coating increases the number of watts per square cm that can be extracted. If they do, our nano-coating is effectively cooling the detectors.
How did you hear about the STFC CERN BIC?
We’ve been based at RAL for two years as part of the ESA BIC Harwell and I-TAC incubation centre. This has meant we’ve been able to build a number of important links with RAL science groups and the space cluster. We were already starting to think about how we could take our technology to help CERN and then we heard about the STFC CERN BIC programme through the networking events on site at Harwell such as the ESA BIC Harwell monthly networking events and the Harwell Business Breakfasts. It was here we heard about the opportunities available through the scheme from the incubation managers of both the ESA BIC Harwell and the STFC CERN BIC itself.
What made you decide to join the STFC CERN BIC?
It was an absolutely perfect fit. The ability to be able to work with CERN scientists is massively helpful for us. They’ve got a difficult problem and our solution has been identified as something that could be very helpful to them: not only for the ATLAS detector but for the other detectors around the ring (at a later date) so it’s a marriage made in heaven really! They can help us to help them. And then of course there’s the spin off for industry; it’s a classic refrigeration problem.
What’s the best thing about being based at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell Campus?
Oxford nanoSystems is a good worked example of how the Harwell Campus idea is helping bring out technology which is difficult to do anywhere else. We have facilities here where we can do depositional chemistry and micro-measurements and micro surface characterisation in a location close to the scientists who want to use this technology. Having two on-site ‘customers’ (and working on a third!) that can provide not only advice but a need for the technology is a fabulous example of the cluster effect and the business incubation support available here and shows that it goes both ways.
What are your plans for Oxford nanoSystems at the STFC CERN BIC?
So what we really want to do with the STFC CERN BIC this year is to characterise, measure and really understand both the performance of our nano-coatings in refrigeration systems and also understand and develop their uniformity which will be useful for us to demonstrate to our industrial customers. From this we’re hopefully going to get a bunch of numbers from the CERN scientists which will help us to conclude two things: 1) how the performance changes under different conditions and 2) now we have this data, can we make our product scale up to several meters in length? It is a process that can be industrialised and we think we can get answers to our problems by working with the BIC.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
We’re currently undertaking an experiment with the University of Bayreuth in Germany on geothermal energy. We’ve coated a 1m pipe with our structure uniform over 1m (which is quite a triumph in itself), which eventually will have hot water from the underground passing through it. Our nano-coating will be helping the refrigerant boil on the outside in order to create pressure to drive a turbine and produce electricity. It’s always free; it’s always on and never intermittent. Geothermal is a good example of a potential use of our innovation because it could be a huge market but it all depends on the cost of the heat exchangers. If we can make the system smaller and perform better we’ve reduced an important cost there.