A report commissioned by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation finds that nanotechnology will have a far reaching impact on almost every industry including energy, transportation, manufacturing, medical, computing and telecommunications.

An expert panel led by Professor Sir Mark Welland FRS FREng, Director of the Nanoscience Centre at the University of Cambridge was assembled by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation in October 2013. It considered the potential implications of nanotechnology on the safety and performance of engineering assets and the infrastructure on which modern society relies. The panel included top academics from world-leading institutions: the universities of Cambridge, Heriot-Watt and Southampton and the Health Safety Laboratory in the UK; Yale in the USA; the National University of Singapore and Münster in Germany. 

The resulting report identified five key areas of impact:

Miniaturisation of sensor technology: Embedded nano-sensors in structural materials such as concrete, or ‘living’ inside engines, providing feedback on corrosion or stresses, will give continuous readout of real-time structural and systems performance data. This technology will also enhance robotics and un-manned vehicles across the transport sector (UAVs).

  • Big data: Not so much a development but an implication of ubiquitous sensing is the massive increase in data being collected, with major implications concerning assurance about quality, security and traceability.

  • Engineered smart materials: The development of new engineering materials and manufacturing techniques, using lighter, stronger materials with designer properties could see, for example, ships being glued together from lightweight composites. Parallel developments in 3D printing will also enable printing of metals.

  • Energy storage: Small compact batteries with massive storage capacity combined with the ability to harvest energy from their environment could deliver profoundly different transportation systems or enable white goods to be powered for life at point of purchase.

  • Nanoparticles: The report also highlighted the need for research into methods for assessing the safety, quality assurance and traceability of nanoparticles in the supply chain.

The engineering applications of nanotechnology and big data will herald a new digital future leading to improvements in safety, performance and reliability. A copy of the foresight review of nanotechnology can be downloaded at www.lrfoundation.org.uk/news/2014/nanotechnology-review.aspx.

Following the success of the nanotechnology panel the Lloyd’s Register Foundation has assembled an expert panel to review the engineering applications of big data (machine data). The Foundation is aiming to award major research grants in both the fields of nanotechnology and big data this year. In August 2014, the Foundation invited proposals from consortia of universities and research organisations for Preparatory Grants to establish an international research consortium in nanotechnology. 

Connecting science, safety and society

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation is a charity, set up in 2012, which funds the advancement of engineering-related education and research and supports work that enhances safety of life at sea, on land and in the air. It is funded by the profits of its trading arm, Lloyd’s Register Group Limited, a professional services organisation working mainly in the transportation and energy sectors which also delivers a part of the Foundation’s charitable objectives. 

The Foundation is looking to identify the gaps or ‘white space’ in research where it could make a distinctive contribution, which would lead to enhancements in safety. This would be through accelerating targeted technology applications or contributing to the body of knowledge addressing any uncertainties about potential risks to human health, property or the environment. 

The research into emergent technologies such as nanotechnology and big data forms a key part of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s funding strategy.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s strategy for 2014-2020 focuses funding on four strategic themes: promoting safety and public understanding of risk; advancing skills and education; supporting excellent scientific research; and accelerating the application of research. Four research themes have been prioritised: structural integrity and systems performance; resilience engineering; human and social factors; and emergent technologies. See more at: www.lrfoundation.org.uk/strategy 

In the first full year of operation as the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the charity awarded grants of £16.8 million, funding 20 programmes in 40 centres in 13 countries, including Finland, Norway, Finland, Canada, China, USA, S Korea, Netherlands, Singapore, Greece, Australia, Brazil, S Africa and UK. Specific research undertaken covers marine and offshore deep water engineering, geotechnics, materials performance, transport systems, environmental, arctic and nuclear.

On the skills and education front, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation awarded dozens of grants connected with vocational training, school clubs, pre-university and university education.