Author Archives: S.Fox

Digging Deeper

Article by Maram Razouki, student of INTO Manchester and runner up in our 2017 Science Journalism contest.

Can one doughnut kill you? Not quite, but something thing the size of a doughnut could very much do so. A landmine, not much bigger than a pastry, triggered by the slightest pressure could demolish a human body in a matter of seconds or if lucky, cause a permanent disability.

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There are two types of land mines: anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines.  The anti-vehicle mines are large and the power of their explosion would obliterate an immense tank effortlessly, which shockingly is why they are not the problem. Because they are activated by very high pressure, such as that of a tank, and their bulky size they can easily be identified and extinguished by De-miners with ease.  On the other hand, the human-targeting low pressure activated anti-personnel mines are the needle in the stack of haystack; they have very little metal and are virtually impossible to detect accurately by existing metal detectors.

According to Dr. Liam Marsh, there are over 110000000 active land mines in the world which will require 1100 years to demine despite the fact that it takes minutes to implant thousands of them. To add insult to injury, for every 5000 mines removed one person from the demining team dies and two are injured. In addition, areas of land that contain mines are practically waste land as they are uninhibited due to their threat and are uncultivable which is a disaster considering the status of our world food bank in the past decades.

Although not ideal, the most popular tool used in demining is the metal detector. The  problem with metal detectors currently on the market are summed up as follows: firstly, current metal detectors are programmed to detect all metals including the abundant debris in the soil of war zones and high iron levels in soil (noise) ; this creates confusion and false alarms to the de-miners. Secondly, the majority of anti-personnel mines contain the minimum amount of metal possible and hence are hardly ever detected by a metal detector.

Dr. Marsh’s five-year minimum-metal landmine identification project was a successful attempt to increase the efficiency of the demining industry and the metal detectors used in particular. To overcome such obstacles, the project combines the properties of the existing metal detectors with those of the ground penetrating radar (GPR). The GPR calculates how far the object is underground by transmitting radio signals into the ground and as the reflected signals return it measures the time taken to and from the object calculating the distance accordingly. In addition, Dr.Marsh’s project creates profiles, similar to unique figure prints, to all objects based on their properties, for example, composition of iron by reducing the noise around a land mine.  It therefore acts as a sensor that would identify what the object is and how deep it is underground before wasting time and effort on professional digging. In practice, profiles of numerous objects would be created in the laboratory and installed on the project’s system; the project will then match the properties of the object detected to the matching profile on its system and using the radar technique calculate how deep the object is.

This project is important because it would identify mines with very little metal that current metal detectors cannot detect and this increase the safety of the demining process in addition to making the process more efficient. Hence, Dr. Marsh is optimistic and believes that the project facilitates the mine-clearing process and therefore is an important step towards a mine-free world.


Article by Greta Horvathova, student of Oswestry school and runner up in our 2017 Science Journalism contest.

How would you react, if someone told you that somewhere close to your home lies a landmine, an old decaying casserole dish lookalike, buried in your garden, or just somewhere in the middle of the street you walk down everyday to shop for groceries, or on the playground where your children play. You would probably live in constant fear, and isolation, since your friends would be too afraid to risk their lives to visit you. Such is the power of a small round landmine – a tiny iron cap filled with highly volatile explosive, which immediately ignites a larger amount of less volatile explosive, all wrapped in a case and topped up with a pressure plate.

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The scariest part? The estimated number is roughly 110 000 000 landmines scattered across more than 70 countries around the world. And since some of them are hard to detect, we won’t see a dramatic decrease in numbers any soon. The rate of demining – locating and removing mines, is 100 000 mines per year, while for every 5 000 removed one deminer is killed and two others get seriously injured. In the end, the estimated time to demine the whole world is 1 100 years, under the condition that no more mines will be planted meanwhile.

To tackle mine contamination, new technologies have to be invented. One such device, or rather a prototype had been recently successfully developed by Dr Liam Marsh from the University of Manchester. Unlike conventional mine detectors, which detect metals, this one can also “look under the ground” and tell what objects lie underneath it. This ability is useful, as many more recent mines contain a little or almost no metal and therefore can be easily looked over, presenting an even greater danger to deminers and civilians.

So, what’s the science behind this great enhancement?

Inside the newly produced prototype, a special type of ground penetrating radar (GPR) is contained. Normally, GPR devices send­off waves which enter the ground; and if there is an object below the ground, the waves will bounce off of it and go back to the device, where they are collected. The result is a beep suggesting the machine found something and that this something is lies at a certain depth. However, the upgraded GPR used in the new generation landmine detectors is a lot more sophisticated.

It is sensitive to all sorts of different materials, like plastics, and objects like rocks. In addition, the metal detecting technology used in the prototype is able to identify and classify different metal samples. All combined, the prototype system is able to recognize the nature of an object lying beneath the ground and determine whether it ́s a dangerous explosive box, which needs to be taken care of, or just a pair of keys on a keychain someone lost when going for a walk years ago.

Although it’s only a prototype, needing more development and testing before it can glimpse the light of the day, but it has a great potential in the future of “searching for casserole dish lookalikes”, increasing the rate, sufficiency and safety of clearance. This

clever machine can bring the fear, isolation and casualties involving innocent people closer to an end, so no one has to wait for 1 100 years to move around freely.

The Nuclear (Waste) War

Article by Rose Linihan, student of Xaverian College and winner of our 2017 Science Journalism contest.

The United Kingdom currently faces nuclear threat. And no, not that kind. There is in fact a potential energy crisis on its way, involving huge energy shortages and 100,000 tonnes of nScreen Shot 2017-05-26 at 14.33.25uclear waste, to be precise.

There are currently nine nuclear power stations here in the UK, providing 22% of our total electricity. The Government have decided they want nuclear power to continue to provide a portion of our energy, alongside other low-carbon options. The general public conception of nuclear power is notoriously bad, and yet nuclear power is very effective. It’s a low-carbon way of producing the energy needed to power everything in the UK, from our toasters to TVs, and radioactivity is all around us – there’s even radioactivity in bananas!

Nuclear energy itself is produced by a process called fission, whereby a very unstable isotope of an element called uranium is split into two smaller radioactive nuclei and 2 or 3 neutrons are released and lots of energy. In a nuclear reactor, uranium fuel is surrounded by graphite (material that used to be in pencils) moderators and keep the reaction under control by slowing the neutrons down so they’re at the optimum speed for a further reaction to occur. After it has done its job inside the nuclear reactor, this graphite is known as nuclear waste.

However, our current reactors are now old and so require decommissioning and replacing with new and more advanced models, or else there will be a national energy shortage. Which leaves the us with the problem of the 100,000 tonnes of radioactive nuclear waste. Not to mention 300,000 tonnes worldwide. The NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) is responsible for decommissioning nuclear waste and their present plan of how to do this is to wait 100 years and then bury the waste in a geological disposal facility. Another option is to go down a similar route to US whereby waste is shipped in containers and the stored in underground tunnels by machines. These options are both very expensive, costing a whopping £20 billion, not to mention being very time consuming and the fact that suitable geological sites are rare. So what do we do? Dump it at the bottom of the ocean? Bury it somewhere? Launch it into space? Or something else…

Alex Theodosiou is a post-doctoral research associate at Manchester University, working in the field of nuclear decommissioning as part of the Nuclear Graphite Research Group. They work as part of a consortium to come up with novel methods of tackling the nuclear waste crisis. Alex is currently researching the thermal treatment of nuclear graphite by reacting it with oxygen at high tempuratures to produce carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide can then be managed using carbon capture techniques such as liquefication. Alex says ‘This will lead to a massive volume reduction in the graphite inventory and should help reduce overall costs involved with decommissioning, as well as reduce the lengthy timescales currently predicted.’ It could also have wider applications such as nuclear weapon disposal.

Alex’s laboratory work is small scale and involves using a few grams of nuclear grade graphite and heating it with a tube furnace under various conditions, before using a gas analyser to monitor the species formed. This lab data can then be transferred to an industrial scale by partner companies who use a plasma furnace and greater volumes of graphite, to produce results on 1000x the scale.

Alex and his colleages hope that together they can develop a commericially viable decommissioning strategy for the nuclear sector, to propose to the NDA to hopefully win the war against nuclear waste!

The BSA helps students try their hand at science journalism

Last week, on the 7th of March 2017, the Manchester Branch of the British Science Association held its first science journalism workshop. This day-long event was part of our ongoing science journalism competition – an activity we hope will inspire our next generation of scientists and communicators. It was funded in part by generous grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the BSA alongside free venue hire from The University of Manchester.

Through this contest we intend to raise awareness of the pitfalls and complications associated with science journalism by offering the students firsthand experience of how academic research makes the journey from lab bench to lay-literature. Students were invited to join us among the impressive pillars and stained glass of Manchester University’s Sackville street building Entrance Hall where they were introduced to six academics working at the university.

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Students came to us from six schools across Greater Manchester and the surrounding area including: INTO Manchester, Loreto Sixth Form College, Oswestry School, Trafford College, Winstanley College and Xaverian Sixth Form College. Many of these schools had also been involved in our 2016 contest which took a slightly different form. In 2016 we matched students with academics working on their subject of interest and facilitated online and phone interviews between students and academics. As a whole we were amazed by the quality of articles produced by students entering our 2016 contest but sadly not all students found this to be a positive experience. As any researcher probably knows, pinning down academics can be a bit like herding cats, and some of our 2016 students found it very difficult to interview their assigned researcher. So, after a bit of head scratching we chose to re-design the contest for 2017 to include a workshop day where all students got the chance to meet and interview our participating academics.

Our morning and early afternoon sessions saw each researcher give a 35 minute whistle-stop tour of their own field of study with an extra five minutes for student questions. We kicked off proceedings with Dr Nick Weise, Public Engagement and Programs Manager and Researcher at the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology:

As both an active researcher and engagement manager it was Nick’s job to introduce the students to the ins and outs of how to transform complicated scientific research into something fun and accessible for readers with no academic background. Nick gave some great examples and used an activity to show how two shockingly different headlines could easily be generated from the same research.

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Nick was closely followed by Dr David Mills from the School of Chemistry. David explained how he investigates the use of lanthanide elements for the development of single molecule magnets – this type of work may lead us into a new era of tiny tech. Specially for the event David also 3D printed a molecular model of his element of choice Dysprosium which was passed around the students.

Following this we all took a well deserved break for tea and biscuits and, during this time, the students were free to wander around and chat with the event organisers and researchers. It was great to see that a fair number of students took this opportunity to talk to our volunteers about their paths into academia and their experiences of science in the media. I was asked a particularly challenging question about when research should and shouldn’t be reported in the media – which is a question both academics and journalist battle with regularly and so far doesn’t have a simple answer to. I talked about the dangers of incorrect reporting of health risks and how this is one area of research which must be reported very carefully.

After our break Ellena Badrick took over and gave a really interesting talk about her work exploring the links between diabetes and cancer. As our only biologist, her talk was very popular and I made sure to slip in a question about how she thinks health risks should be reported.

Ellena was followed by Dr Liam Marsh who spoke about his work on intelligent metal detectors for locating and disarming land mines. Liam gave a really compelling account of the humanitarian elements of this problem, which set the scene for his work beautifully.

Over lunch we chatted more with students and their teachers who all seemed to be enjoying the day. One student pointed out that he was expecting the event to be really formal but was happy that everyone was instead relaxed and happy to just chat. I hoped that this helped in some way to dispel the myth that science is all about serious stuffy academics in white lab coats quoting equations.
After lunch Dr Alex Theodosiou spoke to the group about his involvement in a large-scale project investigating the best way to dispose of radioactive graphite following decommissioning of a nuclear power plant. His work beautifully highlighted how scientists from a whole range of backgrounds can often work together on one large project.

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Our final speaker Sarah Crowther discussed how she uses samples of extraterrestrial materials, including samples from the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets to learn about the formation and history of the Solar System. She also brought along some beautiful meteorite samples which the students were encouraged to have a better look at during our interview sessions.

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Then came the hard part. For the competition the students are expected to write a short lay-article based on the research of only one of our researchers. Therefore we wanted to give students the chance to interview their chosen researcher but, since we had around forty students and only five researchers (Nick didn’t participate in this section of the day since he had not spoken specifically about his research) we also needed to make sure everyone had a chance to ask questions.

We decided that small groups were the best way forward so chose to seat each of our five researchers around a separate table with spaces for eight students. We thought it would be nice if every student had the opportunity to meet and talk to each researcher in turn, so decided to move our groups of students around to a new academic every fifteen minutes. Of course, however, by this point the students had had a long day and were pretty tired so many didn’t want to talk with everyone. I worry I came across as a bit of a buzz-kill as I tried to make sure everyone stuck to our enforced game of musical chairs around the researchers. But, even though a number of students chose to leave after they met their chosen researcher, we overheard some really interesting discussions and everyone seemed to really  enjoyed this part of the day.

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Taking into account the long sign up process for schools and speakers, creation of work packs for every student, funding applications and event organisation its been an intense few months for our volunteers and we still have judging to come. So we want to thank everyone for the time and effort that they put into organising this event. However, it has also been immensely rewarding and we’re really pleased with how everything panned out.

I can’t wait to start reading the students entries!



Understanding cosmetic testing in the UK.

If we were to ask you which of the following high street brands use animals to test the cosmetic products they sell in their UK stores (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots, The Body Shop, Lush or none of these); what would your answer be?

Many of us will have seen Lush’s bag which boldly expresses the store’s dedication towards the fight against animal testing but what about the other four?

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You may be surprised to learn that none of these high street brands currently use animals to test their cosmetic products. In fact it has been illegal to test cosmetic products or any of their ingredients on animals in the UK since 1998 and an EU-wide ban has been in place since 2013. This means that no cosmetic product sold anywhere in the EU should include new ingredients tested on animals. Although many ingredients will have been tested at some point in the past before these legislations came into play.

If you didn’t already know this don’t feel bad, a recent survey carried out by ‘Understanding Animal Research’ found that only 38% of respondents were aware of these legislations. And, advertising in many stores can perpetuate the belief that some UK cosmetics are still tested on animals. Specifically, products marketed as ‘cruelty free’ or ‘not tested on animals’ may not technically be examples of false advertising but they do perpetuate the incorrect belief that some product sold in UK stores are still tested on animals.

Wendy Jarrett, CEO of Understanding Animal Research, said:

“The proliferation of ‘Not tested on animals’ or ‘Cruelty-Free’ logos has led many to believe that other cosmetic products sold on the UK market are tested on animals – something which has not been the case for 18 years. While animals continue to play a small but key role in medical developments, the UK has successfully eliminated such testing for cosmetics and, more recently, household products.”

This is undoubtedly a huge step forward and we are also heartened to know that the UK government is currently working with a number of non-EU countries supporting them to move away from cosmetic animal testing towards non-animal alternatives.

So, the next time you are out shopping for cosmetics or household products you can shop with the confidence that none of the products you see on the shelves will be tested on animals!

Post by: Sarah Fox