The larva, the test tubes, and the trombone – art-science collaboration at the V & A

Professor Jacqui Glass of Loughborough University tells the story of an extraordinary collaboration between EPSRC-funded research teams and artists.

Instruments of the Afterlife at the V & AI would never have dreamt a year ago, that in twelve months’ time,  I would be walking behind four performers, dressed in grey boiler-suits and playing what looked like a trombone, a geometric backpack and a fat white larva, through a famous museum!  However, this was my experience when science and art came together as part of the Digital Design Weekend at the V&A Museum in London.

I first met design duo Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, (Burton Nitta), last year, when they brought one of their art-science collaborations Algae Opera to a mini science fair at Loughborough. Our project, Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency (CORE) is funded by EPSRC to engage, challenge and inspire. We had organised the fair so that research teams could pilot engagement ideas with a class of local schoolchildren.

One of the projects we are working with is Cleaning Land for Wealth (CL4W). This explores ways in which contaminated land can be brought back to life using plants to collect toxic metals, such as arsenic, and how these plants can then be processed by bacteria to form useful metal nanoparticles.

The science fair was a great success – not least because the CL4W team was inspired to embark on a new collaboration with the artists. The result – Instruments of the Afterlife depicts a future where energy needs and planetary consumption are balanced, creating self-sustaining systems with little environmental impact. But what exactly was it?

Well… imagine the courtyard of the V&A Museum – a large, open-air space filled with visitors relaxing in the sun. Our four performers paraded into this restful and cultured space, and played deep resonant notes from a trombone-like instrument that resounded around the brick-lined garden. Faces quickly turned to find out what was going on. Interspersed with loud proclamations, and culminating in a physical reconstruction of the science, the performance had hundreds of people transfixed.  Visitors followed the performers back inside, to the Sculpture Gallery, and stayed to listen to talks by the artists and research teams, and ask questions. We were given a very special chance to discuss research with the public, who might never otherwise engage with a scientific project in this way.

So, I can now say, hand on heart, that I am a convert to the power of art to engage people in science. It’s not that I didn’t believe in the notion of public engagement – it’s just that I hadn’t really witnessed its extraordinary effect first-hand.

Operation Smartphone

IMG_20150803_164808Operation Smartphone at Portsmouth Summer Fair

On the 5 September 2015, James Suckling and Jaqi Lee from the CLEVER Project went to the Portsmouth Summer Fair to raise awareness about the environmental impact of smartphones. As in the previous post about the Glastonbury Festival, they talked about the life cycle of smartphones and their impact upon the environment. This time, the new version of the CLEVER Project Operation game had its first public outing.

The re-designed game has been built through the funding provided by the CORE Project. It builds upon the original game, which was built for the CORE mini science fair held at Loughborough University last year. It is designed to be more robust and suited to a busy science fair environment. Aside from a metal shell for improved durability, it has been fitted with souped up buzzers, an enhanced graphic of a real smartphone and blue LEDs for extra attention-grabbing appeal. For those who like a little bit of competition, there is also a counter, which marks every time the user sets off the buzzer while trying to extract one of the phone components.

Jaqi and James are very pleased to report that it stood up to the challenge admirably! It was a magnet to children, who did not hold back in playing the game with rapt attention. While they were distracted, we had plenty of opportunity to talk to their parents about the project, and, on occasion, goad them into having a go too!

The only drawback we encountered was that if anything it was too successful. Very young children did not seem to quite grasp the concept of extracting pieces of phone without setting off the buzzer. They happily rummaged around with the tongs while the buzzer sounded solidly. A volume control may need to be a future addition!

James also took the game to Café Scientifique during October 2015.

See the CLEVER Operation Game in Action


EXHUME at Advanced Engineering Show – a researcher’s view

After many years attending the Advanced Engineering Show as a visitor, last week I swapped my visitor pass for an exhibitor version and experienced the show from the other side of the display stands…

EXHUME project at Advanced Engineering Show November 2015There was a tinge of nervous excitement as the EXHUME team awaited the first wave of attendees. This was the first experience for me – and no doubt some of my colleagues – in an engagement activity of this type. We were optimistic, however and confident that we could deliver our message to engineering professionals, particularly as we had some excellent freebies on offer (a scientist can never have enough notebooks and pens!)

After a slow start, we were soon bombarded by visitors of all types, from undergraduate students to business analysts to company CEOs. Some had pre-planned to visit us, already aware of our work and looking for an update, or just to say hello and catch up. Some were drawn in by the prospect of a free pen – that was fine by me – that was the idea! Some were drawn in by curiosity, the words ‘composites’ and ‘recycling’ scarcely appearing together. This was arguably the most notable success of the day, the spreading of awareness in the field. I now have a thick stack of business cards for follow-up contact, most of whom want to explore alternatives to landfill for their waste and would like our help. It is gratifying to see industry value our work and want to contribute.

After many ebbs and flows in the foot traffic, quick questions, detailed discussions and snatched coffee breaks, we were low on merchandise but rich in new contacts, and I’m retrospectively relieved that I scribbled out the crux of each conversation on the back of each business card. The show is just the beginning, and now we must capitalise on it. Engaging industry is essential to the success not just of EXHUME, but in solving the composite waste problem. If our follow up work helps divert some industrial waste from landfill, then I think I can say that we succeeded. Until then…

Dr Jack Howarth, 10 November 2015


Scientists from CL4W attending international meeting in China

Scientists from CL4W project attending meeting of international experts in China

On 9 November 2015, Dr Phil Longhurst from Cranfield University – a member of the CL4W project – will be joining an international team of experts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to discuss methods for cleaning contaminated land.

“China has large areas of contaminated land,” Phil explained. “Therefore any method of land reclamation has to be economically viable.”

The EPSRC-funded CL4W project explores ways in which contaminated land can be brought back to life using plants to accumulate toxic metals, such as arsenic, nickel and lead. It examines how these plants can then be processed using bacteria to form valuable metal nanoparticles.

Representatives from the CL4W project have already met with colleagues from top Chinese Universities, including Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Nanjing Normal University, South East University, Nanjing and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to share this expertise in land remediation.

“The Chinese are interested in the recovery of valuable materials from the contaminated land – including metals such as lead and arsenic,” Phil added. “They are also looking at ways in which crops could be grown on the land, which do not compete with food harvests, but have other uses – such as fuel.”

The week-long international gathering includes site visits, and discussions on the latest techniques for land clean up. It will promote further collaboration between members of the CL4W project and their counterparts in partner organisations in China.

“It is good to have our work recognised as being internationally relevant,” said Phil. “China has one of the largest land banks in the world to manage, and the fact that we are involved means that there will exciting opportunities in the future for the CL4W project team.”

A joint paper with the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been produced. For further information read:

Jiang, Y. Lei, M., Duan, L. and Longhurst P (2015) Integrating Phytoremediation with Biomass Valorisation and Critical Element Recovery: A UK Contaminated Land Perspective, Biomass and Bioenergy, 83, 328-339, doi:10.1016/j.biombioe.2015.10.013



EXHUME at Composite Show, NEC

The EXHUME team are exhibiting at the Composite Show, hosted by the  Advanced Engineering Show on 4-5 November at the NEC.

EXHUME is a collaborative project funded by EPSRC involving the universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Cranfield and Exeter. The project is developing novel and resource efficient composite recycling re-manufacturing processes with industry.

Visit stand G134 to talk to experts about reducing and recycling composite waste. Find out about potential recycling technologies and ways in which you can get involved in current and potential future composite recycling projects. The stand will have examples of re-manufactured products and videos of innovative recycling methods and machinery.

Dr Gary Leeke, University of Birmingham,  commented:  “We are really looking forward to exhibiting at the show and having the opportunity to engage with leading organisations from the composite industry.

“The issue of composite waste is increasing rapidly in both the UK and internationally. Our research has addressed the technical and environmental issues and established re-manufacturing protocols at the factory level. Academics need to work collaboratively with industry and government to drive this forward so that we can recycle composite materials.”

“We are eager to establish further networks within the composite industry to share our findings and to gain valuable insights into our current and future work. We are keen to extend our portfolio of re-manufactured products to exemplify the plausibility of using recycled materials”.

Find out more about the EXHUME project