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University of Manchester news

The latest study and research news from the University of Manchester

December 2011

October 2011

August 2011


University’s President welcomes first Alan Gilbert Memorial Scholar to Manchester

The University of Manchester’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, has hosted a celebration evening for 12 new students studying at Manchester on the acclaimed Equity and Merit Scholarship Programme.

They included Engineering Project Management student Jeff Murenzi, the first Alan Gilbert Memorial Scholar, who played a major role during the preparation of a new international airport project and other infrasatructure projects in his home country of Rwanda.

The Alan Gilbert Memorial Scholarship was established to honour the memory of the University’s inaugural President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alan Gilbert, who personally led the development of the Equity and Merit Scholarship programme. The Alan Gilbert Memorial Scholarship is awarded to the most outstanding student from Africa in each academic year.

The Equity and Merit Scholarship Programme offers talented students from developing countries the chance to study for life-changing Masters training programmes that are not available in their home nations. Significantly, the courses offered to these students are intended to address specific skills gaps or needs, and have included essential training in areas such as microbiology, law and development, electrical engineering, virology and educational leadership and school improvement.

Jeff said: ‘I can’t find words to describe how studying here with the scholarship makes me feel. This scholarship will help me to build my capacity in project management, in civil engineering and the knowledge I will get from here will contribute to the development of my country and all of Africa.

‘Alan Gilbert was a great man, a man who believed in change via education, a man who believed in development via education, the pioneer of the Equity and Merit Scholarship scheme. To be the first Scholarship holder is a great pleasure for me.

‘I have been given this honour, so I feel that I have something to return, something meaningful, something related to Alan’s dreams: development via education.’

Prior to taking up a place on the Equity and Merit Programme, Jeff worked in a new unit in the Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, established in 2010 to manage all public infrastructure projects. Upon completing his Masters training and returning to Rwanda, Jeff will be responsible for a substantial project to build a new international airport.

The University continues to welcome gifts large and small from those who wish to mark the life and achievements of Alan Gilbert towards the Alan Gilbert Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment which will see the continuation of an annual award to at least one African student per year.

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£50m boost for graphene research

The University of Manchester welcomes the £50m investment announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne into graphene, the world’s thinnest, strongest and most conductive material.

At a visit to the University laboratories where the material’s remarkable properties were first demonstrated, the Chancellor laid out his plans for the creation of a Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub to commercialise graphene, part of almost £200m investment into science.

The Chancellor, along with Universities and Science Minister David Willetts, spoke to Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov, who discovered graphene at The University of Manchester in 2004 and were awarded the 2010 Nobel prize in Physics almost a year ago today.

Graphene, a novel two-dimensional material which can be seen as a monolayer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, is one of the world’s most versatile materials. Its potential applications include touchscreen mobile phones, lighter aircraft wings, superfast internet connections and transistors.

Since the discovery, Professors Geim and Novoselov have continued to carry out world-class research, including into the potential applications of graphene.

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Mr Osborne said: ‘Tomorrow’s world is being shaped here in Manchester. Manchester, the first City of the Industrial Revolution. The city where the first computer was built. Where Rutherford split the atom.

‘Manchester, home to the two brilliant scientists I met this morning who have just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

‘Their prize was for the discovery of a substance called graphene. It’s the strongest, thinnest, best conducting material known to science, to be used in everything from aircraft wings to microchips.

‘The inventors could have gone anywhere in the world to do their research. But they chose The University of Manchester.

‘…We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel-prize winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor…We’re going to get Britain making things again.’

The development of the Hub will capitalise on the UK’s international leadership in the field. It will act as a catalyst to spawn new businesses, attract global companies and translate the value of scientific discovery into wealth and job creation for the UK.

The centre would help develop the technology to allow manufacture on a scale that would open up the promising commercial opportunities, incorporating a large doctoral training centre and advanced research equipment.

A full business case is being developed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). Work leading to the award of the Nobel prize was funded by EPSRC long before the applications were realised.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester, said: ‘We were delighted to host a visit this morning from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister for Universities and Science who visited our graphene research facility and chatted with our Nobel laureates, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov about this very exciting investment in graphene.

‘The announcement is fantastic news for the University and fantastic news for the city of Manchester. It is also timely because it is almost exactly a year today since the Nobel prize was announced; over this time the pace and scale of graphene research in Manchester has escalated dramatically and its commercial potential is growing by the day.

‘It is extremely important that the UK government clearly recognises the importance of investment in science as an economic driver.

‘Graphene is one of the most important scientific advancements in recent times. We are proud of the world-class research carried out here and to have that recognised by the Government is a real vindication of the work we do.

‘As the UK’s leading centre for graphene research, we look forward to the creation of the Graphene Hub which will help to stimulate the economy, create jobs and new business opportunities.’

Professor Geim said: ‘Technology is the engine of the economy, and science is the petrol to keep this engine running. The state of the global economy is in such a mess that its engine requires urgent repairs. Unfortunately, not only we run out of the petrol (by practically exhausting the previous scientific knowledge) but we also run out of money to buy new petrol.

‘It is important that this Government realizes the fundamental importance of science and, even in this economic climate, finds the extra money to get the economy a mile closer to the next petrol station.

‘I do appreciate that the Chancellor has found time to visit the University. My impression is that he tries to look 10 or 20 years ahead to position this country well in the increasingly competitive and technology-driven world.

‘The University of Manchester has been at the forefront of graphene research since 2004 and we plan to be there for a long time to come.’

Professor Novoselov said: ‘With the enormous interest this material has already generated around the world, we expect to be able to convert our world-leading research expertise into real technologies.

‘The Research Hub will certainly allow us to explore deeper into the vast applied potential of graphene, but also will lead to many new exciting results, continuing the scientific excellence in the UK.’

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A planet made of diamond

A once-massive star that’s been transformed into a small planet made of diamond: that is what University of Manchester astronomers think they’ve found in the Milky Way.

The discovery has been made by an international research team, led by Professor Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and is reported in the journal Science.

The researchers, from The University of Manchester as well as institutions in Australia, Germany, Italy, and the USA, first detected an unusual star called a pulsar using the Parkes radio telescope of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and followed up their discovery with the Lovell radio telescope, based at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, and one of the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

Pulsars are small spinning stars about 20 km in diameter – the size of a small city – that emit a beam of radio waves. As the star spins and the radio beam sweeps repeatedly over Earth, radio telescopes detect a regular pattern of radio pulses.

For the newly discovered pulsar, known as PSR J1719-1438, the astronomers noticed that the arrival times of the pulses were systematically modulated. They concluded that this was due to the gravitational pull of a small companion planet, orbiting the pulsar in a binary system.

The pulsar and its planet are part of the Milky Way’s plane of stars and lie 4,000 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens (the Snake). The system is about an eighth of the way towards the Galactic Centre from the Earth.

The modulations in the radio pulses tell astronomers a number of things about the planet.

First, it orbits the pulsar in just two hours and ten minutes, and the distance between the two objects is 600,000 km—a little less than the radius of our Sun.

Second, the companion must be small, less than 60,000 km (that’s about five times the Earth’s diameter). The planet is so close to the pulsar that, if it were any bigger, it would be ripped apart by the pulsar’s gravity.

But despite its small size, the planet has slightly more mass than Jupiter.

‘This high density of the planet provides a clue to its origin’, said Professor Bailes.

The team thinks that the ‘diamond planet’ is all that remains of a once-massive star, most of whose matter was siphoned off towards the pulsar.

Pulsar J1719-1438 is a very fast-spinning pulsar – what’s called a millisecond pulsar. Amazingly, it rotates more than 10,000 times per minute, has a mass of about 1.4 times that of our Sun but is only 20 km in diameter. About 70 per cent of millisecond pulsars have companions of some kind.

Astronomers think it is the companion that, in its star form, transforms an old, dead pulsar into a millisecond pulsar by transferring matter and spinning it up to a very high speed. The result is a fast-spinning millisecond pulsar with a shrunken companion – most often a so-called white dwarf.

‘We know of a few other systems, called ultra-compact low-mass X-ray binaries, that are likely to be evolving according to the scenario above and may likely represent the progenitors of a pulsar like J1719-1438’ said team member Dr Andrea Possenti, Director at INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari.

But pulsar J1719-1438 and its companion are so close together that the companion can only be a very stripped-down white dwarf, one that has lost its outer layers and over 99.9 per cent of its original mass.

‘This remnant is likely to be largely carbon and oxygen, because a star made of lighter elements like hydrogen and helium would be too big to fit the measured orbiting times,’ said Dr Michael Keith (CSIRO), one of the research team members.

The density means that this material is certain to be crystalline: that is, a large part of the star may be similar to a diamond.

‘The ultimate fate of the binary is determined by the mass and orbital period of the donor star at the time of mass transfer. The rarity of millisecond pulsars with planet-mass companions means that producing such ‘exotic planets’ is the exception rather than the rule, and requires special circumstances,’ said Dr Benjamin Stappers from The University of Manchester.

The team found pulsar J1719-1438 among almost 200,000 Gigabytes of data using special codes on supercomputers at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, The University of Manchester in the UK, and the INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari, Italy.

The discovery was made during a systematic search for pulsars over the whole sky that also involves the 100 metre Effelsberg radio telescope of the Max-Planck-Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Germany. ‘This is the largest and most sensitive survey of this type ever conducted. We expected to find exciting things, and it is great to see it happening. There is more to come!’ said Professor Michael Kramer, Director at the MPIfR.

Professor Matthew Bailes leads the ‘Dynamic Universe’ theme in a new wide-field astronomy initiative, the Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

The discovery of the new binary system is of special significance for him and fellow team member Professor Andrew Lyne, from The University of Manchester, who jointly ignited the whole pulsar-planet field in 1991 with what proved to an erroneous claim of the first extra-solar planet. The next year though the first extra-solar planetary system was discovered around the pulsar PSR B1257+12.

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