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Scientists in bid to use tiny spring and movement of stars to save lives

Scientists in bid to use tiny spring and movement of stars to save lives

On March 20, young Glasgow scientist Richard Middlemiss will stand on the highest peaks of the Faroe Islands.

Not to hear the call of the two million seabirds wheeling around him, nor to photograph the many rainbows bursting from the spray of the island waterfalls.

But to instead stand patiently, waiting, as the moon crosses the sun and the stars travel across a darkening sky.

Situated between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands are one of the few places on earth that you can experience the full enormity of a total solar eclipse.

For a few moments only, at this rare alignment, you can view the stars behind the sun that you can’t usually see, moving minutely as they are drawn in by gravity to the fiery star.

By measuring this celestial movement, Richard will be one step closer to completing valuable research which, if successful, could save hundreds of thousands of lives with a tiny spring ten times thinner than a human strand of hair.

"In 2008, 90,000 people were killed by an earthquake in China. In 1985, 23,000 people were killed by a volcano eruption in Columbia. Every year, worldwide 15,000, people are still killed by landmines," said Richard.

"I wanted to do something to reduce this number of deaths - and I think we've just invented something that can."

via STV via STV

Richard Middlemiss, 26, from the School of Physics and Astronomy and School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, has devoted his PHD work to building ultra sensitive MEMS for gravity imaging.

By being able to track subtle movements, Richard and the team are hopeful that a device can be built that will be able to predict natural disasters and potentially even scour out dangerous landmines.

“Many things measure the way gravity is pointing, such as your phone,” explains Richard.

“When you’re taking a picture horizontally, the camera shifts for you to landscape - it realises the pull of gravity.

“My supervisors and I came up with the idea to build something that was 100 thousand times more sensitive than the accelerometer in your phone and we designed it all out of a single piece of silicon.

“Everything with mass feels a gravitation force towards anything else with mass and because the motion you’re measuring is so small you can use something like a spring – the key is a soft spring, like a slinky."

Vitaewebsite

Manufactured at the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre at Glasgow University, Richard’s ‘slinky’ is a thin spring which “sort of dips if you run it over something with mass”.

“For example, if I bury a lump of lead in a sandbox, it would have a different density to the rest of the sand, so you would be able to pick up that density if you ran the spring over it,” explains Richard.

“If you run that over land that has magma underneath or fault lines that cause earthquakes, it would pick up the different density and be able to detect it.

“My wife is a geologist so explained a bit of this to me - when fault lines rub against each other, it melts and you can see different density and understand what is going to break next. That’s what’s going to cause an earthquake.”

Richard’s spring is ten times thinner than human hair and measures changes in gravity that allow you to see variations in the density of the ground below you, making it a key invention for mapping fault lines that cause earthquakes or detecting magma under volcanoes.

  (Optical shadow sensor used to detect motion)
via STV via STV

The team’s research could therefore prevent thousands of deaths a year if proven to be successful.

“Doing this PHD is like going back to my childhood, I’ve always been obsessed with finding things out and enjoyed making things from scratch,” said Richard.

“In two and a half years we’ve been able to design it and with our little device, we’re now able to measure the sun and the moon and the tides.

“Imagine what you could see now you understand how to see the density of gravity. You could find oil reservoirs, land mines, the possibilities from this tiny spring are endless,” he adds.

“It enables you to see the world in a different way.”

  (Richard Middlemiss)
via STV via STV
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