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Recovering The Cost Of Research Into Gas Lubrication

by John Powell

posted in Reference and Education

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Engineers and scientists are often asked to justify the cost of publicly funded research and development programmes and make predictions about cost recovery and potential returns from commercial exploitation of their results. Often it is assumed that many projects will yield no tangible return but the occasional spectacular break-through will earn enough to more than compensate for the losses. However, there are examples of modest research programmes covering the cost to the taxpayer, and the first programme of investigation into gas lubrication at the University of Southampton in the early 1960s is such a case.
Research into gas lubrication had begun at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE), Harwell, Oxfordshire, in the 1950s, but the programme ended with two unanswered questions, one of which was taken up by the University of Cambridge under Dr Michael Wood and the other by the University of Southampton under Dr Normal Grassam. The Cambridge work of Dr Harry Marsh produced a major breakthrough in the understanding of instability in high speed gas lubricated machines and at Southampton the work led to a number of successful industrial applications of the technology that remain in production to the present day.
The funding provided to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Southampton by the AERE was £2000 (about $5500 at that time). In addition to the problem posed by AERE, the researchers tackled a number of related issues connected with the properties and potential uses of gas bearings. In the same laboratory, Mr Roy Budden was conducting research into the heat transfer properties of gas flows with high dust concentrations. It became necessary to develop a flowmeter that could give accurate data consistently over long periods, unaffected by accumulation of dust particles.
The answer was found to be a turbine flowmeter with a gas bearing and it wasn't long before a gentleman came from Harwell introducing himself as the establishment's patent officer. In due course a patent was issued, owned by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and with the four inventors named as Budden, Grassam, Page and Powell. Later, a commercial design was produced by Mr Colin Dee of Micro Turbines Ltd, a precursor of Westwind Air Bearings Ltd, and when Westwind was formed in 1963 the company took a licence from the UKAEA to offer the flowmeter for general sale.
It was soon apparent that the flowmeter could be designed to operate in any gas, with or without dust loading, and in a range of sizes and operating environments. Over the next few years it found application in a nuclear power station an industrial plant manufacturing PTFE (fluon/teflon) plastic, an experimental blast furnace, a military engine testing facility and an anaesthetics monitoring unit. The applications were small-scale and specialised, no mass orders were ever received, but each sale was carefully accounted and the 7.5 percent royalty duly paid to the patent holder. In due course, the accumulated total passed £2000 and the taxpayer had been repaid.
About the Author: John Powell
John Powell weaves a tale of tension and intrigue into the lives and loves of the Mainu family and their friends, against the rich social, cultural, economic and political background of the first four decades of Ghana's independence, in his two novels: The Colonial Gentleman's Son and Return to the Garden City.
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