Press release!

A jumbo jet has about six million parts of which roughly half are fasteners – that’s a lot of holes.

It is very rare for one of my research papers to be included in a press release on its publication.  But that’s what has happened this month as a consequence of a paper being included in the latest series published by the Royal Society.  The contents of the paper are not earth shattering in terms of their consequences for humanity; however, we have resolved a long-standing controversy about why cracks grow from small holes in structures [see post entitled ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on  April 26th, 2017] that are meant to be protected from such events by beneficial residual stresses around the hole.  This is important for aircraft structures since a civilian airliner can have millions of holes that contain rivets and bolts which hold the structure together.

We have used mechanical tests to assess fatigue life, thermoelastic stress analysis to measure stress distributions [see post entitled ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th, 2015], synchrotron x-ray diffraction to evaluate residual stress inside the metal and microscopy to examine failure surfaces [see post entitled ‘Forensic engineering‘ on July 22nd, 2015].  The data from this diverse set of experiments is integrated in the paper to provide a mechanistic explanation of how cracks exploit imperfections in the beneficial residual stress field introduced by the manufacturing process and can be aided in their growth by occasional but modest overloads, which might occur during a difficult landing or take-off.

The success of this research is particularly satisfying because at its heart is a PhD student supported by a dual PhD programme between the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.  This programme, which supported by the two partner universities, is in its sixth year of operation with a steady state of about two dozen PhD students enrolled, who divide their time between Liverpool, England and Hsinchu, Taiwan.  The synchrotron diffraction measurements were performed, with a colleague from Sheffield Hallam University, at the European Synchrotron Research Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France; thus making this a truly international collaboration.


Amjad K, Asquith D, Patterson EA, Sebastian CM & Wang WC, The interaction of fatigue cracks with a residual stress field using thermoelastic stress analysis and synchrotron x-ray diffraction experiments, R. Soc. Open Sci. 4:171100.


Red to blue

Some research has a very long incubation time.  Last month, we published a short paper that describes the initial results of research that started just after I arrived in Liverpool in 2011.  There are various reasons for our slow progress, including our caution about the validity of the original idea and the challenges of working across discipline boundaries.  However, we were induced to rush to publication by the realization that others were catching up with us [see blog post and conference paper].  Our title does not give much away: ‘Characterisation of metal fatigue by optical second harmonic generation‘.

Second harmonic generation or frequency doubling occurs when photons interact with a non-linear material and are combined to produce new photons with twice the energy, and hence, twice the frequency and half the wavelength of the original photons.  Photons are discrete packets of energy that, in our case, are supplied in pulses of 2 picoseconds from a laser operating at a wavelength of 800 nanometres (nm).  The photons strike the surface, are reflected, and then collected in a spectrograph to allow us to evaluate the wavelength of the reflected photons.  We look for ones at 400 nm, i.e. a shift from red to blue.

The key finding of our research is that the second harmonic generation from material in the plastic zone ahead of a propagating fatigue crack is different to virgin material that has experienced no plastic deformation.  This is significant because the shape and size of the crack tip plastic zone determines the rate and direction of crack propagation; so, information about the plastic zone can be used to predict the life of a component.  At first sight, this capability appears similar to thermoelastic stress analysis that I have described in Instructive Update on October 4th, 2017; however, the significant potential advantage of second harmonic generation is that the component does not have to be subject to a cyclic load during the measurement, which implies we could study behaviour during a load cycle as well as conduct forensic investigations.  We have some work to do to realise this potential including developing an instrument for routine measurements in an engineering laboratory, rather than an optics lab.

Last week, I promised weekly links to posts on relevant Thermodynamics topics for students following my undergraduate module; so here are three: ‘Emergent properties‘, ‘Problem-solving in Thermodynamics‘, and ‘Running away from tigers‘.


Instructive Update

Six months ago I wrote about our EU research project, called INSTRUCTIVE, and the likely consequences of Brexit for research [see my post: ‘Instructive report and Brexit‘ on March 29th, 2017].  We seem to be no closer to knowing the repercussions of Brexit on research in the UK and EU – a quarter of EU funding allocated to universities goes to UK universities so the potential impacts will hit both the UK and EU.  Some researchers take every opportunity to highlight these risks and the economic benefits of EU research; for instance the previous EU research programme, Framework Programme 7, is estimated to have created 900,000 jobs in Europe and increased GDP by about 1% in perpetuity.  However, most researchers are quietly getting on with their research and hoping that our political leaders will eventually arrive at a solution that safeguards our prosperity and security.  Our INSTRUCTIVE team is no exception to this approach.  We are about half-way through our project and delivered our first public presentation of our work at the International Conference on Advances in Experimental Mechanics last month.  We described how we are able to identify cracks in metallic structures before they are long enough to be visible to the naked eye, or any other inspection technique commonly used for aircraft structures.  We identify the cracks using an infra-red camera by detecting the energy released during the formation and accumulation of dislocations in the atomic structure that coalesce into voids and eventually into cracks [see my post entitled ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on April 26th, 2017 for more on energy release during crack formation].  We can identify cracks at sub-millimetre lengths and then track them as they propagate through a structure.  At the moment, we are quantifying our ability to detect cracks forming underneath the heads of fasteners [see picture] and other features in real aerospace structures; so that we can move our technology out of the laboratory and into an industrial environment.  We have a big chunk of airplane sitting in the laboratory that we will use for future tests – more on that in later blog posts!

INSTRUCTIVE is an EU Horizon 2020 project funded under the Clean Sky 2 programme [project no. 686777] and involves Strain Solutions Ltd and the University of Liverpool working with Airbus.

Statistics on funding from

For other posts on similar research topics, see ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th, 2015 and ‘Forensic engineering‘ on July 22nd, 2015.

The red crane

The red crane by Weimen He

One of my favourite institutions to visit is the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford.  I have written before about their rotating exhibition in the Treasury of unique books and manuscripts from their collection [see my post entitled ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015].  A recent visit did not disappoint and included one of John Le Carré’s manuscripts showing his extensive editing as well as early texts written on birch bark.  However, it was in the shop that something really caught my eye.  The fusion of art and engineering in a postcard depicting a painting called ‘The red crane’, by artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, capturing the moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.  This level of fusion is rare in my experience and perhaps the ethos that created it is one of the reasons the Weston Library is such a pleasure to visit.

The Roman architect, Vitruvius identified the three principles of good structural design to be ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ or durability, utility and beauty.  Too often utility, including value for money, trumps beauty and shortens horizons for durability; so that little is contributed to our culture and nothing worthwhile will be left for future generations.

BTW there is a very large bookshop next door to the Weston Library and I couldn’t resist buying ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage‘ by Anuk Arudpragasam.  It’s a beautiful novel of consciousness about love and war.

Getting smarter

A350 XWB passes Maximum Wing Bending test [from:

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is a perennial problem in computational simulations of engineering structures.  If the description of the geometry of the structure, the material behaviour, the loading conditions or the boundary conditions are incorrect (garbage in), then the simulation generates predictions that are wrong (garbage out), or least an unreliable representation of reality.  It is not easy to describe precisely the geometry, material, loading and environment of a complex structure, such as an aircraft or a powerstation; because, the complete description is either unavailable or too complicated.  Hence, modellers make assumptions about the unknown information and, or to simplify the description.  This means the predictions from the simulation have to be tested against reality in order to establish confidence in them – a process known as model validation [see my post entitled ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012].

It is good practice to design experiments specifically to generate data for model validation but it is expensive, especially when your structure is a huge passenger aircraft.  So naturally, you would like to extract as much information from each experiment as possible and to perform as few experiments as possible, whilst both ensuring predictions are reliable and providing confidence in them.  In other words, you have to be very smart about designing and conducting the experiments as well as performing the validation process.

Together with researchers at Empa in Zurich, the Industrial Systems Institute of the Athena Research Centre in Athens and Dantec Dynamics in Ulm, I am embarking on a new EU Horizon 2020 project to try and make us smarter about experiments and validation.  The project, known as MOTIVATE [Matrix Optimization for Testing by Interaction of Virtual and Test Environments (Grant Nr. 754660)], is funded through the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking with Airbus acting as our topic manager to guide us towards an outcome that will be applicable in industry.  We held our kick-off meeting in Liverpool last week, which is why it is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  We have 36-months to get smarter on an industrial scale and demonstrate it in a full-scale test on an aircraft structure.  So, some sleepness nights ahead…


ASME V&V 10-2006, Guide for verification & validation in computational solid mechanics, American Society of Mech. Engineers, New York, 2006.

European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), Validation of computational solid mechanics models, CEN Workshop Agreement, CWA 16799:2014 E.

Hack E & Lampeas G (Guest Editors) & Patterson EA (Editor), Special issue on advances in validation of computational mechanics models, J. Strain Analysis, 51 (1), 2016.