Can nature provide inspiration for creating new kinds of engineering materials?
This is the fascinating question that scholar Martin Walker is exploring in the final year of his PhD in Engineering at Cambridge. His ground-breaking work has exciting and far-reaching implications for Canada’s aerospace and transportation industries.
One of the first things that Martin did at his interview was to demonstrate the foundation of his research by passing around a thin metal sheet. As he explained, in nature (unlike engineering materials) every surface has a texture. We saw how adding texture by creasing the sheet impacted its flexural behaviour in interesting ways. Although this was just a single crease, it opens the door for analysing complex networks of creases that mimic nature’s textures. This, in turn, can lead to analysing textured metallic shells and changing their mechanics – with incredibly exciting possibilities for the Canadian aerospace and transportation industries in particular. The range of potential applications includes increased stiffness, and lower fuselage weight. We may even see roll-up computer screens in the near future!
It is Martin’s “novel and inventive” (his professor’s words) solution methodologies that have pushed his research to this level. He had started out investigating “tension buckling” – whereby perforated sheets buckle when tension is applied. His impressive educational and work background also helps. Martin followed up his engineering degree from Waterloo with an MASc in Structural Engineering from the University of Toronto. His masters’ thesis (an energy-dissipating system for blast mitigation in structures) was put to good use when he went to work at Explora Security as an engineer – leading the planning and execution of large-scale multinational blast tests. Before coming over to Cambridge, he worked as an engineer at Expedition Engineering, where one of his projects involved optimising the structural system of a low-carbon factory in India. Martin points out how this was a fascinating opportunity: “shape optimisation at the component level is rarely done on structural engineering projects.”
Martin is also extremely passionate about sharing his love of science and engineering with kids. He takes time out from work and research to go out to schools and show kids how math and science is exciting and useful. He speaks enthusiastically about kids being inspired to tackle problems they see around them after they meet him: “…their creativity and enthusiasm come out when they have an opportunity to talk to someone who has a job doing something they are interested in.” In 2012, students at a middle school in Toronto were treated to a talk on what engineers actually do every day. More recently, he visited Year 12 state school students in Somerset to answer their questions about science. We are confident that Martin will inspire a new generation to enter engineering!
As Martin completes his PhD next year and seeks a career in academia, we look forward to following his journey at the forefront of exciting innovations in engineering.