Braids, biogas and banana skins

J.K. Østergaard, freeimages.com
© J.K. Østergaard, freeimages.com

Some scientists are driven by answering questions about how the world works, and others are more interested in applying that knowledge to new problems. Before I interviewed Mike Clifford, I knew him as an engineer who works on appropriate technology at the University of Nottingham. What I found was that he is actually committed to both very technical mathematically-based research, and developing simple solutions to pressing problems. Our meeting was at a Christians in Science conference, and Mike is another example of someone whose faith and work are not so much complementary as indistinguishable.

I chose to study engineering at university because I wanted to do something practical. I was told that I would enjoy a combination of physics and maths, but I found myself enjoying beautiful equations more than anything else, so I rebelled and went on to do a PhD in maths. After several years doing computational modelling and braid and knot theory, I got a job modelling traffic pollution in an architecture department. That was followed by a project on chaotic mixing, and another on composite materials.

I could have easily stayed on the pure side of maths, but I rediscovered my desire to do something practical. Although I’m not that good at DIY, and I’m not the one to lift the bonnet of the car, I can easily resource my students to do hands-on engineering projects. There’s still the mathematician in me, but I have always been challenged by the thought, what’s the practical outcome of my work?

There are two main strands to my research at the moment. One is composite materials, and recently I’ve started some projects on natural-fibre composites. The other strand, and the one that is probably unique to me in the University, is ‘appropriate technology’.

All technology should be appropriate for its context: location, level of technology available, and local use of materials – which feeds into the sustainability agenda. So, it’s using what people would call ‘basic solutions’ to problems experienced by remote communities. Usually people understand remote communities to be in the developing world context, but that’s not always the case.

For example, we partnered with a community in Shetland who were working with ex drug and alcohol abusers. They wanted to recycle paper and cardboard, because the only options available to them were for it to be shipped it back to the mainland for recycling, or put into  landfill on the Shetlands. We developed a way of turning paper into briquettes for burning, which replaced the peat they were cutting on the island. Another student was from Kenya, so she went home for the summer to work on a biogas project with local farmers, and a second student joined her.

I’m a volunteer speaker with Tearfund, and I usually speak about appropriate technology projects that I have been doing through the University, some of which might have been suggested by Tearfund partners. There is not a box in my life labelled ‘faith’ and another labelled ‘science’. For me, it’s all wrapped up together. It’s not a question of balance, or even integration, it’s just “This is what I am, this is what I do.”

Roy Searle from the Northumbria Community talks about the church being influenced by management values. Do we need goals and targets and programmes, or do we need a more holistic, “We are Church, and this is what we do”? This feeds into what I spend my time doing at work. I can spend my time writing grants in areas that are more likely to get funding and result in major publications. I can also work on projects that are going to make a difference in the lives of people who can’t afford to fund that sort of research.

The project I’m most proud of at the moment was started by a business studies student. She wanted an idea to take with her to Kenya, so I showed her how to turn banana skins into fuel briquettes. She recently sent me an update, saying “I sent a team out to Mombasa in March. The trip was very successful. The business in the slum is still running. Now supplying 80 families. We’ve also spread the briquette skill to 3 schools in the local area, and set up a recycling scheme by which materials are delivered to the briquette shop. There has also been expansion to a church where the locals have taught 150 others how to make briquettes.” We’re told to have impact and demonstrate usefulness for research, and that for me is very useful!

 

Details about Mike’s latest project, looking at barriers to using new types of cooking stove, can be found here

2 thoughts on “Braids, biogas and banana skins

  1. Andrew M, September 12, 2014 / 12:41 am

    Very interesting. I’ve always felt that science should be applied for the benefit of mankind, and Mike is doing just that.

    Like

    • Mike Clifford September 17, 2014 / 12:42 pm

      Thanks Andrew. Hopefully for the benefit of womankind too ;-)

      Like

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