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Staying safe in the skies: how UK science is making air travel safer

Whether you’re jetting off on holiday, or just on your way to a work commitment, when you step onto a plane it’s nice to know that you’re safe. It may surprise you to learn just how much particle accelerators have contributed to airline safety over the last few years, so here are some examples of how science is helping to keep us safe.

Check in

Check in

(Credit: Viorel Dudau | Dreamstime.com)

Heightened security for travellers often causes queues. Whilst the delays are generally thought to be a necessary evil, Rapiscan Systems (a leading supplier of security inspection systems) are working on solutions. With support and training from scientists at Daresbury Laboratory, they have developed baggage scanning systems that use multiple X-ray sources. This technology, called Real Time Tomography (RTT), is a reliable type of computerised tomography (CT) scanning that offers security personnel a real-time, 3D images of baggage, and is three times faster than existing systems. Rapiscan is growing rapidly, with a UK manufacturing base that employs 50 people, and the majority of their sales are export-based. Its product is certified for use in all European Airports, and their first order (for Manchester Airport) was worth £20 million.


SORS infographic
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)

Airports around the world are also using spinout CLF technology to prove that liquids taken onto planes are safe. CLF spinout Cobalt Light Systems have developed scanners, based on patented SORS technology, capable of rapid and accurate chemical analysis of substances in unopened non-metallic containers.

As a leading new company, Cobalt won the prestigious 2014 MacRobert Award for engineering innovation. Up against engineering giant Rolls Royce and the fast-growing QuinetiQ spin-out OptaSense, Cobalt won the prize for their pioneering technique that identified liquids in non-metallic containers in seconds.

Cobalt’s systems screen a range of materials including liquids, powders and gels. They have the highest detection capability and lowest false alarm rates of any European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC)-approved scanner.

Whilst you’re waiting to board your plane, the military, customs and border protection agencies need to be able to detect terrorist threats, smuggled goods and prohibited substances in its cargo.

Rapiscan Systems supplies mobile, gantry, portal and fixed deployment X-ray imaging systems for cargo screening that can quickly scan shipping containers and trucks. The University of Lancaster and STFC are developing a compact, controllable X-ray source that would allow rapid optimisation of both energy and dose rate for each object to be scanned, for improved cargo and baggage scanning.

Rapiscan continue to work with STFC to develop the next generation of security scanning technology, and in October 2013 were VELA’s first users. VELA, the Versatile Linear Accelerator, is a high-performance accelerator capable of delivering a highly stable, highly customisable, short pulse, high quality electron beam. VELA is optimised for industry users, and welcomed its first customers in October 2013.

Cobalt Light Systems team

The Cobalt Light Systems team with their airport scanner
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

Take off

Every 2.5 seconds an aircraft powered by Rolls-Royce engines takes off or lands. The company has over 12,500 engines in service with customers around the world, powering 5.5 million flights a year, and travelling 12 billion miles. At any given moment around 200,000 passengers are travelling in Rolls-Royce powered planes.

In collaboration with university partners such as Imperial College and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Manchester, Rolls-Royce carries out research into new materials for engine components, and new manufacturing techniques – using the particle accelerators at ESRF, ISIS and Diamond.

The Diamond Light Source offers another method for non-destructive testing of engine components, and has been used to collect high-resolution measurements on fan blades for the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 turbofan engine. X-ray diffraction is less time consuming and more accurate than laboratory methods, and allows the development of improved materials at reduced cost.

As the third largest manufacturer of aircraft engines in the world, research using particle accelerators is an important factor in Rolls-Royce’s continuing success.

At ISIS research is carried out using instrumentation designed specifically for engineering applications that can accommodate full-sized components, and allows users to map stresses in 3D. Modern aircraft engines use components made from high-performance alloys (which enhance both safety and fuel economy) that can be difficult to join together using conventional welding techniques. New techniques, such as linear friction welding, can introduce weaknesses into the joint. Research into the nature of the stresses involved allows both the optimisation of welding conditions, and the development of post-weld heat treatments to relieve the stresses. Airbus has used ISIS to research the integrity of welds in aluminium alloys, and to assess their suitability for future aircraft programmes.

(Credit: Backstage Science)

ISIS’ neutrons can be used to see deep into the structure of engineering components such as aircraft wings. Through testing at ISIS, Airbus has been able to discover areas of potential stress and weakness in its aircraft parts, assuring the quality of engineering components before the manufacturing process. Neutron diffraction also enables measurement of stress fields in large aircraft wing test panels, providing information which leads to a better understanding of performance. This enables engineers to adjust the manufacturing process and make lighter and safer aircraft parts at a lower cost.



(Credit: Michael Bednarek | Dreamstime.com)

The Earth is constantly being bombarded by cosmic rays, high-energy particles that come from our galaxy and beyond. Trillions arrive every second, most either deflected away by Earth’s magnetic field, or greatly slowed by our atmosphere. By the time they reach the surface of the Earth, the cosmic rays that are left pose no threat to health, but they can affect silicon chips and other electronic components.


CHIPIR infographic
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)

The problem is 300 times greater at 30,000 to 35,000 feet – the altitudes at which jet aircraft routinely fly. A chip can be hit by a neutron every few seconds, and when a neutron hits silicon it can cause an electrical charge shower that can damage the chip or cause it to behave in an unexpected manner. As electronic components get smaller, the risk of damage increases.

Good design and testing are needed to compensate for the potential disruption. The ISIS neutron source can facilitate testing by supplying – in a very short timeframe – the same number of neutrons that a silicon chip might encounter during thousands of hours of flight. Manufacturers such as BAE, QinetiQ and MBDA are part of a consortium that use ISIS to test their electronic components, allowing them to build in triple redundancy and reduce the risk of damage to the electronics, in a timely and cost-effective manner.

The UK aerospace industry is thriving, and is the largest outside of the US. In 2006 it directly employed 124,000 people, and had a turnover of £20 billion. ISIS has a new dedicated instrument, CHIPIR, that is the world’s best facility for investigating how microchips respond to cosmic neutron radiation. CHIPIR allows the UK aerospace industry to continue improving the quality of electronic systems, making aircraft safer and keeping the UK at the forefront of aviation technology.

So enjoy your trip if you’re flying somewhere this summer. If you’d like some interesting inflight reading, then download our Accelerators brochure, which explains how particle accelerators are helping to solve some of the modern world’s big challenges, and contributing to the UK economy.

Last updated: 16 February 2016


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