| ||N° 44 - February 2005|
| POLAND - Behind the scenes of technological development
Blood-flow imaging and laser-assisted machining, composite alloys and the fatigue modelling of materials, prostheses and nanofibres…. All this and more can be found inside the ten-storey building of the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
After a few seconds of recording, he removes the sensor and launches a calculation on his computer. By the time he has washed the cream from his arm, the result appears on his screen: “That is my haematocrit.(1) This system makes it possible to measure the haematocrit in real time through the skin, without needing to take a blood sample.”
The technique is still being developed but has already attracted the interest of specialists and emergency medical services. They need to know the haematocrit before treating an injured patient and, dispensing with the need to take a blood sample, can save vital minutes in a life-or-death emergency.
Penetrating the niches
Behind Secomski another researcher is working on applying Doppler imaging to the study of skin tumours. Before cutting them out, surgeons must have a precise idea of the size and shape of the tumour. Surface imaging provides this. In the next room, it is the internal structure of the human bone that is being analysed, again using the diffraction spectrum of the ultrasounds that cross it. The aim here is to make a rapid diagnosis of osteoporosis of the ankle.
“These examples are typical of the research we are carrying out,” explains Andrzej Nowicki, director of the IPPT’s Department of Ultrasonics. “We are working on niches, on devices suitable for very specialised uses which do not interest the major medical equipment manufacturers.”
The department has a long tradition in acoustical research applied to medical imaging and is, in fact, the birthplace of the Echoson company. Today, this is Poland’s number one firm, exporting most of its echographic equipment to the United States. Although it is now fully autonomous, Echoson still maintains close links with the institute. IPPT’s know-how has been recognised by the European Union which now supports the institute’s Abiomed (Applied Biomedical Modelling and Diagnostics) Centre of Excellence.
Laser and resistance
Two floors up and you enter a totally different domain. The Lapromat (Laser Processing and Material Advanced Testing) Centre of Excellence focuses on cutting, processing, machining and welding materials using laser technology. Lech Dietrich, Director of the Department of Materials Resistance, welcomes the opportunity to present some peculiar specimens: small rigid metal tubes, corrugated or bulbous in shape, or the roof of a miniature pagoda in the shape of a star. All these parts were machined using a 2.5 kW CO2 laser according to processes patented by the IPPT researchers. What can they do?
“We are not yet at the marketing stage, but at the stage of validating a process that could be used for machining parts on request for very specific equipment,” he says. In the medium term, as the price of lasers falls, mass production could be an option. The shipbuilding sector, for example, is seriously considering using this technology for machining the double hulls on ships.
The next stop is the basement, still in the company of Dietrich and his colleague Grzegorz Socha. A huge machine stands in the centre of a vast room, moving to and fro as it crushes a metal part. The layman would take it for a piston. “It is the ball bearings of a Land Rover which we are testing for resistance by applying complex stress, that is, a mix of pressure and torsion,” explains Dietrich. After two days of this punishment, the part will be analysed to determine the damage inflicted on the material’s structure.
Are there other ways of determining a part’s resistance? “That is what we are trying to find,” replies Socha, who has just published, in the International Journal of Fatigue, a new method for monitoring changes to the structure of a material that can then be extrapolated to calculate its service life without lengthy sessions on the test beds. “For a manufacturer, the stakes are high. If it has the assurance that a part can remain in service for several additional years without jeopardising safety, it can make valuable savings.”
This potential gain is particularly important for industrial devices subject to corrosion, pressure and extreme temperatures, such as the turbines at a power station or pipeline metal. The department is, in fact, a participant, along with the Warsaw University of Technology, in a Centre of Excellence devoted to this very subject, the Safety Critical Pressure System (SCPS).
“The first Centre of Excellence set up in our institute was the Advanced Materials and Structure (AMAS) one,” notes Wojciech Nowacki, the IPPT's assistant director. “This first project (2000-2004) was very useful for us, but as half the institute was involved in AMAS, it was felt necessary to continue it in the form of more targeted projects.”
With around 150 researchers and 100 PhDs, the institute is interested in a very wide range of subjects with the common characteristic of upstream technological development. Since November 2004, the IPPT has also coordinated a European Network of Excellence devoted to the study of new materials (alloys, ceramic/steel composites, intelligent materials). Consisting of 25 universities, seven SMEs and five industrial companies, the KMM (Knowledge-based Multicomponent Materials for Durable and Safe Performance) network has a budget of €20 million, €8.1 of which comes from the EU. “It is the product of two years’ work, which is how long it took to compile a 600-page dossier. But we have no regrets as this initiative allows us to fulfil many European research contracts,” concludes Nowacki.
(1) The haematocrit is the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood. It gives a good indication of a person’s haemoglobin level.