Dr Marco Palumbo is Physics Commercialisation Manager at Liverpool University and an alumnus of our coaching programme for research commercialisation.We talked to Marco about how the programme influenced his work with dark energy and nuclear reactors, and why the Italian in him will always love design.

Your department developed four projects with Design Council, what were they?

In my department we mostly work on radiation or particle detectors, having two of the major groups in the world for Nuclear Science and High Energy Particle Physics. Naturally all four of our projects came from that field. The four projects we focused on during the programme were: 

1. Detecting radiation

We had two programmes on a Gamma Rays Imager based on Compton Camera technology. Our first project involves trying to exploit the technology for a portable detector to be used by police forces, or the military or emergency and rescue teams around the world. This is basically a robotic system which can detect radiation within a crime scene, reducing the need for humans to enter high-risk zones. It is a very important project for us at really shows our impact of society.

2. Decommissioning nuclear sites

The same technology can be used for the decommissioning of civil nuclear sites.
Whatever you think of nuclear energy – and I have to admit I have changed my mind on it since joining the department – the swift, secure and cost effective clearing of a site after its closure is an important aspect of it. It is called the ‘nuclear legacy’ and we will soon have a system on the market that allows secure remote control of a site at minimum or no-risk from human operators and with substantial cost saving for the taxpayers, ie, all of us.

Physicists and engineers generally think the design bit is only the packaging, and it comes once the important work has been completed.

3. Preventing illicit nuclear activity  

The third project is concerned with the exploitation of neutrino detection (antineutrino, I should say) for monitoring of nuclear cores. Neutrinos are all over the media these days – see the recent Nobel Prize in Physics – and we are using technology first developed for the T2K experiment in Japan to assess the performance of a nuclear reactor and also prevent illicit nuclear activities.

It gets quite complex, especially from the legislative and political point of view, but we have a team that has made giant strides in the last year towards the production of a working, standalone and tamper-proof detector. The beauty of it is that you can simply park the detector outside a nuclear site precinct and still be able to tell what is going on in the inside even if the guys in the building don’t want you to. Out of this world stuff, when you stop to think about it.

4. Detecting dark energy

Finally, our fourth project is focused on quantum technology. We have a small but very exciting activity on cold atom interferometry. You need only look at the recent news about gravitational waves to understand a bit more about how powerful interferometry can be.

Our setup goes one step further as it doesn’t use lasers but cold atoms. The experiment was first conceived by the Nobel Prize winner Martin Perl, who is sadly no longer with us. Here the scientists are mainly concerned with the detection of dark energy, however to do that, extremely accurate measurement of time and space are necessary.

This means our guys work at the extreme frontier of technology and we hope this will have a windfall on future commercial applications.


A student works on an experiment to determine the fundamental properties of the electron.

How did your work benefit from the programme?

We have benefited greatly from the education and training side of the Design Council programme but also, from the factual work we did with the design agencies we were introduced to.

Our Design Council mentor David Raffo has had a huge influence on the process, and the agencies we worked with. Both agencies, 257 Ltd and Telling Stories Ltd, have been fantastic. Mostly I appreciated how much they were prepared to invest in listening to us ramble on about physics problems and engineering. And we definitely value the professional work they have produced for us.

The process we followed was very simple and very beneficial: strip the project back to the bare bones, and then rebuild it, with a focus on the use of the technology and how to communicate it. This was invaluable. We really responded to the matter of fact approach.

The work we did with our designers has helped us achieve recognition, start new partnership and bring in more funds.

What were the tangible results?

All four projects have progressed in a way or another. Together with a better commercialisation strategy and a renewed determination to deliver, the work we did with our designers has helped us achieve recognition, start new partnership and bring in more funds.

Did the process change the way you think about design?

Physicists and engineers generally think design is only for the packaging bit and it comes once the very important work has been completed. “Design is pretty white boxes”, you sometimes hear.  It helped I guess that while I am still a hardcore engineer at heart, I don’t really think along those lines as my dad was a brilliant, although not so well-known, designer. So I knew a bit about user-led design and the duality of form and function.


The x-ray machine used for experiments, such as radiation dosimetry, is examined by students from the University of Liverpool's Department of Physics.

Also, when you think about it, all good engineering and physic always produces beauty. Even in maths, a brilliant theorem demonstration is called an ‘elegant’ solution, so there you are. And finally, as I finish rambling, I am Italian and we always use the adjective bello/a when we mean that something is good or nice, and that cannot be by chance.

What obstacles to commercialisation did it reveal?  

There are some necessary steps of technology development which of course still need to be overcome or we would have a product on the shelf already. To do that, money is one of my main concerns, but also meaningful engagement with industry and the final user. I think the latter is probably the main obstacle we encountered when we tried a technology transfer or a more applied project.

Effectively, and apologies for the jargon, academics tend to do a hell of a lot of technology push without really engaging with the market first. By doing so, we risk overshooting or underperforming on what is really required from a product/service. We thought design could help us engage with users and companies to understand their requirements and also communicate our unique selling points better - to speak as the people in the know do.
 

More academics and scientists are now starting to look at a similar way of approaching a problem, so we are still using design agencies to this day.

What were the first steps in tackling these problems?

Talk. A lot. Draw. Sketch. Gesticulate and bang our heads on the table. More talk. Effectively being able to communicate in a meaningful way with the designers helped us rationalise our train of thoughts and start questioning why we were doing things in this way or the other. Even when we failed – and we undoubtedly have left meetings with nobody any wiser than when they entered the room – we came back for more because we thought that what we work on is important.

So you learn all the time. Even when you don’t think you do. We are using this approach in other ways too, by forcing ourselves to engage with sectors we didn’t use only a couple of years ago. We do that to learn new languages, and discipline ourselves or just test our ides and prejudices. It is sometime painful but a necessary process I think.

What insights did you gain?

That we are good. I mean, really good. However, we are not the only clever ones around, and there are always better ways to explain yourself.

Also, funnily enough, that we can add value to our proposal and gain the respect of people outside academia by having the humility and determination of trying something different.

Do you feel as though you now approach new projects differently?

Yes. More academics and scientists, initially not involved with the programme, are now starting to look at a similar way of approaching a project/problem, so we are still using design agencies to this day. I hope this will remain a feature of the Department – one of my legacies perhaps – together with the deep understanding of the physics world we are internationally renowned for. Long live the Department of Physics of the University of Liverpool!

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