National Physical Laboratory

Physics spin-offs set to change the world

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics, selected the five most promising spin-offs from physics that have the potential to change the world: hadron therapy, graphene, quantum computing, nanoscopic imaging and energy harvesting. The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is conducting significant research activities in each of these five areas to accelerate their development.

Physics spin-offs set to change the world

Hadron therapy (or ion beam therapy) is a type of radiotherapy that is superior to conventional x-ray treatments but also more expensive to implement. However, there is significant potential for it to become cheaper thanks to a variety of new beam generation technologies such as laser plasma acceleration and dielectric wall accelerators. NPL was the first National Measurement Institute to initiate a substantial research programme on dose measurements of hadron therapy beams, resulting in 26 peer-reviewed publications to date and giving NPL a prominent role to play in the development of the treatment.

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Graphene is a one carbon atom thick material that could surpass conventional materials in many applications, from super-capacitors to touch-screen displays. NPL's measurements and tools are supporting the eventual commercialisation of graphene-based devices and recent research has confirmed the potential of graphene itself in making the most fundamental of measurements. NPL has published 37 papers in leading journals over the past four years and was recently asked to join the EU Graphene Flagship project, which focuses on the development of the European graphene industry, and to become a member of the Graphene Stakeholders Association.

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Quantum Computing is underpinned by quantum technology, a term used to describe applications based on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, which are predicted to lead to absolutely secure communications, extremely powerful computers and ultra-sensitive detectors. Quantum states are very fragile, requiring extreme conditions such as temperatures close to absolute zero to be created and observed. NPL is developing new technologies and applying them to revolutionise quantum measurements and quantum technology will be one of the areas to benefit from the UK government's £25 million investment in a new Advanced Metrology Laboratory at NPL.

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Nanoscopic imaging aims to bypass the diffraction limit of light to view objects at the nanoscale. While the development of 'superlenses' that use visible light is still some way off, there are other methods available today. NPL is actively developing these so-called 'super-resolution' microscopy or nanoscopy approaches, and applying them to challenging questions in biomedical research. NPL scientists have created their own instruments and software for methods known as localisation microscopy and structured illumination microscopy, and have already applied these to studies of neurodegenerative diseases, pancreatic cancer, DNA sequencing, blood clotting and patient diagnosis.

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Energy Harvesting captures ambient energy from human activity or the environment to generate power on a small scale. This technology could replace batteries and enable autonomous low power devices for applications ranging from industrial monitoring to pacemakers. A number of ambient energy sources can be harvested to generate power, including mechanical movement, heat or light, and a range of different technologies such as piezoelectric and thermoelectric generators can be used to convert this energy into something useable. NPL is providing the measurement tools and facilities to assess the efficiency of these different technologies and to provide reliable performance data that industry can trust.

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Members of the Institute of Physics can read the special 25th anniversary edition of Physics World online

The 25th anniversary Physics World publication was also reported on the BBC website

Last Updated: 11 Nov 2013
Created: 22 Oct 2013