A unique sensor technology that can monitor and predict the failure of mechanical seals has won University of Sheffield research assistant Phil Harper the inaugural £40,000 ERA Foundation Award from The Royal Academy of Engineering.

The Award has been established to identify entrepreneurial researchers working in UK universities in the field of electro-technology who are at an early stage in their career and who demonstrate both considerable entrepreneurial promise and the potential to benefit the UK’s future prosperity.

Twenty-eight year old Harper’s winning entry outlines the technical development and commercialisation of a patented method of monitoring the critical thin liquid layer separating the stationary and rotating rings of mechanical seals, using a piezo-electric ultrasonic sensor and specialist software. If this liquid layer is too thick, leakage occurs; if too thin, the surfaces come into contact and the seal fails. Mechanical seals are used in a huge range of pumping applications, such as water pumps, turbines, compressors and oil rigs. Until now, there has been no method of measuring the liquid layer thickness despite the durability of seals being crucial to plant operation and the significant costs associated with their failure.

Harper has founded a company, Tribosonics Ltd, to exploit the commercial applications of the sensor technology through consultancy and licensing opportunities, and has had expressions of interest from all the major seal manufacturers.

“This Award is as much about the person as the technology” says ERA Foundation Chairman Sir Alan Rudge. “Phil embodies exactly what we were looking for in funding this prize. He has addressed a market need with a commercially viable innovation and he convinced the judging panel in his presentation and interview that he knows where his company is going and how he’s going to drive it forward.”

Judging panel Chair, Professor Richard Williams adds: “All the entries were of an extremely high standard, but we were enormously impressed with Phil’s all-round skills: his entrepreneurial attitude and technical ability; knowledge of his target markets’ needs, and his resolute business focus. We wish him every success and hope that this award will go some way to help him achieve his ambitions.”

Harper’s prize includes £30,000 to be used to develop the commercial potential of his business proposition and a personal £10,000 cash sum. He will also be assigned a mentor from the judging panel for two years.

Harper’s university contract ends in June this year, by which time he hopes to have submitted his PhD thesis. He says: “This has been a tough but amazing experience. The award will provide me with the financial stability to work full-time on Tribosonics, and will allow me to explore international markets as well as providing working capital to purchase essential equipment.” Harper is also proactively examining other potential applications in other areas of thin film measurement, such as in journal and thrust bearings and artificial joints.

The prize will be presented at The Royal Academy of Engineering Awards Ceremony at The Drapers’ Hall in London on 05 June.

Notes for editors

  1. The Royal Academy of Engineering ERA Foundation Award is the latest award in the Academy’s awards portfolio. Made possible with the generous support of the ERA Foundation, the annual Award is open to both individuals and small teams. It seeks to identify and reward engineering researchers who exhibit a combination of business awareness, entrepreneurial potential and complimentary personal qualities in the field of electro-technology (which includes electrical and electronic engineering, aspects of biomedical engineering, electro-mechanical engineering, optics and optical engineering, instrumentation IT, software and hardware and materials related to these areas).
  2. The two runners-up entries, which each win £2,000, were:

    Ian Stockford & Stephen Morgan (University of Nottingham)
    Researchers Stockford and Morgan are developing a hand-held imaging device that can be used to image the structural/chemical properties of different body tissues. This has applications in biomedicine, skin and blood vessel imaging, for examples imaging collagen in connective tissue disorders, assessing the healing of wounds and burns, monitoring the growth of tissue engineered products and the non-invasive monitoring of glucose levels. A patent is pending and Stockford and Morgan intend to form a spinout company through which they will provide multiple application-specific licences to medical device companies.

    Mark Grubb (University of Nottingham)
    Based on his current PhD project, Grubb’s application outlines the commercial development of a sensor technology which can reliably detect, monitor and record heart activity on almost any area of skin without the need for chest straps or electrodes used by ECG techniques or probes used by current optical methods. The technique uses light to measure variations in blood volume and consists of an electronic circuit and signal processing software. Grubb intends to target applications in occupational health and safety as well as more general healthcare markets.
  3. The ERA Foundation supports activities that help bridge the gap between research and exploitation in the broad field of electrotechnology. Activities include support of projects at the early stages of commercialisation, investment in start-up and young technology companies, raising the profile of engineering to young people and promoting the importance of high quality research and development to government, industry and academia www.erafoundation.org
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, it provides independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Professor R A Williams FREng, Institute for Particle Science and Engineering, School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT. Tel: 0113 343 2801