Using sound waves to detect deadly diseases

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and acoustic levitator

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and his colleagues in Brazil are using acoustics to detect disease. Their collaboration was one of the six projects shortlisted in the Brazil category for the prestigious 2018 Newton Prize.

Sand fly biting skin
Sand flies transfer the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis
Bruce believes that new technology is the key to tackling the challenges of disease and poverty. He said, “As an engineer, working with the end-users of this technology, this is an area where I can make a difference. Leishmaniasis is a tropical disease that’s endemic in 97 countries. More than a million new cases occur each year world-wide and without early diagnosis, people are at risk of disability and death.  Parasites, transferred by sand-fly bites, cause ulcers of the skin, mouth and nose with skin lesions resembling leprosy. Unchecked, infections can be life-limiting, leading to horrific disfigurement, fever, loss of red blood cells and an enlarged spleen and liver.”  

Bruce is working with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil.

Regular communication is crucial in this interdisciplinary project. Here Professors Silva and Moreira in Brazil discuss the experimental results of a new diagnostic device in a video link to Professor Drinkwater in the UK.
The team have made some fantastic breakthroughs in the area of disease detection: “We are developing small and robust prototype acoustic devices that have the potential to detect Leishmaniasis. The lab-on-a-chip devices use acoustic forces to sort and sense thousands of cells, or other microscopic objects, simultaneously. In Leishmania, the infected cells (macrophages) have different mechanical properties from healthy cells. We can exploit this difference in various ways, sorting diseased from healthy cells is just one. The devices can also help detect antibodies in blood and antigens in urine samples by concentrating them with ultrasonic forces. This leads to more rapid diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.

If successful, theses devices could have a huge impact on the lives of those in Brazil and other developing countries: “Leishmaniasis  is one of the NTDs that lag far behind HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria when it comes to research funding. It affects 20,000 people each year in parts of Brazil where poverty, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are major risk factors. If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other NTDs, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. “

If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other neglected tropical diseases, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

“These devices are undergoing testing by Brazilian biomedical researchers working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) with promising results. After further development of the devices, the next phase will be field trials in hard to access areas where help is most needed.

More information

Newton Fund:
The Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to promote economic development in countries eligible for official development assistance (ODA). A grant from the Newton fund and the Royal Society made possible Bruce’s research partnership with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil, enabling them to bring together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in engineering, physics and biomedicine.  (Content note: graphic images depicting disease)

Geothermal energy production in Cornwall- Is it viable?

Today marks the start of drilling for what may become the first deep geothermal power plant in the UK. Falmouth based firm Geothermal Engineering are drilling two wells, 2.8 miles (4.5km) and 1.5 miles (2.5km), into granite near Redruth, Cornwall.

Cold water will be pumped down to the hot rocks where the temperature is up to 200C (390F). Hot water will be brought to the surface. Steam from the heated water will drive turbines producing electricity. If this pilot project is successful it could pave the way for similar power production in the UK.

Professor Joe Quarini from the department of Mechanical Engineering shared his thoughts on the project:

Professor Joe Quarini talks to Jon Kay from the BBC

“This is a good and exciting project from an engineering perspective. Not only will it bring jobs and expertise to Cornwall, but we’re going to learn a lot about engineering as the work progresses. We’ve seen similar, but ‘easier’ projects work successfully in New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. There are some technical questions that will be answered during this pilot, like, whether there are significant fouling issues associated with leaching out soluble minerals from the underground structures, what proportion of the water pumped into the ground actually comes back and whether and at what rate the heat deposits are depleted.

The answer to these questions will dictate the long-term viability of geothermal energy production in the UK. Cornwall is unique, it has heat-producing granite rocks with the highest energy density in the UK. In terms of absolute sums, electrical power production from geothermal is likely to be a small proportion of the Nation’s needs; it best location will be Cornwall. That said, Engineering is a global discipline, so it’s great for our young engineers to get the opportunity to see projects like this in action. We know that young people are really interested in green energy and sustainability so hopefully this will get more young people interested in Engineering as a subject.

Whilst the project excites me in terms of Engineering, I’m less confident about the long-term economic viability of geothermal energy in the UK. When the engineering costs are accounted for, geothermal energy isn’t the cheapest source of power, but if we’re serious about decarbonising our economy then it’s a choice that we, as a society, can make. That’s where funders like the EU and the Government come in to help subsidise projects like this one. My worry is that when those sources of funding aren’t available this won’t be a very attractive prospect to private investors. I’d love to be proved wrong on this though!”

Hear Joe in conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 1:21

Design and make a vending machine

First year Mechanical Engineering students on the ‘Design & Manufacture 1’ unit undertake a Design and Make Project known as DMP. Students have 8 weeks, working in teams to conceive, design and build a cup vending machine. They spend three weeks brainstorming, conceiving, evaluating and selecting system and sub-system solutions to satisfy a detailed Product Design Specification. There’s four weeks on the embodiment, detail design and build planning, and one week on the manufacture and assembly of the prototype machine itself. There is a high degree of electrical system integration with electrical actuators and sensors which must be used within a programmable microcontroller environment. Students work closely in their teams, managing the project themselves, with technical assistance from staff and demonstration of actuators and sensors from technicians. Students present their final design portfolios and vending machine prototypes to external judges who award prizes for the winning group and runner-up. The week of the final build is always an intense culmination of weeks of hard work – this video give you a flavour of it!

Find out more about our Mechanical Engineering courses