Leading academic Dr Andrew Spowage is sought after by billion-dollar companies to solve problems using testing techniques that help to understand how materials work. The engineer is currently turning his expertise in materials characteristics and testing to projects as diverse as making margarine from the byproducts of palm oil manufacturing, developing biomedical implants, and working out why some oil pipes fail.
Heading up a research group that focuses on materials characterisation and testing, Dr Spowage is given industrial problems and applies materials testing methods, tools and techniques to try and solve them. Though the methods he uses are not unique, the ability to draw meaningful and relevant data from the results they produce is Dr Spowage's speciality – and why he is called on internationally by a range of industries.
Dr Spowage said: "There are infinite possibilities for our research. For any materials-related problem of issue, we can help either develop a new process or try and solve a problem."
Below are two of Dr Spowage's current projects:
Margarine to maximise the value of palm oil
Palm oil is a billion dollar industry and Malaysia is the second biggest producer in the world. Currently, the liquid part of palm oil is used for cooking but the solid fractions go into relatively low value products such as animal feed.
In a project sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Dr Spowage and his team are working out how to make margarine from the solid fraction. Having used characterisation testing techniques to understand how the solid fats crystallise, the team is now developing a way to control the processing conditions using a technique that has never before been applied to this type of research.
The product they create will have a range of benefits including being trans-fat-free and developed from a sustainable source. It will also have great economic impact, substantially increasing the value per kilogram of palm oil.
Detecting problems with oil pipes
A leak in an oil pipe is a serious situation - in terms of environmental impact, safety and economics. Recently, when a leak was discovered on an oil rig in the South China Sea, Dr Spowage was called in to investigate. Due to the risks posed by a leak, production has to stop at the cost of millions of dollars each day.
Dr Spowage and his team carried out tests, collected samples and recommended an interim solution of wrapping the pipe in a special composite material. This allowed production to continue while a new pipe was fabricated and delivered.
Once the pipe was replaced, the leaking pipe was donated to Dr Spowage's lab at UNMC and became the subject of a more sophisticated research project. The team applied characterisation testing techniques to determine in detail what went wrong. A theory was formed and samples of the pipe were exposed to simulated environments to validate the theory.
"This time the issue was with the welding", said Dr Spowage. "Something similar happened with oil pipes in the North Sea in the 1990s but no one has worked out the underlying reasons. It's now becoming more common in the waters of South East Asia so it's important to the industry that we develop a long term solution for it".