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The University of Southampton

New national research centre set to tackle future engineering challenges

Published: 6 May 2008

A new national research centre, the National Centre for Advanced Tribology (nCATS), is being set up at the University of Southampton to focus on solutions to real-life engineering problems, including the challenge of efficient renewable energy systems.

Tribology - the essential science of friction, lubrication and wear of all interacting surfaces in relative motion - is crucial to the successful operation of engineered machines and natural mechanisms of all scales. The science is core to the future of energy efficient transport and machines, the control of emissions, and low maintenance renewable energy systems and therefore impacts on key quality of life issues such as energy, the environment and health.

The Centre is funded by the largest-ever grant awarded to tribology by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Science and Innovation Awards. The funding is worth £3.3 million over five years and will ensure that the UK remains a leader in the field. The Centre is also funded by the University of Southampton and industry partners bringing total funding to £10 million over the five years.

Director of the Centre, Professor Robert Wood, comments: "Tribology in the UK has just celebrated its 50th birthday, so the establishment of the Centre is timely. If the UK wants to remain at the forefront of manufacturing, investment in tribology is essential. We are aiming to compete at the highest level globally in terms of research and to lead the agenda for UK tribology research for the next 50 years."

nCATS will use innovative multiscale modelling and analytical and experimental techniques to develop a better understanding of tribological processes at the molecular, micro and nano scales.

Professor Wood continues: "The Southampton Centre will focus away from classical tribology and on new ways of working, using smart reactive surfaces, inbuilt sensors and novel probes for tribological processes. Biomemetics - design principles based on nature - are likely to inform much of our research. For example, by looking at how a gecko can walk on surfaces of any orientation - even upside down - and traps flies on its tongue, we can develop better adhesion principles to inform micro-robotics, which in the future will enable robotic devices to be put into the bloodstream or body."

Other research challenges include increasing the longevity of manufactured machine parts, particularly crucial, for example, in aircraft; and providing faster access and denser storage in computer hard drives. The Centre will also research new fundamental engineering and design principles to help industry partners develop new products to respond to the increasing pressure to reuse and recycle.

Future demands for lower energy consumption also require novel approaches in managing engine and machine friction, which nCATS will be central in developing. Such approaches will help reduce wear in machines of all scales to increase their life, reduce demand on raw materials, increase fuel efficiency and lower emissions. nCATS will help develop new low friction surfaces and lubricant chemistry that address those demands as well as being biodegradable. All this will require developments in multiscale modelling to allow greater understanding of interfaces under relative motion, says Professor Wood.

Tribological aspects of health care such as developing smart biomaterials for use in reconstructive surgery and replacement implants, smart stiction pads for micro-robots (mimicking nature), and bio-micro-electromechanical systems and miniature sensors for medical applications, will also be a focus for the Centre's research.

Based in the University's School of Engineering Sciences, nCATS will link to world-class research groups in six other schools at Southampton to develop multi-disciplinary colloborations. The Centre also has a strategic research partnership with the National Physical Laboratory with access to their facilities, as well as the metrology and tribology groups at the Universities of Cambridge, Huddersfield and Leeds.

Liaising closely with industry, nCATS will work initially with 25 industrial partners from oil companies to biotech companies. The Centre is currently recruiting to five lectureships and five post-doctoral research fellowships across a range of areas including biomedical and orthopaedic triblogy, nanotribology and smart tribological coatings. The appointees will develop and manage the multi-disciplinary research between the University's seven collaborating Schools.

Notes for editors

  • Industry partners supporting nCATS are: Lloyd's Register; Shell; Teer Coatings; Oerliken Balzers; FAG; GE Aviation; Tribotex; Diado Metals Europe; Score Europe; Finsbury Orthopaedics; DSTL; Schlumberger; MicroMaterials; De Puy; Pheonix Tribology; TWI; TaiCaan; Chevron; Rotork; Hardide; Airbus, and BP.

  • The School of Engineering Sciences offers expertise in engineering disciplines that underpin every aspect of 21st century life. Evolving from its traditional engineering roots, the School continues to expand into new, exciting research areas.

    From orthopaedic implant modelling and modern fuel cell technologies, to enhancing satellite broadcast technology and improving the aerodynamics of Formula One racing cars and hydrodynamics of America's Cup yachts, the School is always at the leading edge of engineering research. The positive impact of the School's work is felt both at home and across the globe.

    The School benefits from being able to use and develop the most advanced computer modelling techniques, and has extensive laboratory and experimental facilities. Staff work at the forefront of their disciplines and the School is amongst the few very best, top grade 5* rated units in the country.

    The School offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics, Mechanical Engineering and Ship Science. In a recent Quality Assurance Agency Assessment, the School was chosen as a disciplinary audit trail. It was congratulated for its teaching quality, innovation and in developing close student-staff relations. The School has strong links across the University and, because of its diverse nature, is able to offer a multi-disciplinary approach to all its research and teaching activities as well as its interactions with industry through the well established Research Institute for Industry.

  • The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship.

    This is one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine, and home to a range of world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

    We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

    As one of the UK's top 10 research universities, we offer first-rate opportunities and facilities for study and research across a wide range of subjects in humanities, health, science and engineering.

    We have over 22,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover in the region of £325 million.

  • For further information
    Professor Robert Wood, Director, National Centre for Advanced Tribology,
    Tel. 023 8059 4881, email:
    Sue Wilson, Media Relations, University of Southampton,
    Tel. 023 8059 5457, email:

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