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Maz Ahmad, Research Degrees PhD

The point of a PhD is to test ideas…

I have talked so far a little on the naivety of a new student embarking on the PhD route and also on the importance of talking to people to help understand real problems. In this entry I will cover my first experience of really testing ideas, in other words, doing real research.

The most difficult aspect of testing an idea is to expose it to the critique of others. Some people can be supportive while others will completely and entirely crush you. However, exposing the idea is an absolutely fundamental part of research, and so it is something that must be carried out. While we may not determine the absolute truth of a matter, indeed a great fallacy is to somehow deem consensus as a truth, an objectively applied external critique is an incredibly useful input.

When I first began considering fuel cell manufacturing, I focused on assembly. This refers to how the respective components of this product come together. While this may seem at first trivial, there are multiple considerations that must be addressed and consolidated. I looked, and continue to look at, the mechanical aspect of the fuel cell assembly process, and the links between assembly processes and the well-established degradation mechanisms.

In this entry, I will focus primarily on the first thing. The mechanical part of fuel cell assembly. This is largely because my method to explore the area was highly unconventional. But, it worked (sort of). I had a discussion with a number of people with regards to the unpredictability of stacking fuel cell components and it seemed that there was a set of potential risks that had been theorised, but never really explored or tested.

I feel as though I must first backtrack a little to help the reader better understand the product, and thus the problem. The fuel cell is composed of a set of geometrically simple, plate like components. These plates are arranged in a specific sequence to achieve a function and layered up - much like a sandwich. If every component was made exactly to specification then we would not face any problems. However, we live in the real not virtual world, and thus the small but important differences in dimensions between components has significant consequences. Components will not always line up. Small deviations in the components surface will begin to affect positioning. One could expect these deviations to cancel out and eventually a reasonably consistent stack of fuel cells to be assembled.

However, how can we test this idea?

Due to the mind-numbing cost of fuel cell components, I went for the high tech option of corrugated cardboard. It represented a surprisingly sensible mechanical model of the fuel cell to understand how alignment could be affected during stacking, and thus how issues could be pre-emptively rectified.

What did I observe?

Well, I’ve stuck in a photo for your perusal, but essentially we see the stack bowing outwards. This is obviouslyTesting ideas because of the irregularities of the size of components, having cut the card with scissors was highly unlikely to be a precise approach. In any case, this exaggerated non-conformity helped to identify assembly process design shortcomings, and discussion with various people to discuss the findings resulted in a more optimal assembly approach.

In sum, I had a hypothesis – component irregularity will affect alignment and positioning during stacking. I tested this hypothesis on a model. I checked the validity of the approach and conclusion using my own reasoning in combination with the critique of others. This led to the development of new assembly methods.

The major learning I draw from this, and what I hope to pass onto you, is to test whatever idea you have. And to test without fear of failure. It does not matter how stupid the question may appear. Nothing is non-trivial. And the approach taken to test the hypothesis can be entirely ridiculous. However, if you are justified in your approach and your approach works, then it’s a perfectly sensibly method!

Next time I’ll talk about the importance of the bigger picture when doing a PhD and how studying at WMG enables that…

The point of a PhD is to meet people…

Hello! We ended the previous post on the cliff-hanger of my supervisor leaving, and me having to assimilate into a new, unfamiliar research group. As it turns out, this research group (Automation Systems) consists of a set of people who are helpful, supportive, knowledgeable, and to put it quite simply – brilliant. The rationale for this entry’s title revolves around this idea, that is to say, one cannot carry out any meaningful, useful research without meeting and really getting to know people. My experience has been that people are generally cautious about sharing their personal ideas and opinions on a given topic, unless one is able to penetrate this outer shell. Thus, one of the key benefits of WMG is the broad breadth of knowledge and experience that becomes available when you walk through the doors. However, it is important to build relationships with those that harbour this knowledge to gain the benefits of their wisdom, in other words – their interpretation of the “facts” based on experience.

Research, especially within the domain of engineering, is inherently multidisciplinary and requires a combination of sciences to solve a problem. Therefore, tackling the problem of whether I wanted to focus on batteries or fuel cells as the “powerpack” element of my research required me to understand the manufacturing challenges of both. Fortunately, around this time, WMG had invested heavily in a battery scale-up line, and I had access to the person involved in setting it all up. I spoke in detail with the team and came to the conclusion that this area of research within WMG was well-established and had a good number of groups working on it. On the other hand, fuel cells research at WMG, and even within the wider context of the University of Warwick was extremely limited. I spoke in depth with those interested in fuel cells within WMG to determine the current potential within the department for carrying out research in this area. I even spoke to some companies within the fuel cell supply chain about the challenges that they faced. Again, due to the nature of my PhD (in that it is industrially sponsored) I also had access to their network of contacts. I managed to arrange a meeting with Dr Ben Todd, Managing Director of Arcola Energy (a fuel cell system integrator) and one of the most charismatic and intelligent people I know. He talked me through some of the real industrial challenges that he faced, and how he thought, through collaboration with my industrial sponsor, we could go about solving these problems.

Interestingly, a project proposal had been written involving WMG and Arcola Energy around the time that I was in touch with Ben concerning fuel cell manufacturing, which I was unaware of. When it came to light that the proposal had been successful I had, by this time, developed a good rapport with Ben, and both my PhD and the project were able to get off to a quick start. For those within academia dealing with industrial partners, getting access to sensitive information can be a huge challenge. Due to the time I spent exploiting the networks of WMG and HSSMI, I was able to quickly assimilate and understand both the academic and industrial challenges facing fuel cell manufacturing. As it turns out, there were so many problems it became a challenge to determine something that would be industrially beneficial while also aligning with the skills, expertise and knowledge of my research group.

To be continued…

The point of a PhD is to save the world…

Hello, and welcome to entry number one of my reflective series about the journey my PhD has taken me on. At the time of writing I am about midway through my 3rd year and truth be told, still not 100% certain of what it is that I am doing exactly (but let’s keep that between ourselves). Each entry will take a look at three month intervals, with the title describing my opinion of what a PhD is all about. Evidently, this one demonstrates the naivety and starry-eyed persona of a fresh candidate looking to leave an indelible mark on the pages of academic history.

My first day (as with first days at any work environment) had me introduced to a countless number of faces whose names I’d forget the moment I’d heard them. I received a shiny new laptop, a couple of forms to fill out and a seat at a desk. “Wow” I thought to myself, this is it, this is the beginning of my journey to save the world. This desk and this laptop will be memorialised as the instruments that brought the Earth back from the brink of destruction.” Okay, maybe I wasn’t that naïve, but I wasn’t far off! So, where to start? What is to be my contribution to the body of human knowledge? I began by looking at the project title my industrial sponsor High Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Institute (HSSMI), had provided: “High Volume Powerpack Manufacturing”. A few months earlier I’d had a meeting with HSSMI and my supervisor to find out more about what they had in mind for this project, in other words – what was the problem they wanted me to solve? We’d left that meeting feeling that I could solve whatever problem I wanted (because the company didn’t have a specific problem in mind - unusual for industrially sponsored research) - which turned out to be both the best and worst thing about my PhD.

So I began trawling through the literature to find a problem. I knew it had to be something to do with energy – inferred from “Powerpacks,” and something to do with making loads of them – inferred from “High Volume” and “Manufacturing” (yes - I am a genius). The general issue was quite clear: depleting fossil fuel reserves, a complex political climate, and global warming concerns combined to place immense pressure on combustion technologies to become more efficient, without becoming too expensive, while still lending themselves to high volume production paradigm. As I found out by attending the Low Carbon Vehicle Event in Millbrook in my first month, the combustion engine is thermodynamically limited from ever becoming as efficient as legislation needs it to be. In other words, the laws of nature force humanity to look at alternative technologies. What are they? According to the Automotive Council UK, batteries and fuel cells are the short term and long term solutions respectively. I started exploring the manufacturing challenges associated with these technologies and to my surprise (with a touch of dismay) I found a complete lack of information about this. “Sorted,” I said to myself, “for my research I am going to make batteries or fuel cells easier to make at high volumes”. Then the questions came: What is manufacturing? What do I mean by high volume? Can you decide which battery or fuel cell type you want to focus on (there are so many variants by the way!)? And many, many more…

While all this was going on, my supervisor gave me the news that he was going to be leaving and I was to be placed with a new group, with a new supervisor and a new set of names I’d have to learn (darn it!). I tentatively made my way to my new desk to integrate myself with the team I’d be spending the rest of my PhD with. Who were they? What did they do? And what role would they assume in my journey?

Maz Ahmad

Mussawar Ahmad (Maz) is in the 3rd year of his PhD with the Automation Systems Group, led by Professor Robert Harrison.