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Like X-rays for machines

If you’re engineering parts for planes, trains or nuclear plants, how do you measure how well they’re working? How do you know if they’re feeling the strain in certain areas or might break? And how can you do this with objects made of metal, when it might not be obvious to the human eye?

Shu Yan Zhang Og

How do you know if they’re feeling the strain in certain areas or if they might break? And how can you do this with objects made of metal, when problems might not be obvious to the human eye?

Try neutron measurement – it’s a bit like a human x-ray on a broken bone, but instead it’s used for machines, trains, planes, oil pipelines and much more! It can help companies choose the right materials and measure them to make sure the engineering they do to help make life easier for people around the world is safe and cost-effective.

Professor Shu Yan Zhang works with a range of companies at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to see how they can improve their products and processes. Read on to find out how Shu Yan got into this area of engineering.

Name: Professor Shu Yan Zhang
Job title: Senior Scientist (Principal Scientific Officer)
Company: ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; Harwell, Oxford

What do you do?
I’m Senior Scientist (Principal Scientific Officer) at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxford. It’s the largest science and technology laboratory in the UK. 

I’m in charge of the engineering research that happens here and I provide support for users and companies such as Rolls-Royce, TWI, EDF Energy, TATA Steel and many others to come and do experiments. We also have academic users who I help, including universities, professors and PhD students.

I also carry out my own research and go to conferences, travel and give lectures.

What does your company do?
ISIS is a neutron and muon source and the world’s leading neutron research centre. We use neutrons to look at atoms and that will tell us where the atoms are and what they do. Users come to do experiments to study the materials used in engineering parts, for example the wing of an Airbus A380 or welded parts in nuclear reactors. They need to work out how these parts respond to stress and movement and make sure they’re safe to run.

We use an instrument called ENGIN-X to study the material stresses hidden inside these components which impact the length of their life.

How does what you do affect people’s lives or the world around us?
We are running a project with EDF Energy, helping them to safely extend the five-year life of their reactors for a further five years. We helped TATA steel to improve the design of their oil and gas pipes to save money as well.

How would you describe an average day working in your job?
We run experiments about 150 days per year so it depends if we’re running an experiment or not.

When we’re running an experiment we’ll be in the lab, I’ll be talking to the users and discussing what they want to use our instrument for and how to set up an experiment. When we’re not running an experiment we’re based in the office and I might be answering emails or working on research findings.

We’re also responsible for upgrading the instruments and devices that we use so that we can remain a world leading centre in what we do.

We‘ve had a lot of high-profile visits lately, for example from the Vice Premier of China, Liu Yandong, and so I’ve been helping to host those.

What made you want to do science and engineering?
When I was in high school I was better at science subjects like physics and chemistry than I was at other subjects. I studied material science at university and gradually moved into the area of engineering that I work in now.

What route did you take into engineering and why?
Originally I’m from China and I selected science subjects. My degree at university was to do with engineering. The subject of my PhD was very specific and technical. It was similar to what I do now – it was about “residual stress for engineering components”.

I was interested in doing research which is why I studied a PhD, and if you want to be a scientist at somewhere like ISIS then you need a science background and experience.

How important is it to study maths and science for what you do now?
It’s very important. For our research we definitely need students with a maths background. You still have lots of options if you have chosen maths, science or engineering for your degree. Science subjects train you to solve problems in a logical way so I think these subjects are very important.

What personal qualities are important to do your job
You need to be patient and able to concentrate because you will definitely meet problems and you need to know how to overcome them, as well as being able to cope with the pressure.

If you’re good at communication then that will help you because it’s very important to be able to work with people. I try my best to help people to complete their projects, because that way you will build up your networks and profile within your field.

I enjoyed the subject of engineering and you need to be enthusiastic and like what you’re doing!

What do you like most about your job?
My job is very diverse and I like working with the different users who come to do an experiment here. The average experiment is three of four days and all the experiments are different. It makes it all very exciting because you’re dealing with different things and different people. 

I host our VIP visitors to show them our instruments and to tell them what I’m doing which I find very interesting.

I also get to travel around the world a lot for conferences. I’ve been to China and Romania this year and I try to see the place while I’m there.

What advice would you give to young people who might be interested in a career like this?
Choose science and maths subjects because in scientific research the first thing we look at are the subjects you studied.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
I like to spend time with my 21 month old son, meet friends and visit different places. This year I’ve been to the Lake District and to Italy for a friend’s wedding.

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