Extreme Measures Give Us Edge; NEWCASTLE University's Centre for Extreme Environment Technology Has Showcased Its Latest Batch of Durable Innovations. JOHN HILL Talks to the People Working on Devices That Can Withstand the World's Toughest Conditions

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Byline: JOHN HILL

AS MANKIND continues to scour the globe for energy, resources and information, we're likely to have to visit quite a few locations that aren't really great spots for a stroll.

There are hundreds of thousands of kilometres of undersea oil and gas pipelines that require maintenance, and it's also occasionally necessary to withdraw data from areas with more than a healthy share of heat or radiation.

Of course, folks from this region are often known for being able to brave temperatures that others would shy away from.

At Newcastle University, they've taken this one big step further, by developing a Centre for Extreme Environment Technology to cook up equipment that can hold its own in deep water, high-radiation and even in the heart of a volcano.

Professor Nick Wright, pro-vice chancellor for innovation and research at Newcastle University, says: "The situations we are planning to use our technology in means it's not enough for the electronics to simply withstand extremes of temperature, pressure or radiation - they have to continue operating absolutely accurately and reliably.

"Increasingly mankind is spreading out into harsher and more extreme environments as our population grows and we explore new areas for possible sources of energy and food in order to sustain it."

The Centre for Extreme Environment Technology was set up at Newcastle University after it received pounds 2.1m in funding from One North East three years ago. The support has enabled it to develop technologies such as wireless sensor networks, transmitters that communicate through metal and underwater, and devices that take advantage of the properties of silicon carbide, a compound which is highly resistant to high temperatures.

Each year the work the university has carried out with industry leaders such as BAE Systems is demonstrated at the Extreme Technology Showcase event.

Extreme III was held last week in the university's old library building.

Among the state-of-the-art developments was a radio transmitter that could monitor levels of volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, potentially giving vital early warning of eruptions in temperatures of up to 900C.

Research leader Dr Anton Horsfall says: "We still have some way to go but using silicon carbide technology we hope to develop a wireless communication system that could accurately collect and transmit chemical data from the very depths of a volcano."

Due to their heat-resistant properties, silicon carbide sensors also have applications in the defence, nuclear and energy industries.

The centre also develops technology for use in areas such as shipping, building automation and control and medical radiotherapy.

The Extreme event is increasingly becoming a popular haunt for commercial companies such as BP, who are interested in working with the university's experts on pioneering projects or simply using its top-class equipment.

David Clark, of defence and security technology company Raytheon Systems, says the company has used the centre's facilities to road-test its research into silicon carbide transistors, for which it sees a variety of uses in areas such as industry and transport.

He says: "It's quite a challenge to test the transistors because the infrastructure isn't really there for that sort of testing.

"What we're doing with Newcastle University is using some of their equipment, and it's enabled us to get some good and useful measurements.

"We've not really worked with them before, but we've had a relationship with them since we began this project and they've been able to give us a critique of whether we're heading in the right direction.

"They've also been able to help us on the ground with measurements, such as the way the characteristics of the transistor change as the temperature goes up. …