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Hidden talent

Rosyth: Imminent privatisation will release on to the commercial market a materials research centre offering the skills of 12,000 scientists and engineers. Yet few in construction know of its existence. David Hayward reports from the Firth of Forth in Sco

Berthed alongside the entrance to the Rosyth division of Europe's largest technical research facility lie seven black and awesome nuclear submarines. Until they arrived at their moorings, Repulse, Revenge, Renown and their neighbours - leaders of the now decommissioned Polaris and hunter killer fleets - spearheaded Nato's primary nuclear deterrent.

A sign in the research centre foyer reads: Alert State Bikini Black. And visitors who have got this far have already negotiated two high security guard posts and a swarm of closed circuit cameras.

Civil engineers could understandably be forgiven for thinking the research under way behind such security has not a lot to offer the construction industry. And, for the 100 plus scientists and engineering specialists on the inside, this is precisely their problem.

'We have unparalleled research facilities that could be of use to your industry, but no one knows we are here, ' says Iain Kennedy, business group manager for the Defence Evaluation Research Agency. 'For example, we have the largest test frame in the world outside Russia. It could test full size box girder bridge beams or oil platform sections.'

Weighing 900t and stretching for 21m, the test frame is the real jewel in the Rosyth crown. It can apply any load to any part of the structure being tested and from any direction. The one-fifth scale submarine lying alongside the 12m high box sets it in context.

In the frame's honeycombed walls, containing 300 cells, sit dozens of jacks able to load the frame's contents with up to 2,000t horizontally and 500t vertically in either compression, tension or bending.

Ship and submarine hulls, large oil pipe assemblies and even a cross section of a real super tanker, have all endured the frame.

Built almost 50 years ago by Sir William Arrol to a design by Freeman Fox, the frame needs little better pedigree - only construction customers.

'And that is our challenge, ' says Kennedy, noting that it recently tested suspect hanger bolts for the nearby Forth Road Bridge.

But then he admits: 'Although we can see the crossing from our laboratory windows, I suspect bridge engineers only contacted us because they found a report we had done for them some 20 years ago and they dialled the phone number to see if anyone answered.'

Kennedy is the first to admit his organisation's anonymity is its own fault.

Until now, the work of this Ministry of Defence establishment has been caught up in the same cloak of secrecy encompassing most military owned operations. More than 80% of its nationwide £1bn annual turnover is MoD work and even the remainder, won through commercial outlets - notably at Rosyth for the offshore industry - is as little known as the company name itself.

The Rosyth section, perched on a promontory at the end of the town's naval shipyard up river from the Forth bridges, houses the marines structures group.

Under its new life it will be labelled 'future systems technology' - a facility which Kennedy reckons could serve construction well.

DERA's portfolio is impressive though, at first glance, not to civil engineers. The organisation played a leading role in inventing radar, laser technology and liquid crystal displays.

At Rosyth, it blows up old warships including a German frigate out on the Firth of Forth near the bridges. It stretches, pulls and twists scale models of submarines in the giant test frame.

Though these end products look obscure to a civil engineer, the materials and testing equipment involved in achieving them are, claims Kennedy, far from irrelevant.

Up to half a century's cutting edge research into high strength materials, glass reinforced plastics used for submarine and minesweeper hulls, plus aluminium for lightweight military bridges and oil platform topsides, have created a separate portfolio of knowledge into material properties. Yet perhaps the greatest asset at Rosyth is the variety of research analysis available, ranging from main frame computer modelling to blowing up complete buildings or ships.

The team researches fatigue cracks, the strength of laser welding and how materials behave in temperatures from -180degreesC to +150degreesC. And, though many of the experiments are defence related, scientists claim there is often a direct correlation between military and civil engineering.

Analysis of waves breaking over a warship is akin to live wind loading on a bridge deck, argues the team. Its knowledge of how a ship's hull reacts to large explosions simulating torpedoes or mines could help terrorist resistant building designs.

And both temperature and underwater pressure testing is vital, it says, for oil pipe or platform construction.

Non-destructive testing and finite element analysis often use bespoke software. Program designs are based, claims Kennedy, on decades of experience, plus the combined skills of thousands of DERA technical staff.

Researchers can play with a 1,200t capacity tensile and buckling plate frame; several 1m/s dynamic shock tables and no less than 11 pressure chambers.

What DERA does As Europe's largest technical research facility, DERA's range of activities is impressive. From 16 bases nationwide, some 12,000 technical staff spend most of their time responding to the Ministry of Defence's widespread needs.

Analysis of laser welds in high strength armour plate;

dynamic wave loading on warships and the effects of underwater explosives on nearby ships, submarines and pipelines, are the obvious commissions. But research also includes studies of human reactions in a crew closeted in a submarine for a long time and 'biological happenings' at DERA's most secretive base - Porton Down.

This centre, and a few others, will remain under the MoD's security wing, but most of the rest will transfer to the private sector next year through an as yet to be finalised public private partnership.

The privatised sections will still compete to receive MoD research, though at Rosyth, Iain Kennedy believes his 80% reliance on government work within the centre's annual £10M turnover will gradually decline and must be replaced by commercial contracts.

'We have been steeped in our own world for too long and must break out into the commercial field, ' he says.

'We have an impressive track record but no one out there knows about it yet.'

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