Learning curve

A photograph of the curvature of the Earth, taken from a spacecraft launched by undergraduates from Cambridge University, has been awarded the best photographic example of engineering department research in an annual competition.

A photograph of the curvature of the Earth, taken from a spacecraft launched by undergraduates from Cambridge University, has been awarded the best photographic example of engineering department research in an annual competition.

The students set out to launch a rocket for less than £1,000. Their photograph, called Earth from 32km was the result of an earlier trial using a high-altitude helium balloon to launch a payload no bigger than a lunchbox.

Packed with instrumentation, the spacecraft flew to nearly four times the height of Everest before descending by parachute, taking photographs throughout the flight.

The competition, now in its third year, is sponsored by Owlstone — a nanotechnology company spun out of the department’s research. Other entries that were highly commended by the judges reveal the fantastic inner structures of everyday objects, offer glimpses into microscopic nanoworlds or give a new, unusual perspective on the experiences of engineers working in the field.

Polymer Life, for example, shows a detailed view of the inner structure of flakes of plastic cut from a milk bottle. The structures are being studied as part of the Cambridge Zero Waste Challenge, which aims to meld waste fabric and plastics to create a composite material that can then be used as insulation, creating a financial incentive for recycling.

Another, called NW@Tate Modern was taken with a scanning electron microscope and shows a drop of silicon nanowires dispersed in water. Like carbon nanotubes, these are the building blocks for nanodevices, which are helping engineers to improve and miniaturise everyday electronic devices.

Some photographs were of a biological nature, such as Fat Free Fibres, which shows an individual porcine fat cell pictured through a scanning electron micrograph. The technique is helping to show the microstructure of biological tissues and provide an insight into their mechanical properties.

Other competitors included images of a steel surface melted by laser light and a silicon nanostructure created through reactive ion etching.

This unenhanced photograph – the work of Henry Hallam, Robert Fryers, Carl Morland, Daniel Strange and Iain Waugh – was taken at 105,000ft with a camera on board the unmanned “Nova 1” mission to the stratosphere. Cambridge University Spaceflight is a student-run organisation composed mainly of Engineering undergraduates who are developing balloon and rocket technology to enable cheap experiments in the near-space environment

Porcine fat cells have a diameter of approximately 70µm. They are surrounded by a complex network of collagen fibres. Scanning electron micrographs of the microstructure of biological tissues provides insight into their mechanical properties. The image, taken by Kerstyn Comley, has been cropped. Cells in the background have been digitally removed to highlight the location on an individual cell. A colour wash has been applied

This photo by Dr. Yongging Fushows shows a silicon nanostruture etched using the advanced technique of deep reactive ion etching.

This photo by Amanda Wycherley shows some hand cut milk bottle flakes that have been drawn out by hand when partially melted

Carbon nanotubes and silicon Nanowires (NWs) are prime candidates as building blocks for nanodevices. The image was taken with a scanning electron microscope and it shows a drop of silicon NWs suspension deposited on a substrate. The material was grown by Oxide Assisted Deposition and dispersed in water. The image was captured by Cinzia Casiraghi