2008 Joule medal and prize

Professor David Parker

University of Birmingham

For the creation of positron emission particle tracking as a practical tool in a wide variety of engineering applications.

The Joule medal and prize for distinguished research in applied physics has been awarded to Professor David John Parker, Professor of Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, for the creation of positron emission particle tracking as a practical tool in a wide variety of engineering applications.

Professor Parker has pioneered and now leads the world in the use of positron emitting radionuclides to study engineering processes. The new technique, called positron emission particle tracking (PEPT), has been taken up enthusiastically by many large industrial companies, including BNFL, BP, Glaxo SmithKline, Merck Sharpe and Dohme, Proctor and Gamble, Tioxide and Unilever.

PEPT is an adaption of the well-known medical imaging technique, positron emission tomography, in which a positron-emitting isotope is injected into tissue. When the positrons annihilate, they release pairs of gamma rays which are then detected in a position-sensitive way. Parker recognised that a similar technique could be used to study the flow inside engineering systems. Instead of imaging the dispersion of a radioactive fluid, however, the path of a single radio-labelled particle is tracked.

The technique has the unique advantage that it can be used to visualise flow patterns in fluids and powders within opaque vessels, thus providing information previously unobtainable. It developed out of a collaboration with Rolls Royce which studied the lubrication of aeroengines using a dedicated positron camera. Subsequently, Parker developed a more portable and flexible camera which has recently been used to carry out PEPT measurements on a petrochemical plant.

As well as improving the detector system, Parker’s research group has continued to refine the methodology, developing new techniques for radio labelling multiple small particles less than 100 micrometres, which can then be tracked at high speed. This has considerably widened the applicability of the PEPT technique.