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2023 Katherine Burr Blodgett Medal and Prize

Professor Kenneth TV Grattan and Professor Tong Sun for developing unique, patented, field-evaluated and now implemented photonics-based solutions for real-time monitoring of, for example, the pantograph-overhead line interface in electrified trains.

Award winners Professor Kenneth TV Grattan and Professor Tong Sun

Leading a multidisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and IT specialists, Professor Kenneth TV Grattan and Professor Tong Sun have developed a unique, patented, field-evaluated and now implemented solution for real-time monitoring of the pantograph-overhead-line (OHL) interface in electrified trains: critically important to achieve environmental benefits of low emissions for the ongoing expansion of electrified operation and phasing-out of low-efficiency diesel trains. The innovative fibre optic sensor-developed system has direct, positive proven impact on performance through both in situ monitoring of OHL conditions (for better infrastructural management) and more efficient current collection with electric multiple unit trains: dynamic interaction between the pantograph and the OHL infrastructure must be reliable in challenging and complex environments: high voltage (25 kV), high speed (>200 km/h), vibration and ‘all-weather’ operation.

While other high-tech companies and academic groups have unsuccessfully attempted developing such monitoring systems, this team’s unique solution represents an industry breakthrough, with worldwide significance. Building on research at City, University of London, the system achieves full compensation for measurement cross-sensitivities, as the pantograph heats up operationally. In recent years, breakthrough was achieved adopting solutions using multiple fibre Bragg grating-based sensors written into specialised low-loss, high-bend fibre rosettes, integrated into the pantograph head itself, incorporating radical technical innovations now covered by patents. The fully integrated, packaged solution is unique, creating a capability for manufacturing directly ‘smart pantographs’ with in-built sensors, exploiting expertise between industrial partner Faveley-Brecknell-Willis (FBW) and City, allowing full backward compatibility with existing rolling-stock. The system runs unobtrusively and specialist software processes data collected, coupled to a user-friendly computer interface.

Sun and Grattan, leading postdoctoral researcher Dr Matthias Fabian, have been working with world-leaders in electrified rail transport systems FBW through engineers Lee Brun (now Pfisterer Ltd) and Matt Askill (FBW), combining skills to develop, evaluate and apply innovative yet practical fibre optic and IT technology to this real-world railway industry problem. This met the challenges, for the first time, of reliable and accurate monitoring of key parameters: dynamic contact force, pantograph OHL position and lateral and transverse ‘stagger’ (implementing a novel accelerometer design) in situ on a railway pantograph. The team completed certification tests allowing industry standards to be met, enabling infrastructure owners Network Rail to comply with published Technical Specifications for Interoperability.

The research supports our zero-carbon future, through better and more reliable rail services, offering sustainable solutions for a key industry problem of both today and tomorrow.

Images left to right: Professor Kenneth TV Grattan and Professor Tong Sun