Photograph: Durham University
By Tommy Pallett
Durham Physicist Dr Mark Raine won the Harry Jones Prize from the British Cryogenics Council this January for the work completed in his PhD thesis. Dr Raine worked on superconductivity – a phenomenon whereby zero electrical resistance is achieved in materials cooled below a threshold temperature – in nanocrystalline Niobium Carbonitride.
Raine’s story is not one of a typical academic. In an interview with Palatinate SciTech Raine recalled how his career “started in the army when [he] left school”, where he remained as “part of the infantry for five years”. From there he moved into industry, where he stayed for 15 years designing electrical control systems, but all “without a degree at that point”. Raine then decided to leave industry and pursue a degree in Physics – and did so at the Open University.
Upon finishing Raine “thought [he’d] go into teaching” so came to Durham to do a one-year teacher training programme. Talking about PhD’s, he remarked that he had “always wanted to do [one], but had never really looked at it as being a possibility”. Finding the PhD project he has been working on, Raine described as “accidental”. In all, a wholly unusual and fascinating career.
Raine’s PhD project mostly set out to “improve the upper critical magnetic field of the material [he] was working on […] niobium carbonitride”. He achieved just that: a doubling of it. Raine offered doctoral students some comforting words in saying that “like most PhD’s, everything doesn’t start to come together until the last portion of it”., in fact, fact spent the first two years of his PhD just trying to make the material to a high quality, and determined equipment problems to be his biggest setbacks.
But even Dr Raine’s PhD wasn’t typical. Getting towards the end of his work he then “postponed it, because [he] got employed [at Durham] to start up a new laboratory […] the European Fusion Reference Laboratory”. The purpose of this laboratory was to provide high accuracy materials measurements for ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a European based fusion energy research project. Superconductivity is essential for the technology currently employed to achieve fusion energy, as Raine explained “without superconductivity […] you can’t get out more energy than you put in” and this of course is a central paradigm of energy production. He believes that the work ITER does is very important to our future.
This side project, taking up a sandwich four years, formed part of his thesis in the end, but as a very different (but not unrelated) segment.
As for his ground-breaking superconductivity discovery, Raine freely admitted that some of his results were indeed “accidental”. For example, though he set out to improve the upper critical magnetic field, they not only achieved this but also a forty-fold increase in the critical current density. This was by no means a given, and indeed could have filled an entirely separate project. But as Raine said: “we all need a bit of luck in life”.
It was this combination of an increase in both values, coupled with only a relatively small reduction in temperature that made Raine’s material and measurements so special.
Sounding to be a very industry-driven project, Raine explained that it wasn’t as clear as that. He believes that industry has a “reluctance to change”; they are of course concerned with costs and logistics, and so will only take on a new idea if it is “phenomenally brilliant” in all aspects – so much so that it surpasses all their existing technologies. Raine makes it clear: their motives were entirely academic. Any progress into industry is out of their hands.
It is relatively unusual to gain this sort of recognition for a PhD thesis (as opposed to a paper publication), and this prize is unique in that it is open to all types of academic projects: from fourth year projects to senior research. In fact, Raine suggests that the prize is really independent of qualifications level, and is more an indiscriminate recognition of the research completed.
The conclusion of Raine’s thesis often drifts into important insights regarding the scientific process. In particular, he declares that “the sharing of information, techniques and data is the basis upon which the scientific method is moulded […] everyone benefits from its success”. As someone who has been under embargo for a year, Raine is assured that science must be more open and shared, despite “certain echelons of society trying to protect their interests”.
He sees high value in communicators such as Brian Cox, and believes that perhaps one way to improve transparency is to increase the number of open access journals, and not just for academics but for the general public. He makes clear that we should “compete in ideas and the successes those ideas generate, without relying on the benefits that confidentiality affords”.
Dr Mark Raine: a fascinating and insightful scientist, who in the words of the British Cryogenics Council produced an “excellent piece of work [ ] well-deserving of the prize”.