Researching the Squishyness of Foam

by YPU Admin on December 25, 2014. Tags: algorithms, applied, business, computer, cycling, finance, foam, helmets, industry, maths, model, patentlaw, pressure, and syntactic


My name is Maria Thorpe and it's now only 10 months until I have to submit my thesis for a PhD in applied maths.

My route to a PhD

I moved up to Manchester 7 years ago really excited to be going to university and studying for an undergrad masters in maths for the next 4 years. I loved every minute of my undergrad, but by the beginning on the fourth year still didn't really know what type of job I wanted when I finished. I was still enjoying my subject and I'd really enjoyed a research project I'd been sponsored to complete over the summer between third and fourth year, so I decided to apply for a PhD on a similar topic in applied maths. 

In Depth

Since then I've been trying to mathematically model the way in which a specific type of composite squashes under pressure. I work with a material similar to syntactic foam, similar to the  sort of foam cycling helmets are made from, however instead of creating small cavities within the material by injecting air into it, tiny hollow balls (called shells) are mixed into the foam before it sets, forming a composite. These micro shells are created from very stiff, glass-like materials and help stiffen the material under low pressures, but under high pressures they crumple like a coke can. I want to understand whether having shells close to each other changes the way the composite reacts to pressure: do the shells reinforce each other and allow the material to withstand higher pressures? Or do they have the opposite effect and cause the composite to squash more than if they were far apart?

The company sponsoring my research wants to understand how their material works so that they know how to improve it. It would take too long to try out all the different ways the shells could be mixed into the foam, and might involve buying new machinery, so it makes sense to model the material instead. Creating a very flexible model means that the same model can be used for many different applications, so I try to model the material theoretically, by extending the models previous generations of mathematicians have created. This means that most days are spent making very small steps forward with my research, but when a whole section comes together it can be really rewarding.

Aside from working on my thesis my PhD has enabled me to travel to some really great places: I spent a month in New Zealand with a company having a go at the more experimental side to my research; I've traveled to conferences all across Europe; and I've spent three months working in parliament to learn how science influences policy.

Moreover these last three years have allowed me to discover all the ways maths is used in industry and business, from patent law and government policy to computer algorithms and financial trading, so that this time round, when it comes to looking for post PhD careers, I have a much clearer idea of where I could go from here.

Going Further

If you'd like to read more about my research and that of the group I work with, the waves in complex continua group, check out our webpage:

There’s also an interesting article on the use of syntactic foams for deep sea exploration here:

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