A Visit to National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

Q&A with Principal Scientist Stuart Harmon

In a recent exploration into the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Troy Garrick, the Exhibition Manager of The Magnetics Show, engaged in a comprehensive discussion with Graeme Finch, a Senior Scientist specialising in magnetics, and Stuart Harmon, Principal Scientist – Magnetics, both of NPL. This conversation shed light on NPL's pivotal role as the UK's National Metrology Institute and its exceptional contributions to the field of magnetics.

Can you give me some background about the National Physical Laboratory regarding its origins and how that compares to its role today?

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was founded in 1900 for "standardising and verifying instruments, for testing materials, and for the determination of physical constants." We are one of the oldest standardising laboratories in the world. In 1902, HRH The Prince of Wales, the future King George V said "I believe that in the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) we have the first instance of the State taking part in scientific research. The object of the scheme is, I understand, to bring scientific knowledge to bear practically upon our everyday industrial and commercial life; to break down the barrier between theory and practice; to effect a union between science and commerce."

Today, NPL is the UK's National Metrology Institute (NMI), developing and maintaining the national primary measurement standards, as well as collaborating with other NMIs to maintain the international system of measurement. As a public sector research establishment, we deliver extraordinary impact by providing the measurement capability that underpins the UK's prosperity and quality of life. We develop the metrology required to ensure the timely and successful deployment of new technologies and work with organisations as they develop and test new products and processes.

What are unique aspects to NPL that set you apart from other research facilities? can you share with us some of the notable future projects / past key research that has been produced at NPL in the field of magnetics?

Since its establishment, the research work at NPL has included all branches of physics, light, electricity and magnetism, radio communication, engineering, metallurgy, aeronautics and ship design. Some of the world’s most significant innovations have origins at NPL, including radar; packet switching, the forebearer of the internet; the ACE computer; and the caesium atomic clock.

Our independence allows us to work across the entire innovation ecosystem, supporting industry, government, and research organisations to achieve their goals.

The Magnetics capabilities encompass a unique suite of facilities that have been built up over many years, covering hard and soft magnetic materials, non-magnetic materials and magnetic sensors. Early records demonstrate that the group has been providing low permeability, susceptibility and total loss measurements to industry since the early 1930’s. Along side the development of systems to characterise magnetic materials, our capability also allows for the characterisation of magnetic sensors from nT to several T, all of which are situated on the same site.

NPL has the widest range of magnetic capabilities in the UK offering accredited measurements in accordance to ISO/IEC 17025 to almost every industry sector.

Our unique range of facilities include an Earth’s field cancellation system for low field measurements, pulsed field systems for magnet testing up to 6.5 T, soft magnetic materials testing up to the MHz regime, and systems to characterise Eddy current conductivity standards.

As the UK's National Metrology Institute, you provide the national measurement infrastructure and deliver the UK Measurement Strategy on behalf of the UK government’s Department for Science, Innovation & Technology. Can you elaborate on what this may entail in context?

NPL's mission is to provide the measurement capability that underpins the UK's prosperity and quality of life. We are able to provide confidence in measurement results and data traceable to SI units.

Since 1900 we have developed and maintained the nation's primary measurement standards. These standards help provide confidence that the goods and services we buy live up to their claims, that the medicines we take are the right dosage, and the data we use for everything from climate change to financial trading is accurate. Our work also supports international trade and innovation in the commercial world.

UK measurement standards are underpinned by the National Measurement System (NMS), an infrastructure that ensures accuracy and consistency of measurement throughout the UK. The NMS is a network of laboratories that provide measurement standards and calibration testing facilities. It maintains the measurement infrastructure, represents the position of UK measurement internationally and influences the development of standards. The NMS is funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and supports innovation in business by demonstrating the compliance of new products and processes, reducing development times and improving existing products. It disseminates measurement knowledge and information to the wider measurement community through events, research, case studies, training, newsletters, advice and guides.

Can you talk to me about your views on the significance of the market trend toward an of increase in electrification and EV – what is NPL’s role in this and why do you believe it to be important?

Electrification is predicted to rapidly increase growth in wind generation and electric vehicles, both of which rely on magnetic materials. This is going to increase demands for rare earth permanent magnets putting pressure on existing supply chains and requiring development of novel permanent magnet materials and recycling of magnets. For soft magnetic materials there is a trend towards thinner grades and higher frequencies in aerospace applications. Efficiency in these machines is vital so there is a need to ensure that the magnetic properties are well understood in order to optimise the design and ensure appropriate material choices.

NPL's role as an NMI is to support UK industry by providing the metrological framework to enable measurements of these materials at the conditions that they will be used in. Alongside this, NPL is active in developing future international standards for the characterisation of these materials at these operational conditions.

Can you tell me about how you view the UK and its role in the global Magnetics Industry?

NPL represents the UK when liaising with international metrology and standards organisations and NMIs from other countries. We have over a century of experience meeting the requirements of the international measurement community.

The UK has significant strengths in metal and alloy production and expertise in designing and using high-end magnets in various industries. The UK however currently relies on imports of rare earth elements essential for permanent magnets, which exposes them to supply chain disruptions and price volatility. The UK government recognises the importance of magnetics for clean technologies and electrification and has launched initiatives such as the ‘Critical Minerals Strategy’ and ‘Driving the Electric Revolution (DER) Challenge’. The focus of the DER challenge is to support the UK supply chain to secure economic benefits from power electronics, machines and drives (PEMD) manufacturing, specifically to enable the net zero economy across all transport modes. The DER network brings together academics and industry partners from across the UK via their Industrialisation Centres, and NPL is supporting the metrology challenges across all centres.

The UK does face challenges due to limited access to raw materials and the need to develop more complete supply chains, but NPL is well placed to support the next-generation of magnetic technologies crucial for clean energy and across many other industries.

What is your favourite (fictional) use of Magnets in TV, Movies or Media?

Saving Woody and Buzz from the shredder in Toy Story 3 when a rubbish separating magnet lifts Slinky Dog from the conveyor belt they realise that by holding metal rubbish they will be lifted to safety.

What is your least favourite (fictional) use of Magnets in TV, Movies or Media?

In Fast and Furious 9 a plummeting car driven off a cliff is plucked out of the air by a plane with a large magnet attached to its hull.