Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ross Brawn and Harwell

Ross Brawn's reputation as the greatest technical director in modern Formula 1 has been thoroughly cemented this year by the extraordinary success of his eponymous team. The roots of a successful career can be traced to various factors, such as underlying personality and opportunity, but also in some cases to early career experiences. In Ross's case, it's interesting to note that, perhaps uniquely amongst motorsport engineers, his career began in the nuclear industry.

Ross spent five years in the early 1970s as a trainee at what was then dubbed the Atomic Energy Research Estasblishment (AERE) Harwell, Oxfordshire. As Ross explains in his own words, "I did a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at Harwell and then I went on to start an HNC, still funded by Harwell. My parents lived in Reading and I found an advertisement for Frank Williams Grand Prix, which were based in Reading at that time. I went along and was interviewed by Patrick Head. They were looking for a machinist which was one of the things I’d done at Harwell."

It's interesting to speculate on what Ross actually did at Harwell during these years. The early 1970s were a period in which Harwell were attempting to diversify into sectors outside atomic energy, and it's quite possible that Ross was involved in projects such as those. Whilst Ross himself claims that he did a mechanical engineering apprenticeship, and did some work as a machinist, elsewhere it is claimed that he studied instrumentation. Both may be true.

Nicholas Hance's excellent 2006 book, Harwell: The Enigma Revealed, offers an intriguing insight into some of the work that Brawn might have been doing there:

Metallurgy Division had the task of solving how to fabricate metals such as uranium, plutonium and thorium. It was soon apparent that increasing the efficiency of a nuclear power reactor meant operating it at the highest possible temperatures...The behaviour of such new materials at these higher temperatures needed to be understood. It had to solve the problems of corrosion in the very hostile environment of a reactor core. Nuclear fuel rods needed to be encapsulated inside special alloys. Furthermore, the intense radiation inside a reactor had a dramatic effect on the physical properties of metals. Ordinary steel, for example, suffered severe 'creep' when irradiated by neutrons and lost its strength as it became plastic. Other materials would become more brittle.

...Much of the earlt practical work of Metallurgy Division was carried out in B35. The former RAF workshop building was adapted with an air extraction system so that it could be used to machine uranium on a lathe. One of the first tasks was to machine the fuel rods for GLEEP, after which the young metallurgists turned their hand to designing and fabricating 18 tons of fuel rods for BEPO...the division's work on canning fuels moved in alongside the casting and the machining of graphite. Heavy and novel machinery was installed, some of which was still in use in the early 1990s. There were melting and casting furnaces, capable of operating at 1600 degrees C, and a 750-ton extrusion press. A device in the 1950s, known as 'Harry's Bomb' was installed in the cellar under B35. It made use of the breach of a 6-inch gun barrel from a battleship. Harry Lloyd developed a method of compressing uranium carbide in the breach, using hot argon gas at 50,000 pounds per square inch pressure. Compression raised the temperature to over 1,000 degrees C and his 'bomb' device was to become the forerunner of hot isostatic pressing.

Brian Hudson, who worked in B35, remembered the pioneering days of Metallurgy Division well. "We had to be alert to the pyrophoric hazards of working with uranium powders and it was prudent to use copious flows of coolant during machining work as uranium had a habit of bursting into flames!"

Ross arrived on the scene after these exciting days of pyrophoric fires, but it would nevertheless be interesting to know if he began his career machining chunks of uranium!

Incidentally, those with an extreme interest in Formula 1 technical trivia, might be intrigued by the following account in Hance's text:

Harwell invented the nuclear technique of ion implantation, the room temperature process that could be applied to precision engineering components, giving them greater wear resistance. The equipment needed was an accelerator to produce a beam of ionized nitrogen atoms, and a large vacuum chamber in which were placed the items requiring treatment...The strictures of commercial secrecy do not permit identification of the F1 racing car team which benefited from ion implantation, improving the wear resistance of its engine crankshafts...The improved crankshafts helped win races. Not so shy was Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd, based at Didcot, who asked Harwell Analytical Science Centre to determine the nature of, and chemically remove, a layer which had built up on aluminium alloy components inside the engine. (Harwell Bulletin, 25/86, 11th July 1986).

At this time, Williams were using Honda engines...

1 comment:

Nick Hance said...

I'm rather chuffed to find parts of my book "Harwell: The Enigma Revealed" posted on this site. Readers may wish to know I still have 500 of the original 3,000 copies for sale, but hurry, they are going at the rate of one a day!

Nick Hance MBE