Tag Archives: science museum

Revealing The Real Cooke and Wheatstone Telegraph Dial

John Liffen, Curator of Communications, blogs about an important discovery to be displayed for the first time in our new Information Age gallery opening 25 October 2014.

The Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery features over 800 objects spanning 200 years of telecommunications. Many have been on display before, but most are on show for the first time in this gallery. Among these are newly-acquired objects that show the latest developments in communications, while others are drawn from the Museum’s extensive collections.

One object in particular represents what we believe to be a major discovery.

The object in question is a large Cooke and Wheatstone electric telegraph dial, on loan from Kings College London since 1963. The object has never before been on public display because of doubts over its authenticity. However, I am now confident that it dates from 1837, the year that the practical electric telegraph was introduced in Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Five Needle Telegraph © Science Museum

The newly-identified Cooke and Wheatstone Five Needle Telegraph, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

Since 1876, the Museum has displayed a smaller five-needle instrument and has claimed it to be one of the original instruments installed at either Euston or Camden Town in 1837 when Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke demonstrated their electric telegraph system to the directors of the newly-opened London and Birmingham Railway.

I had long been suspicious of this because there were several technical features which just did not ‘add up’. All the history books repeated the Museum’s assertion about its originality and yet there was no real evidence to confirm it. I decided it was time to find out for certain.

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The smaller Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph instrument, now believed to date from about 1849 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

I researched the whole story again, this time using only contemporary records such as Cooke’s letters, other manuscript documents and press reports. After much work, I concluded that the large dial was almost certainly one of the two 1837 originals, whereas the smaller instrument was likely to be one of the working models made for demonstration at a High Court hearing in 1850 when a rival company was disputing Cooke and Wheatstone’s priority in the invention.

The layout of the dial was Wheatstone’s idea. Any of the 20 letters on the dial can be indicated by making the appropriate pair of needles point to it. No knowledge of a code is needed and the dial is big enough for a crowd of people to see it working. Then as now, good salesmanship was needed to put over new technology.

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph  © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

Sheet 1 of the drawings for Cooke and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph © Science Museum/ Science and Society Picture Library

So why is this discovery so important?

The electric telegraph was the first practical use of electricity and from the 1840s onwards it transformed world communications. After a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, messages between Europe and North America took only hours to arrive rather than weeks. Moreover, Cooke saw the emerging railway system as a major customer for the new technology. To operate safely, the railways needed to observe a timetable based on a standard time system.

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge  looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837

View taken from under the Hampstead Road Bridge looking towards the station at Euston Square, 1837 © Science Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

The electric telegraph enabled Greenwich time to be distributed right across Britain, and within a few years local time, based on the times of sunrise and sunset, had been replaced by standard (Greenwich) time. The telegraph could also help catch criminals. In 1845 a message sent from Slough railway station to Paddington enabled murder suspect John Tawell to be identified, arrested, and in due course, executed.

After many years of doubt, I am now satisfied that one of the key inventions from the beginning of electric telegraphy has been authenticated and rightly takes its place in our new Information Age gallery.

How Mathematics Inspired the Writers of The Simpsons and Futurama

Pete Dickinson, Head of Comms, reflects on a global premiere and the mathematics hidden within the Simpsons and Futurama.

Leading lights of the Simpsons and Futurama, Al Jean and David X. Cohen, served up a sell-out event at the Science Museum that danced effortlessly like a Simpsons episode between scintillating story-telling, one-liners and hard-core mathematics.

QI creator John Lloyd, CEO of Innovate UK Iain Gray, and mathematics populariser Alex Bellos were among those lured to the museum for an evening of maths and mirth, but it was 12-year-old Toby Hawkins whose question precipitated the eveningís global premiere.

Toby wondered whether we could hope for a Simpsons and Futurama crossover episode if anyone should prove that P does not equal NP and thus solve a major unresolved problem in computer science. In response we were treated to the first ever airing of part of a ‘Simpsorama’ crossover show that will see Bender travelling back in time in an attempt to kill Bart so worldwide disaster can be averted.

Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The evening was expertly compered by Simon Singh, author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. He invited Al Jean and David X. Cohen to explain how and why they have regularly embellished episodes of both series with references to degree-level maths such as Fermatís Last Theorem or the Taxicab number.

Al Jean, who worked on the first series and is now executive producer of The Simpsons, and studied maths at Harvard, credited serendipity; many of the writers had scientific backgrounds. He went on to suggest that mathematics and comedy writing demand the same kind of thinking and a similar, sometimes obsessive, quest for the perfect solution.

We heard how, in the early 90s, the writers faxed a mathematician working at NASA to ensure the accuracy of a line by store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon when he boasts ‘I can recite pi to forty thousand places. The last digit is 1.’

David X Cohen, creator of Futurama who happens to have a computer science degree from UC Berkeley, hinted at a more serious purpose. Lamenting the way entertainment goes out of its way to make maths seem boring, he said ‘part of what I think about when we do Futurama is let’s make it fun, let’s not make it scary’.

Earlier, Science Museum Deputy Director Jean Franczyk had provided the context for the evening with a reminder of the Science Museumís ambitious plans for a new mathematics gallery, made possible by the generosity of the David and Claudia Harding Foundation. By combining the curation of David Rooney, the creativity of Zaha Hadid Architects and the museum’s beautiful maths collection, Jean predicted a gallery that would delight all, including the ‘intrepid and maths-loving Lisa Simpson’.

The event has inspired a wide range of media interest, on the importance of Lisa as a mathematical role model, the links between mathematics and comedy, along with mentions on Radio 4′s Loose Ends and Radio 1′s Nick Grimshaw Show.

All clips from The Simpsons and Futurama were kindly provided by Twentieth Century Fox Television.

Drayson Racing Car

Formula E: The Future of Racing

Pippa Hough, Assistant Content Developer in our Contemporary Science team, explores the new Formula E racing series.

Last month, we invited engineers from the Power Electronics Group to the Science Museum to share their latest research with our visitors. They are working on wireless charging systems to power up electric car batteries, and with them came the Drayson Racer, the fastest lightweight electric car in the world. This beautiful, green piece of precision engineering is fast; it broke records at 205mph and can go 0 to 60 in 3 seconds.

This week super speedy cars, much like the Drayson racer, will take part in Formula E; the first ever fully electric racing series, starting off in Beijing. The cars in Formula E aren’t quite as fast as the one we had on display, but with top speeds of 140mph it will definitely be entertaining to watch.

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

There are a few aspects of the Formula E that make it, in my opinion, the best type of racing there is:

Car Swapping

One of the major issues of electric cars is battery life. The racing cars used in Formula E can’t be charged quick enough at the pit stops so the drivers swap to a fully charged car. Given it’s a race the drivers need to hop out and into the other car within a minute. I think it provides an bonus ‘obstacle course’ like challenge that petrol racing really lacks.

Exotic Locations

Yes Formula 1 has exotic location, but Formula E has raised the game. The races will be in the heart of some of the most stunning capital cities in the world. Starting in the Olympic park in Beijing the championship will travel round to 10 cities including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Miami, and finishing up in central London in June 2015.

Futuristic Sounding

Electric cars engines are virtually silent. There’ll be no need for ear plugs while watching and given the city centre locations the races won’t be bothering the neighbours as much as petrol racing might. The sound Formula E cars make when racing has been described as anything from eerie to futuristic. They’re so quiet the engineers have to be warned with an air horn before the car come into the pit stops so they can get out of the way in time.

Fanboost

There’s virtually no interaction with the drivers for fans of racing, especially compared to other sports. The drivers can’t hear you cheering, not until they’re no the podium and by that time your encouragements don’t make any difference. Not so in Formula E, you can vote for your favourite driver before the race. The three most popular driver’s get a ‘power boost’ for their cars in the last leg of race.

Formula E will drive innovation in electric cars that’ll quickly trickle down to their domestic counterparts. In the not too distant future the wireless charging system the Power Electronics Group showed our visitors could be in parking spots all over the country ready to charge your electric car.

You can find out more about Formula E by watching the video below.

Going down the drain

In the latest of our blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey talks to Nick Mills, Waste Innovation Manager at Thames Water about what happens to our sewage and what the future holds for wastewater.

Sarah: What do Thames Water do with our sewage?

Nick: We have 350 sewage works and 68,000 miles of sewers across our region, which stretches from East London to the Cotswolds in the west. Last year, we removed and treated 4,369 million litres of sewage from 15 million customers. At our 350 sewage works we treat the sewage to remove contaminants and return it safely to the environment, it is often cleaner than the water in the river.

Sarah: What happens to the end products of the processing?

Nick: The main end-product of the sewage treatment process is something called sludge. This energy rich by-product is put to good use in anaerobic digestion, producing renewable energy that helps power our treatment sites. The digested sludge is then recycled to agricultural land.

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face in dealing with our sewage/ waste water?

Nick: London has outgrown its sewer system. The Victorian sewers are in great condition, but simply not designed for today’s population. They were designed for just over two million but are used today by just over six million. The proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel will stop tens of millions of tonnes of raw sewage flowing into the Thames every year via the outfall system. It is a must-do job. We can’t keep treating the Thames as a sewer.

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw down the drains?

Nick: ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ is our campaign to end the misery caused by fatbergs. Leftover cooking fat and oil poured down the sink will set hard. This creates stinking, pipe-blocking fatbergs beneath your house or in your street.

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

Wet wipes are another big no-no because they are made of plastic. They don’t break down like toilet tissue, clinging to fat and clogging up the system. If drains get blocked, what you flush can come back up through your toilet or even your sink.

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?  Is there a top 3 list of things people could do differently to help?

Nick: Our message is simple, if it’s not water, toilet tissue or poo, please… ‘Bin it – don’t block it’.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 20 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Nick: In 20 years’ time I can see the wastewater industry becoming a net energy producer, by employing more efficient processes and increasing energy recovery. Combining advanced anaerobic digestion and technologies like pyrolysis, large increases can be made. Our Innovation team are busy demonstrating this at the moment. Phosphorus, a finite resource essential to life as we know it, will be recovered at every major sewage works and sold competitively as a fertiliser to farmers, this has also been demonstrated recently at our Slough sewage works by the Innovation team.

Innovation works at Slough © Thames Water

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?

Nick: I think it is great. It shows the harsh reality of waste, but at the same time reveals the great work that people do behind the scenes to keep society moving. I hope it will encourage a new generation to start what is a very interesting and rewarding career as there are huge challenges yet to be solved.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Roaming Far and Wide – the Science Museum in China

Outreach Officers Ronan Bullock, Aasiya Hassan and Susie Glover report back after their outreach trip to Hong Kong and China.

In March 2014, the Science Museum’s Outreach team was invited for the second time by The British Council in Hong Kong to deliver a series of shows and workshops as part of their Science Alive Festival. The theme of this year’s festival was ‘The Code of Life’ and we disgusted audiences with blood, guts and snot, exploring the science behind the human digestive system, blood and materials. We spent three days with our hosts at the Hong Kong Science Museum and a further nine days visiting twenty two schools across Hong Kong and New Territories. We experienced many different educational settings from government funded local schools to private international schools reached a combined audience of over 7,000!

Proving that no distance is too great for the Outreach team, we then caught a train to Dongguan City in mainland China to deliver events hosted by The Dongguan Science & Technology Museum. Over the course of four days we engaged with audiences at the museum and two local schools, reaching over 3,000 people. This visit continued our relationship with the museum, having hosted a number of free science shows performed by their staff right here in London, in the Science Museum, back in September 2013.

During our busy schedule we found time to sample some of the interesting local cuisines, tour both museums and see some local sites, the highlight of which was taking a cable car to see Hong Kong’s famous giant Tian Tian Buddha.

Simon Says… “be smart”

Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer, blogs about the IBM Simon, the first smartphone to go on public sale.

Twenty years ago, on 16 August 1994, the Bellsouth IBM Simon hit the American market. Weighing in at a hefty half a kilogram, and looking rather like a grey brick, the Simon was advertised with a not-so-snappy slogan declaring it to be “The World’s First Cellular Communicator”.

Although the slogan was a bit of a mouthful, the Simon really did break new ground. It took some of the best technology that the handheld computing world had to offer – personal digital assistants (PDAs) were all the rage in the early 1990s – and combined it with a mobile phone. 

With a stylus and touch screen, Simon’s users had all sorts of software applications, or apps, at their fingertips. They might sketch a drawing, update their calendar, write notes on a document, or send or receive a fax.

The Simon was, in effect, the world’s first smartphone; a device that could make calls and be programmed to do a wide range of other things. The built-in features could even be expanded by plugging in memory cards – not quite an app store, but long similar lines.

The Science Museum’s Simon was owned by a project manager for a construction company in the United States. He found the Simon invaluable because his office could fax him site plans to review. He could check them wherever he was and fax them back saving hours of shuttling plans physically around the country.

Despite having some loyal users, and after selling around 50,000 units, the Simon was withdrawn from sale after only 6 months. There were still some key pieces of the puzzle missing to enable a device like the Simon to become really successful. In 1994 the web was in its infancy, so the idea of downloading apps was not practical.

The mobile internet, accessible through mobile phones, was virtually non existent – explaining why fax was a key feature of the Simon. The hardware was also limited. With a battery that only lasted an hour in ‘talk mode’ it wasn’t practical to rely on the Simon to keep you in touch all day long. To top it all off, at $899 the Simon was simply too expensive for most people to justify.

Despite its imitations and brief foray in the marketplace, the Simon brought together many of the key things that underpin today’s smartphones. The next big splash in the market came over a decade later. By then, 3G mobile phone networks were available, online app stores were a genuine possibility and microprocessor technology had advanced enough to pack a really powerful computer into a small handheld device.

The launch of the iPhone 3G marked a turning point, and mobile phone companies saw the amount of data being used spike almost over night. (Source: Science Museum)

The IBM Simon will go on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery which opens on 25 October 2014.

Shedding light on the matter of rubbish

In the latest of our blog series linked to The Rubbish Collection, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins finds an ingenious use for our discarded materials.

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection exhibition is open at the Museum until 14 September. Having documented every piece of waste that passed through the Museum for a month, this second phase is a chance to see what would have been thrown away.

Of the material that hasn’t been selected for display, I collected a small box of bits that I hoped to turn into a product that we might sell in the shop. I like the idea that with a little bit of effort and imagination, items that would otherwise be chucked, can be turned into something desirable. Unfortunately the collection of items in the box that I had gathered didn’t look at all desirable. A couple of umbrellas, some bits from a light fitting, an old copper funnel, an ash tray, some plastic cutlery, some glass cups and a selection of ball bearings didn’t look very promising.

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

The germ of my idea came from digging out the copper funnel and investigating it further. It was heavily corroded and covered in green verdigris, but underneath was structurally solid, and a beautiful shape.

I read somewhere that vinegar could be used to clean copper, so I popped down to the café, to get a couple of sachets to try out. It turns out it does a reasonable job on lightly tarnished areas, but can’t handle the extent of corrosion on the funnel. However, it did encourage me that the funnel could be saved.

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Next I pulled apart the umbrellas, lined up everything from the box and had a think what I might make. A happy coincidence was that the handle from the umbrella fitted exactly into the top of the funnel.

 

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

My first thought was to make some sort of loudspeaker people could shout through. Next, I thought the umbrella handle might plug the funnel to make a water-tight vase or container of some sort. Finally, looking at the shining clean patch of copper I thought, coupled with a 1950s-style squirrel cage bulb, it might make a really nice light fitting.

The next step was to recondition the copper funnel. In the basement, the Museum has metal and wood workshops responsible for building, installing and maintaining the structures for new exhibitions. Amongst their equipment is a sandblasting machine, which I used to blast the corrosion from the funnel.

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

I decided to leave the matt finish left from the sand blasting on the inside surface, and polish up the outside. Using Brasso and eventually a buffing wheel I polished up the outer surface.

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

To ensure the lamp remains pristine, I decided to use a polymer based lacquer, applied in the workshop’s spray booth.

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

Finally I added the umbrella handle, and a lighting flex and fitting. I think the finished light looks rather good. It’ll be available for purchase in the Museum shop from mid August.

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

An Antarctic Expedition

Assistant Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, which launched a century ago today.  

On this day (8 August) 100 years ago, a ship called the Endurance set sail from Plymouth, bound for Antarctica. The ship carried Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the goal of which was to make the first transcontinental crossing of Antarctica through the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea.

HMS Endurance trapped in the ice during Shackleton's 1914-16 Antarctic expedition © BFI National Archive

HMS Endurance trapped in the ice during Shackleton’s 1914-16 Antarctic expedition © BFI National Archive

The expedition failed when Endurance became trapped in pack ice and, after 9 months, was eventually crushed and sank, stranding Shackleton and the crew on the ice. Despite this failure the trip became famous as an epic feat of endurance, as Shackleton and his crew made a desperate and heroic bid for escape in three tiny boats, crossing the Southern Ocean to the island of South Georgia. Sadly, three lives were still lost: Victor Hayward, Aeneas Mackintosh and the Rev. Arnold Spencer-Smith from the Endurance’s supply ship the Aurora.

Two medicine chests, belonging to polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, (1871-1922) and Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912).

Two medicine chests, belonging to polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, (1871-1922) and Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912). Credit: Science Museum.

It was the last great expedition of what is known as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, and for 100 years has provided inspiration for both explorers and artists alike, including author Tony White whose thought provoking and innovative latest novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, is the first novel ever to be published by the Science Museum. More information about Shackleton’s expedition and the novel, which is available as a free e-book until April 2015, can be found in the Science Museum’s Atmosphere gallery.

Drawing on tales of adventure from the past and cutting-edge new scientific research into the effects of climate change, White imagines a terrifying future where people are fleeing to Antarctica, instead of escaping from it; in a hot world instead of a cold one.

The author says that he became fascinated not only by Shackleton’s amazing feat of heroism, but the way that the story has been told. “I wondered what new resonances those early tales — and moving images — of Antarctica a century ago might have now when that great continent’s ice sheets are at risk because of climate change, and what kind of Shackleton myth might inspire future generations of migrants to Antarctica. Migration is being seen as a form of adaptation to climate change, and the novel suggests that climate change refugees, setting out in tiny boats on equally desperate and epic voyages, might be the Ernest Shackletons of our day.”

There are zeppelins over South Kensington and boat people in the South Atlantic. Among them are Emily and daughter Jenny, travelling south to safety and a reunion with John who has gone ahead to find work. They travel with Browning, a sailor who has already saved their lives more than once. In the slang of their post-melt world, Emily and Jenny are refugees known as ‘mangoes,’ a corruption of the saying ‘man go south’.

To find out more about the inspiration behind Shackleton’s Man Goes South and download the e-book click here or visit the Science Museum’s Atmosphere gallery.

Building Bridges

Richard Pering, Learning Resources Project Coordinator, shares the latest news from the Building Bridges project.

What has a foam-filled Mr Potato Head got to do with a scarily thin cross-section of a Boeing 747? 11-12 year old students in London and Reading have been exploring this and other unusual questions as part of the Science Museum’s Building Bridges project. The project aims to help students make sense of the science that shapes their lives, by getting them to take part in activities which will develop useful skills for a career in science or any other field.

Students explored friction by looking at our giant tyre from an open cast mining truck

Students explored friction by looking at our giant tyre from an open cast mining truck

We spent the beginning of the year visiting all 21 schools taking part, and have met some incredibly talented future scientists. We’ve worked with their teachers to help the students recognise their own potential, and look at science in a different way.

By using a hair dryer to make a ping pong ball float in the air, students brought the Museum’s Lockheed Electra to life. Some trickery with super-absorbent hydrogel got everyone considering the uncomfortable reality of an astronaut’s underwear, while whipping a tablecloth out from under a load of crockery brought home just how useful friction (or a lack of it) can be – not least for giant monster trucks.

Students Exploring hydrogel

Students Exploring hydrogel

It was amazing to see students grabbing the opportunity to demonstrate the science behind some of our favourite objects to their classmates, building their confidence and starting some really interesting conversations about the science hidden in everyday life.

Students presenting to their classmates

Students presenting to their classmates

As for Mr Potato Head, suffice to say he didn’t enjoy finding out what it’d feel like if the Boeing’s cabin wasn’t pressurised. His foam insides became his outsides.

To have a go at similar experiments yourself, or with budding scientists you know, take a look at our Kitchen Science activities.

Rubbish that powers homes and builds roads

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey looks at some of the materials that are on display in the exhibition.

The second phase of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection art installation has involved tracing the journeys of the Science Museum’s rubbish, to find out where it goes, and how it is processed. This has enabled us to work out what materials to bring back for display, and in what quantities, to represent 30 days’ worth of Science Museum waste.

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Rubbish leaves the museum via a variety of different companies but the vast majority is taken by Grundon Waste Management. It goes to their site at Colnbrook, near Heathrow, which holds three centres; a transfer station, a Materials Recovery Facility and the Lakeside Energy from waste plant, co-owned by Viridor Waste Management.

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Today I’m going to focus on the materials on display from the Energy from Waste plant. When you think of an incinerator that burns rubbish you might picture a dirty, sooty, very smelly and unpleasant place, but it’s actually an extraordinary, almost clinically clean building (except for the container where the rubbish is held), and it’s surprisingly beautiful with a giant claw grabbing up to six tonnes of rubbish at a time to feed the incinerator fires.

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

All the Science Museum general (non-recycled) waste goes to Lakeside to be incinerated. Four products come out of that process: energy, incinerator bottom ash, air pollution control residue and clean air. The largest output is energy, with the plant providing enough to power 50,000 homes per year. We have calculated that the energy produced by incinerating one month of Science Museum waste is enough to light one of our gallery bulbs for nearly 24 years.

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

The energy is produced by burning the rubbish for approximately 3 seconds at 950 degrees centigrade, which is long enough to combust most materials. At the end of the process, incinerator bottom ash is left over. This ash still contains large pieces of metal which are separated and sent to be recycled, and the ash itself is left to ‘mature’ so that chemical reactions can take place that lower its pH value. This aggregate is then used in the construction industry, primarily in road building. You could be driving on your old rubbish.

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

One of the most remarkable things about the incineration process is that the air that comes out of the plant is actually cleaner than the air that goes in. This is because it is very carefully filtered to contain the toxins released during burning. The filtered ash is known as air pollution control residue (APCr). Historically this toxic ash would have been contained in hazardous waste landfill, but new technologies and research are now finding uses for it. Grundon have invested in a company called Carbon8 who use carbon dioxide to neutralise the toxic heavy metals and materials, making them permanently non-hazardous. This safe ash can then be used as an aggregate and, alongside other recycled materials including wood, makes the ‘Carbon Buster’ carbon-neutral breeze blocks we have on display in The Rubbish Collection.

Carbon Buster breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

It’s been very encouraging to find that the Science Museum rubbish is producing some useful and valuable products through incineration. However, one of the big findings from our documentation of the Museum’s waste was that there is still a lot of recyclable material ending up at the incinerator. Those materials retain much more value when they are recycled so by continuing to improve and refine our recycling systems, and through new initiatives like separating our food waste, we hope in the future to decrease our general waste further.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.