From Flow to Formulation - Professor Mark Simmons

As a boy growing up in Norfolk, Mark Simmons spent a lot of time on the beach and in the sea. Watching the wind on the water and learning to work the waves as he sailed and surfed, he was fascinated and baffled at the same time.

‘I wanted to understand what governs the shape and structure of the waves when the wind blows over the water,’ he recalls. ‘The optimal conditions didn’t always seem easy to define.’

And so floated the first seeds of what would become a distinguished academic career in fluid mechanics.

‘I loved the beach and being on the sea – I was really into water sports – and it stems from there, really. I was either going to work in the fields of particle mechanics or fluid mechanics.  I found the sea more interesting than the beach, so fluid mechanics won!’

Today, Mark is Professor in Fluid Mechanics at Birmingham, as well as the Head of the University’s School of Chemical Engineering. Over the past decade, his world-leading research has pulled in more than £2.5m in funding from major industrial companies such as Unilever, Johnson Matthey, Procter and Gamble and Rolls-Royce, and the EPSRC and BBSRC.

Mark's research work involves flow visualisation, mathematical modelling and computational fluid dynamics. ‘I look at the multiphase flows of mixtures of gases, liquids or solids, which are common industrial problems,’ explains Mark, who recently delivered his Inaugural Lecture. ‘What underpins all of my research is the ability to measure how materials flow. We have developed a lot of in-house optical methods that enable us to do that.’

These include particle image velocimetry (PIV) and planar laser induced fluorescence (PLIF), and Mark has developed novel methods for the imaging of multiphase flows, focusing on the complexity of interfacial motion during the rupture of liquid threads to form drops, and the impact of a dispersed phase upon continuous phase turbulence.

Examples of his work include research into how to formulate catalyst slurries to give the optimal properties when coated onto car catalytic converters. ‘We have carried out research looking at how you can more effectively process very complex multiphase mixtures. Another interesting application is the manufacture of the ink you find on beer glasses and around car windscreens – which are very hard materials to process.  We are also looking at ways of improving the manufacturability of liquid home and personal care products such as shampoos and hair conditioners.’

He has also conducted research into the manufacture of granular laundry detergents using the spray drying process (a method of producing a dry powder from a liquid or slurry by rapidly drying with a hot gas) that is used by some of the big-name manufacturers.    

Mark – who is Deputy Director of the EPSRC Programme Grant MEMPHIS (Multiscale Examination of Multiphase Physics in Flows), the largest EPSRC funded multiphase flow project in the UK – began his career at the University of Nottingham. After doing postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, he came to Birmingham 16 years ago.

He has published more than 90 research papers in scientific journals and more than 60 conference papers in the fields of single and multiphase flow and reaction engineering of multiphase systems including biofilm reactors.

Mark’s work has always been collaborative: he has also set up research between chemistry and chemical engineering with the University of St Andrews’ School of Chemistry on the use of novel engineered biofilms to perform biotransformations.

The aim of all Mark’s research is to help to make industrial processes more efficient, and therefore cheaper as well as more environmentally friendly. ‘Ultimately, the research we are doing will enable manufacturers to produce complex liquid products via processes that are more space and energy efficient and minimise waste, so that will reduce the environmental impact.’

Mark’s impact on the future of UK and world industry extends to many of his past PhD and post-doc students going on to carve out successful careers in global companies. ‘It means I must have been doing something right.’

Nearly two years into his role as Head of School, Mark is ‘relishing the challenge’.

He says: ‘It’s an exciting time for Chemical Engineering in Birmingham. The Energy Research Accelerator (a multi-million pound research hub for the Midlands that will deliver a step-change in energy research and development, securing the UK’s leadership position in the sector) and the development of the Healthcare Technologies Institute will form an important platform for growth over the next decade.

‘Developing the School’s research through the investment we’ve been able to attract is a really exciting challenge above and beyond my own research.’ 

Professor Mark Simmons delivered his inaugural lecture as a newly appointed Professor in December 2015. This series celebrates his success in the field of fluid mechanics.