R&D profile: Jacob Whittle

Jacob taking part in the IMechE’s Railway Challenge Competition

Jacob Whittle is a research student at our R&D site near Sheffield. Having studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, he's now researching the sustainability of steel railway infrastructure and how it can be used to support low-carbon transport systems. Find out more about Jacob, his work and hopes for the future... 

What undergraduate degree did you study and where?

MEng Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield.

When did you start your degree? When did you graduate?

I started my course in 2017 and graduated in 2021 with a first-class degree.

What did you particularly enjoy during your undergraduate studies?

Like many of my colleagues, the most enjoyable thing I did as an undergraduate student was being involved in the University’s entry into the IMechE’s Railway Challenge Competition. This entails conceiving, designing and manufacturing a fifth-scale locomotive to compete against other teams in a range of challenges. As Team Principal, I led the team to its most successful result yet in 2021. I also thoroughly enjoyed my final year project, supervised by Professor Roger Lewis, which helped validate the application of artificial intelligence to predict railhead adhesion levels – now the subject of my first co-authored paper!

Where are you studying now?

I enjoyed my undergraduate degree so much and am still studying at the University of Sheffield.

When did you start your current programme, how long does it last and what do you hope to do after?

I started my current programme in September 2021; the duration of which is four-and-a-half years. On completion, I would love to continue working in the rail industry or a closely associated sector to continue helping improve and decarbonise, one of my engineering passions.

What are you working towards now e.g. PhD, EngD? Why did you choose this route?

I am currently working towards an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) through the Advanced Metallics System Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). I chose this route particularly as I wanted to do a doctorate that was closely aligned with industrial goals and had a high level of potential technical readiness because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to work in academia or industry after completion. This route also provides a mixture of ongoing professional, academic and technical training through the CDT, which has been a really strong base from which to complete my main project. I was extremely keen to continue following my interest in the rail industry and the environment by undertaking research that would directly contribute to reducing the environmental impact of the rail network.

What does your current research entail?

Broadly, my research focuses on the sustainability of steel railway infrastructure and how it can be used to support desperately needed low-carbon transport systems across the world, and is supervised by Professor David Fletcher and Professor Lenny Koh. Future sustainability in the transportation sector will require, and rely heavily on, a shift from personal to public transportation, which must be supported by a sustainable rail system that is built on sustainable rail infrastructure – a substantial portion of which is produced by British Steel. To support this goal, I am working on developing a tool that combines engineering, environmental and economic factors to enable decision makers to make better choices about the infrastructure they use in a given installation.

This research is focused on developing this tool using railway sleepers, a key component of this infrastructure, as a case study. Consequently, my research has led to the development of a bespoke test rig at R&D’s facility to investigate how railway sleepers behave as well as building computer-based models to understand the impact on the environment. 

Where are you performing your research?

My day-to-day research happens at the University of Sheffield, but my experimental work all happens at British Steel's R&D facility. Future work may take this research into the field and experiment on full-scale railway installations.

What are you enjoying most at the moment? Have you made any ground-breaking discoveries?

In general, I’m really enjoying conducting my research and living the life of a researcher! Every day brings new challenges in my main project, side projects and teaching responsibilities, but it is extremely rewarding.

I am currently about to begin a scheme of testing on the sleeper rig that I helped design, commission and subsequently modify; but I have already developed a novel, and quite exciting, optical monitoring system that is able to detect and track the behaviour of the railway ballast within the rig. This can help characterise the sleeper that's being investigated but also tell us about the whole track system – something that not many people are able to do.

What are you enjoying most about working with British Steel?

I am really enjoying working at British Steel R&D’s facility in Rotherham. The support and advice from Andy, Jacob, Steve and Scott is absolutely second to none, and I wouldn’t have made as much progress without them! I’ve also had opportunities to work with other researchers through British Steel’s support of the national UKRRIN programme, which has been a fantastic way of learning new skills as well as developing my network of professional contacts.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’m an avid guitar player and middle distance runner, and now a fully qualified Scout Leader. I volunteer every week as a Cub Leader in one of Sheffield’s biggest Scout groups.