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Helen Atkinson

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Professor Helen Atkinson, FREng

Professor in Metals Processing, University of Leicester

Awards: Woman of Outstanding Achievement in STEM 2010


Professor Helen Atkinson was appointed to a Chair in Metals Processing in 2002. She was previously Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and then Reader in Engineering Materials at the University of Sheffield. She joined the University of Sheffield from Sheffield City Polytechnic in 1989. Between 1981 and 1987 she worked for the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, including a period as Assistant to the Director for Nuclear Power working on strategic business issues. Professor Atkinson has been Head of the Mechanics of Materials Research Group since 2005. The group consists of 7 academic staff and 16 PhD students with technical support officers. Prof Atkinson is a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IoMMM), a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and a Chartered Engineer. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2007, the highest honour for an engineer in the UK. She has a first class degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science from Cambridge University (1978-81) and a PhD on the transmission electron microscopy of grain growth in oxide scales from Imperial College of Science and Technology (1983-86) carried out as part of her work at Harwell. She has served on a number of bodies including:- UK Government Technology Foresight Materials Panel (1994-99); Chemicals and Materials Task Force for the Government’s Foresight Crime Prevention Panel (1999-2001); Office of Science and Technology Action Group on Sensors (1996-97); Institute of Materials Council (1992-96); Institute of Metals Council (1989-91); Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Teaching Quality Assessment in Materials (1996-99); British Transport Police Committee (the national committee responsible for the governance of the Transport Police) (1998-2003); Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for the Appointment of Magistrates in Rotherham (2000-02). She is a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Structural Materials College and has served on and chaired Panels prioritising proposals for funding. She was a member of the EPSRC Panel  evaluating the Materials Portfolio (~800 projects) (1998-2000). She has co-chaired a major study of the costs of teaching engineering in universities which was published in 2008.

Helen is the current president of the Engineering Professors Council Committee (the first female president in the council's 50 year history!), the Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and currently head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester.

Research Interests:
Professor Atkinson’s interests are in metallurgy and materials engineering. Her PhD was on grain growth in oxide scales developing under oxidation conditions on high temperature materials such as nickel alloys. She published a review of grain growth in Acta Materialia as a result of this work which has been highly cited right across materials engineering. On moving to Sheffield City Polytechnic, she developed an interest in hot isostatic pressing, including publishing a highly regarded book ('Hot Isostatic Processing'), co-authored with Dr Bernie Rickinson. At  Sheffield University, Professor Atkinson led the Semi-Solid Processing Group. Semi-solid processing (sometimes called thixoforming) involves shaping metals when they are partly solid and partly liquid (in contrast with casting where the metal is fully liquid and forging where it is fully solid). She coordinated a major EU project on thixoforming of aluminium/high silicon alloys for automotive and aerospace applications and led EPSRC projects in collaboration with industry on modelling thixoforming  and alloy development. Industry were keen to develop demonstrator components and this led to a £600k Innovative Manufacturing Initiative Project in collaboration with management engineers. She also led a major EPSRC project predicting the size of the large inclusions in large tonnages of steel based on  observations in small quantities. This is important, for example, for predicting the fatigue life of bearings made from high quality steel. At Sheffield, Professor Atkinson supervised a number of EPSRC and DTI funded projects on Metal Matrix Composites, materials where the hardness and heat resistance of ceramics is combined with the toughness of a metal embedding medium.  Professor Atkinson moved to Leicester to take up a Chair in Metal Processing in 2002. She has continued her interest in semi-solid processing and is Vice-Chair of a European consortium working on semi-solid processing of steels. As part of that she has edited two books (‘Modelling Semi-Solid Processing’ and 'Thixoforming Steel') and led a Training School for PhD students from across Europe. She has also developed links with the Space Research Centre at Leicester: she led an EPSRC project on micromanipulation of particles in a Scanning Electron Microscope (to examine the interaction of particles in situ at high temperature) and is currently collaborating on the development of radioisotope heat sources through novel encapsulation techniques. She leads the Leicester contribution to a major Technology Strategy Board consortium project on Improved Modelling of Material Properties for Higher Efficiency Power Plant. Here the focus is on characterising microstructural evolution in alloys used for high temperature applications in power generation turbines and using these results to validate microstructural modelling and the prediction of creep behaviour. The aim is to obtain more reliable predictions of lifetime for components in turbines.


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