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Emeritus Research Fellow wins 2009 Brunel Prize

Dr Jitu Shah, winner of the 2009 Brunel Prize

Dr Jitu Shah, winner of the 2009 Brunel Prize

7 April 2009

Dr Jitu Shah, an Emeritus Research Fellow in the Department of Physics, has been awarded the 2009 Brunel Prize by the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society.

Dr Shah received the award for an outstanding original piece of research on the efforts of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father, Marc Brunel, to produce a new and better form of engine power than steam.

The prize is named after the world-famous Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, a series of famous steamships, including the SS Great Britain, and numerous important bridges and tunnels, including the Bristol Suspension Bridge and Box Tunnel. His designs revolutionised public transport and modern day engineering.

Dr Shah’s research provides a detailed scientific account of experiments carried out by Isambard Brunel and his father Marc for constructing a so-called ‘gaz’ engine, powered by liquefied carbon dioxide. Marc Brunel (1769-1849) himself was an engineer of some repute. He designed and built the Thames Tunnel in London, the first tunnel in the world successfully to have been constructed underneath a navigable river. He was highly respected in the scientific community at the time and was knighted by Queen Victoria for his services to engineering.

Dr Shah’s research reveals hitherto unknown facts about the experiments on the gaz engine, and also indicates that Isambard Brunel might have been the first person to convert carbon dioxide (gas) into its solid form (dry ice). While preparing for a lecture on the influence of Marc Brunel on the life of his son, Dr Shah stumbled on one of Marc Brunel’s notebooks, which contained an unpublished account of the early experiments on the gaz engine. During further attempts to trace the history of the engine, Dr Shah uncovered an account of Marc Brunel’s early experiments, which showed that useful power could be derived from the gaz engine. Modifications of these experiments over some 10 years ultimately led Isambard Brunel to abandon the project, since it became apparent that he could not make the gaz engine more efficient than the steam engine. Dr Shah realised the significance of these experiments in the context of the history of liquefaction and solidification of carbonic acid (carbon dioxide). The findings have been published in the journal of the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society (BIAS).

Dr Shah was awarded the prize by the President of BIAS, Professor Angus Buchanan, at the society’s Annual General Meeting at the University of Bath last month.

Dr Shah graduated from the University of Poona in 1959 and obtained his PhD in Physics from the University of Bath in 1967. He then joined the Department of Physics at the University of Bristol and worked there till his retirement in 2005, although he continues as an Emeritus Research Fellow. He has written 110 scientific papers and reviews on diverse subjects in physics and materials science, including purification, crystal growth and the characterisation of a wide variety of materials. His research interests extend to biomechanics and scanning electron microscopy. Other interests include the history of science and the writings of physicists Michael Faraday, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin after whom the Kelvin scale is named, and Josiah Willard Gibbs.

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