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PhD in Engineering: Developing the next generation of gravity sensors for volcanic eruption forecasting

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, February 28, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

In this project you will develop a new type of gravity sensor that will be used to help forecast volcanic eruptions. You will be involved in the design, fabrication, and field testing (at Mt Etna, Sicily) of this cutting-edge technology.

By measuring tiny variations in the Earth’s gravitational acceleration, g, you can infer density variations beneath the ground. Since magmatic systems contain rock of differing density, changes in gravity over time can tell us when/where magma is moving. Traditional gravity sensors (gravimeters) were costly and heavy, but with the advent of the technology used to make mobile phone accelerometers (MEMS – Microelectromechanical-systems), this is changing.

At Glasgow University we have already developed the first MEMS gravity sensor (, which was named by the Institute of Physics as one of the top ten breakthroughs of global physics for 2016. The work continues, and we are now working with four other European nations to make a network of these MEMS gravity sensors around Mt Etna. It will be the first multi-pixel gravity imager – enabling unprecedented resolution of Etna’s plumbing system (

The sensor you will develop in your PhD will be the next generation design. The first generation sensor consisted of a mass on a spring, which moved in response to changing values of g. This, however, can only ever be used to measure changes in gravity, which means it is very difficult to tell the difference between a geophysical signal and instrumental drift. If we could measure absolute values of gravity, then instrumental drift would stop concerning us, and we wouldn’t need to calibrate the sensors against hugely expensive commercial absolute gravimeters. This reduction in cost is important when assessing volcanic risk because 8/10 of the countries at most risk from volcanic hazards are on the Overseas Development Agency (ODA) list.

One way of making absolute measurements of gravity is to use a pendulum. This method was used for hundreds of years until the scientists and engineers essentially ran out of fabrication tolerance about 100 years ago. But now nanofabrication is at our disposal… We will work together to develop a miniature gravity sensor using nanofabrication techniques in the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre (JWNC), one of the leading academic cleanrooms in Europe. We will also work with colleagues in the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR), part of the team responsible for the Nobel-prize-winning discovery of gravitational waves. The sensor will work by monitoring the oscillation period of a pair of silicon pendulums. It can be made at least ten times smaller and ten times cheaper than conventional gravity sensors.

This project offers an exciting opportunity to work in world leading research groups and labs. You’ll learn new skills and work collaboratively with a vibrant team of multidisciplinary researchers. You’ll get trained in nanofabrication in the JWNC. You’ll get to work with collaborators in industry and academia from many countries. You’ll receive a tax-free stipend, and you’ll get to travel for field work and conferences around the world. You’ll have ring-fenced funding to engage with the public. You’ll be encouraged to work hard when at university, but encouraged equally to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Glasgow’s fantastic night life/culture/music/sports facilities/proximity to the Highlands will certainly help with the latter!

A bit about your supervisor: Richard Middlemiss was recently awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship. His last project produced a Nature paper, a patent, and many industrial and academic collaborations. He believes science should be used for societal benefit, and enjoys sharing his work with the public. He wants to widen participation in Engineering/Physics, because diverse teams produce better work. In his spare time he enjoys tennis, athletics, music, boatbuilding, and camping trips with friends. You won’t just be working with him, though – you’ll be working in a friendly group of researchers between Engineering and Physics on similar topics.

Richard is looking for a new PhD student from a STEM background (engineering/physics/geophysics/geology etc.). Enthusiasm is essential, as well as a willingness to learn skills in many different areas of science and engineering, which you’ll use to bring this exciting new technology to fruition. If you have any questions before applying, then feel free to drop Richard an email!

How to Apply: Please refer to the following website for details on how to apply:

Start Date: 01/10/20

Funding Notes

Funding is available to cover tuition fees for UK/EU applicants for 3.5 years, as well as paying a stipend at the Research Council rate (estimated £15,009 for Session 2020-21).

The ideal student will have a strong undergraduate degree (2:1 or higher) in a STEM subject (geophysics/physics/engineering or similar)

How good is research at University of Glasgow in General Engineering?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 84.00

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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