EURATOM – Europe’s Fusion Future

In the first weeks of November, the world came together for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, an event researchers across the globe are calling ‘the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control’. During this two-week conference, one of the aims was to put forward proposals to ‘secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach’, which will involve phasing out coal use around the world and putting more resources into sustainable energy methods. One such method that is being touted as a groundbreaking solution is nuclear fusion. THINK magazine sat down with Prof. Ing. Pierluigi Mollicone and Prof. Ing. Martin Muscat, associate professors at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Malta, to learn more about what nuclear fusion is all about.

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Let’s rethink our motors

Daniel Lendi debugging HDMS

From washing machines and vacuum cleaners to air conditioners and fans, household appliances all contain electrical motors, and we tend to take them for granted. However, appliances’ high starting currents can disrupt electricity supply and shut down a whole house. Daniel Lendi unpacks some of the hard work needed to fix this problem.

My (Daniel Lendi) tech-savvy generation takes many things for granted. Entering the Electrical and Electronics Engineering course at the University of Malta (UM) helped me realise just how much thought and effort humanity has invested in technology. My passion for electrical motors and their applications grew further at university, and until today, I’m fascinated by how an electrical current passing through some copper wire can lead to the physical rotation of a motor shaft, driving electric cars and pumping water. 

My time at university also taught me that these motors introduce complications when they start. High currents can trip the Miniature Circuit Breakers inside your consumer unit. When ACs start they draw six to eight times their normal amount of energy; switching on your AC could even make your neighbour’s lights flicker! Dedicated motor starters are introduced to tackle these complications. Dr Ing. Reiko Raute (Department of Industrial Electrical Power Conversion, Faculty of Engineering, UM), with whom I worked on my dissertation, has come up with a novel prototype that aims to improve on these motor starters. Being part of his team allows me to further my studies while gaining valuable insight into industrial product development.

Justin Xuereb, Dr Ing. Reiko Raute and Daniel Lendi
Justin Xuereb, Dr Ing. Reiko Raute and Daniel Lendi. Photo by Racquel Ellul

One type of these motor starters is the soft starter (a category of reduced voltage starters). The soft starter decreases the voltage to the motor, reducing its current and keeping your house lit up. However, as a consequence, they reduce the motor’s torque – a measure of the motor’s rotational strength. A lower torque means that the motor doesn’t turn strongly enough, making your AC inefficient and possibly damaging the motor.

Raute is trying to overcome these problems with a new prototype High Dynamic Motor Starter (HDMS). The HDMS is a soft starter which tackles the issue through a fundamentally different approach. Using a dedicated control algorithm (computer code that carries out specific tasks) and a novel hardware circuit, the HDMS is able to achieve excellent starting current reduction without sacrificing so much motor torque. The development of this prototype is part of a research collaboration between UM and the development division of electronic equipment designer and manufacturer Carlo Gavazzi. Our industrial partner ensures that the product meets market expectations. Prototypes of the HDMS soft starter have already been constructed and are now being tested in heat pump installations in the UK, France, Ireland, and the USA, collecting data from each motor start they carry out. 

The development of the new starter is an ambitious feat. Our team divided it into two projects. My part is analysing the HDMS control algorithm stability and its optimisation. I took up a study module on control engineering to better understand what’s going on. The aim is to ensure that the HDMS regulates and reduces the starting current in the most stable and efficient way, using both the simulation models and the hardware prototype. For the hardware tests we built a test rig which is able to measure a motor’s torque during start-up. I have concluded the analysis, the most tedious part of my project, and am finally moving on to hardware tests to confirm its findings.

Our industrial partner ensures that the product meets market expectations.

My colleague Justin Xuereb focuses on the second project. He investigates the dynamic overload performance of the switching devices. Think of dynamic overload performance as similar to a workout: You are at the gym training with some weights, and are capable of carrying out your routine with 40kg of weights. But you want a bigger challenge and add another 20kg of weights to see how you perform for a few repetitions. This is what is done with the dynamic overload performance of the switching devices, overloading them for a short amount of time and studying their performance. Xuereb has already designed and implemented several revisions of a dedicated test circuit to investigate the overload performance of the switching devices.

My analysis has shown that Raute’s creative idea adheres to control engineering theory. The work is still continuing to ensure the HDMS’ market success. When the next-generation single-phase soft starter product for Carlo Gavazzi becomes a marketable product, our ACs will start more efficiently, even in the midst of summer.   

The project is funded by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) R&I Fusion Technology Development Project R&I-2016-035-T.

Moving energetically ahead

UM's solar panels

Can the university lead the way in shedding a dependence on fossil fuels? Renewable sources cover just over 7% of Malta’s energy needs, which must nearly double by 2030 to implement the draft National Energy and Climate Plan. Daiva Repeckaite traces how photovoltaic modules were rolled out on the campus’s roofs — and finds that to be sustainable, the community should love their ACs a little less.

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Eyes front!

How often do your date’s eyes glance down at your chest? Which products do people notice in a supermarket? How long does it take you to read a billboard?

Eye trackers are helping researchers around the world answer questions like these. From analysing user experience to developing a new generation of video games, this technology offers a novel way of interacting with machines. People with disabilities, for example, can use them to control computers. A team at the Department of Systems and Control Engineering (University of Malta) is using a research-grade eye-gaze tracker, worth around €40,000, to test technologies they are planning to commercialise soon.

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STEM ambassadors thrashing stereotypes

Over the last four decades, STEM industries have risen to great heights. Scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical minds have been called to rally. And the demand continues. How can you contribute?

Few would dispute that technological and scientific advancements dominate the 21st century. Adverts provide ample proof. From tablets to smartphones, to robot home appliances and driverless cars, our world is changing fast. As a result, we are now living in a global knowledge-based economy where information can be considered as the highest form of currency. This reality comes with both benefits and challenges. 

Statistics from 2013’s European Company Survey show that 39% of European Union-based firms had difficulty recruiting staff with STEM skills. Malta is no exception. Another report in 2018 showed that people with STEM careers are still in short supply locally, especially in the fields of healthcare, ICT, engineering, and research. So, while the jobs are available, there aren’t enough people taking up STEM careers, and this is holding Malta back. 

There are many reasons for this trend. For one, Malta has a low number of tertiary level graduates; the third lowest in the EU. An array of harmful stereotypes can also shoulder some blame. The ‘fact’ that people in math, science, and technology ‘don’t have a social life’ is unhelpful. The ‘nerd’ image is still prevalent, especially among the younger generations that are still in primary and secondary school. Then there is the ‘maleness’ associated with STEM jobs and industries. According to Eurostat statistics, in 2017, from 18 million scientists and engineers in the EU, 59% were men and 41% women. 

Still, this is far from the whole picture. 

Employers have reported instances where, despite having enough graduates to fill roles, applicants did not possess the right non-technical skills for the job. This was especially true for abilities such as communication, creative thinking, and conflict resolution. 

Many were unprepared to work in a team, to learn on the job, and to problem solve creatively. This is a real concern, especially for the country’s future. At the rate with which markets are evolving, a decade from now young people will be applying for jobs that do not exist today, and the country needs to prepare students for these roles. And it has to start now. 

The Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) is trying to do this through an Erasmus+ project called RAISE. They are launching an Ambassador Programme to empower young students to take up the STEM mantle. STEM Career Cafés are going to be popping up in schools all over Malta, alongside a Career Day at Esplora aimed to inform and inspire. This is where you come in.

They want undergraduates from the University of Malta and MCAST to work with Esplora by sharing your experiences in STEM and telling your stories to encourage those who may be considering a STEM career. STEM Ambassadors will gain important public engagement skills while making research and science careers more accessible.

STEM is crucial in our contemporary world; our economies depend on it. It has completely changed the way we live and opened up new prospects for a future we never imagined. For those who have already made up their mind to be a part of it, there is now the opportunity to empower others and guide them in finding their own path. 

Note: To become a STEM Ambassador, email or call 2360 2218.

The MCST, the University of Malta, and the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology have embarked on a national campaign to promote STEM Engagement. Its first activity was a National STEM Engagement Conference.

Research to business plan: A metamorphosis

Author: Michelle Cortis

Michelle Cortis

In recent years, there has been a shift in the relationship between research and commercial industries. Commercial viability almost always comes into question for ongoing research. Commercialisation can be a boon. When a research project has demonstrated its potential to become a viable business, funding opportunities increase, meaning the research can be turned into a product or service that people can use.

In 2018, as part of a Masters in Knowledge-Based Entrepreneurship, I analysed the commercial potential of an ongoing University of Malta project. I conducted an in-depth market feasibility study on Prof. Ing Joseph Cilia’s Smart Micro Combined Heat and Power System, a device that can be fitted into homes and offices to deliver heat as a by-product of electricity, reducing energy costs. Many EU countries are setting up incentives to make these systems more feasible and attractive to consumers. 

For my dissertation, I developed a business plan for the research team. An engineer myself, and having earned a Masters by Research back in 2014, this was different to anything I had done before. My supervisors, Prof. Russell Smith and Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut, helped me find the right balance between utilising my technical knowledge whilst also analysing the product’s commercial potential. Even my language changed through the process; I began to speak of ‘euros per day’ rather than ‘kilowatt hours’. I learnt to differentiate between technological features and what real benefits future users would gain.

Being presented with a physical product, initially one may assume that it is to be sold to customers, or protected through a patent and licensed to the private sector. However, my market analysis revealed new target audiences that had not been thought of before. Selling the device was not the only way to exploit the project’s commercial potential. What if we leased the product instead of selling it? Should we continue developing the product or is it already innovative enough? What if we developed a spin-out—would it be too expensive or is it worth the investment?  

By analysing a project through a commercial lens, all these questions arise, pointing out potential ways to make a good project great. But what makes a good business plan great is when all these questions are answered. 

The Project ‘A Smart Micro Combined Heat and Power System’ is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology through the FUSION: R&I Technology and Development Programme. 

Are you carrying out research at the University of Malta which you think may have commercial potential? If so, contact the Knowledge Transfer Office on