Discovering Excellence: Research at Keele

Research Impact

Answering societies big questions...

For more than 60 years, Keele research has created a major impact in the local region and worldwide.  Our researchers are tackling the most pressing challenges facing society today, including ageing, global health and renewable energy.


Research on Ageing at Keele

Life+ logo Research on ageing represents a key strength of the Research Institute for Life Course Studies. Building on pioneering work in the 1970s, Keele has established an international reputation for the high quality and impact of its research on social and health aspects of ageing.

Based in iLCS, the Keele Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing (KIRCA) focuses on three key areas:

  • Social aspects of ageing: this work is conducted within the Centre for Social Gerontology, with a focus on issues such as family and kinship, women and ageing, social inclusion and exclusion, inter-generational relationships, and the social policy of later life.
  • Health-related research on ageing: this involves work in geriatric medicine, with particular strengths in the clinical pharmacology of old age, the hospital/community interface, dementia, stroke, and psychosocial aspects of healthy ageing;
  • Evaluation of health and social care policies for older people: this strand of work addresses the strengths and weaknesses of public policy measures relating to – and their impact on – older people.

Drawing on a commitment to interdisciplinarity, much of Keele’s research on ageing explores overlaps between these three areas. Collaboration with researchers based in other Research Institutes at the University is a further feature of our work.

Resent research includes:

  • Work in the Centre for Social Gerontology around forms of disadvantage in later life. Research supported by such organisations as the Economic and Social Research Council, Help the Aged, the Commission for Rural Communities, and the Social Exclusion Unit has had a major impact on the development of social policies for older people.
  • The Centre is also involved in a variety of studies linked to ageing in particular types of environment. Recently, the Anchor Housing Trust has commissioned the first phase of what might become a 20-year research programme exploring the development of a purpose-built retirement community.
  • With support from the Department of Health, Keele currently hosts the West Midlands Stroke Research Network. The network aims to facilitate large multicentre stroke trials in hospitals and in the community across the West Midlands, bringing both short-term and long-term benefits to stroke patients and their carers.
  • Keele is also involved in the national evaluation of the Partnership for Older People Project (POPP). This initiative aims to support independence, dignity and self-reliance for people aged 50 and over, with a focus on the development of community services.

Swearing relieves pain but don't over do it

Swearing can relieve pain – but only for people who swear infrequently. This is the finding of a study by Dr Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland of Keele University  to be presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Glasgow (4-6 May).

Previous research conducted by Dr Stephens and Claudia Umland from Keele University found that swearing can reduce the feeling of pain. This study examined whether people who swear more often in everyday life get as much pain relief from cursing as those who swear less frequently. 

Seventy-one participants aged 18 to 46 completed a questionnaire that assessed swearing frequency. Pain tolerance was assessed by how long participants could keep their hands in icy water.  Findings revealed that the more often people swear in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in the icy water when swearing, compared with when not swearing.

Dr Stephens said: "The important message from this latest study is interesting because, while saying that swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, there is evidence that if you swear too often in everyday situations the power of swearing won't be there when you really might need it. “

“While I wouldn't advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalised pain management strategy, our research suggests that we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain. Indeed, I occasionally receive letters from members of the public recounting episodes in which they, as adults, have been chastised for swearing during a painful episode. They feel that my research findings vindicate their actions.”

Dr Richard Stephens appeared in episode 3 of Fry's Planet Word series first shown on BBC2 on Sunday 9th October. Richard put Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed through some of the Keele psychology swearing and pain experiments - creating a heady mix of ice water and profanity!

Research that influenced policy and services for socially excluded older people

A team based at Keele University (led by Professor Tom Scharf) explored the experiences of older people living in some of England’s most disadvantaged urban communities to discover how far they were prone to, and the impact of, social exclusion on their quality of life and health. The study found that many people’s quality of life was reduced by their susceptibility to multiple forms of exclusion (poverty, social isolation, loneliness and the experience of crime). However, the research group also found that older people retained a strong commitment to neighbourhoods in which they had lived for most of their lives. The unique nature of the data, in particular the powerful accounts of older people’s daily experiences, has helped to shape opinion-leaders’ perceptions of the ageing of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged citizens; as well as informing the Economic & Social Research Council’s (ESRC) research agenda; and providing key data/policy recommendations for local and national government.

For further information on Social Policy research at Keele University, see


Tackling Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain

hand The proportion of older people in our society is set to increase over the next twenty years and beyond, and the number of people disabled in their daily lives or dependent on health and social care will rise. The main health problem experienced by this group will be chronic painful conditions of the muscles, bones, and joints, such as back pain and osteoarthritis. Musculoskeletal problems cause more disability than heart disease or cancer.

Hospital treatments, however good, will not reverse this trend. They have been identified as the main reason for the predicted rise in the number of older people who will become dependent on health and social care in the next 25 years

These painful musculoskeletal conditions are the commonest cause of disability and work loss in Britain. Most sufferers look after themselves or are cared for by health professionals outside the hospital system in primary care. They form the largest group of long-term consulters in primary care.

Keele's Primary Care Musculoskeletal Research Centre researches the causes, consequences and treatments of common musculoskeletal problems seen daily in primary care. The aim of this research is to find out what happens over time to people who suffer from these problems, and how best to prevent and treat their pain and restricted activity.   The Medical Research Council, Arthritis Research Campaign and Department of Health have all acknowledged the importance of the work in delaying the outset of disability and developing new strategies for the management of these conditions in primary care through awarding grants of over £8.6 million in the past five years.

The Centre represents a unique collaboration between different clinical and academic disciplines, such as general practitioners, physiotherapists, rheumatologists, statisticians, epidemiologists, psychologists, social scientists and informatics experts.  Its research programme is a joint venture between the University and a group of local Primary Care Trusts which form the North Staffordshire Primary Care NHS Research Consortium. The Consortium secures a whole range of health service support to underpin their clinical research and also enables them to involve patients in identifying the most important research questions to address.


Tissue Engineering – A ‘growth’ area for the future

Alicia Al-Haj Think of ‘engineering’ in the twentieth century and the image in mind is likely to be of heavy machines, concrete structures, or perhaps high technology electronic products. But the growth of engineering in the twenty-first century is likely to be in applying technical solutions to the cells and tissues of the human body. Keele’s leading research in tissue engineering has continued to expand in several exciting directions.

The Research Institute for Science & Technology, under the directorship of Professor Alicia El-Haj, has received European funding to become a European Centre of Excellence in Tissue Engineering, and is promoting the field internationally to bring advanced engineering approaches into many areas of clinical practice.

Keele is uniquely placed to develop several parallel aspects of tissue engineering. Within the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences can be found research on the cellular phenomena of human tissues, particularly bone and cartilage, leading to the growth of those tissues for clinical treatments and surgical repair with a strong underpinning from the engineering field. A new and exciting theme, potentially leading to a large number of clinical applications, is the investigation into the use of bioartificial organs and tissues for replacement surgery. The tissues are grown in ‘bioreactors’ that permit the shape and structure of new skin, bone and cartilage to be controlled in the laboratory. Alternatively, the patient’s own body can be the ‘bioreactor’. New bone can be ‘grown’ within the human body in a few weeks, on an existing bone or within a muscle. It can then be transplanted to where it is needed, thus overcoming many of the problems associated with re-implanting cells grown in the laboratory. The new research building located on the hospital site at Hartshill includes new GMP facilities for growing human cells from patients to develop new cell therapies in tissue engineering in preliminary clinical trials.

Other novel areas introduced over the last few years include research into spinal cord, intervertebral disc, biomagnetic gene and cell targeting, and cell encapsulation strategies for applications such as the pancreas. Biomagnetic strategies are being applied to control cells and tissue development through the design of novel bioreactors using magnetic fields applied to ferrofluids and cells that have been tagged with magnetic nanoparticles and delivered in vivo. Research is also under way into the environment into which tissue engineered constructs may be implanted, for example the histopathology and biochemistry of muscle and joints involves identifying and understanding key biochemical markers for musculoskeletal turnover and inflammatory disease such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis.

Virtual Patient to improve treatment for allergy sufferers

virtual patient Keele University has created a new programme to be used with its innovative Virtual Patient system, to help pharmacists train in dispensing medication and providing advice on the treatment of hay fever and allergies.

With the summer fast approaching and pollen counts set to rise, the number of people seeking help for allergies will be on the increase. The unique Virtual Patient system, which is used by students on the university’s pharmacy degree courses and can also be used by pharmacists in the community and clinical settings, allows people to interact with computer generated patients to develop their communication and prescribing skills.

The new programme has been developed to explore the treatment of patients with allergic rhinitis and the system can also be used to practice treating other conditions including dyspepsia and hypertension.

Learners talk to the Virtual Patient, which appears in a 3D computer generated environment – either a doctor’s or hospital surgery, or a pharmacy - through voice recognition technology or by typing questions into a standard computer interface. The patient responds verbally or with a range of non verbal gestures to indicate emotions such as pain, stress or anxiety. At the end of the session the patient gives feedback to the trainees on their performance.

Trainees can also explore the virtual environment in which the patient is based, looking around the 3D hospital room or pharmacy, where the system allows them to find clues and information that will assist them in diagnosing and helping the patient. In a pharmacy setting for example, the new allergic rhinitis programme allows the trainee to go behind the pharmacy counter to find information about side effects for allergy treatments that may help in their consultation with the virtual character. 

Professor Stephen Chapman, head of Keele University’s School of Pharmacy, said: ’The Virtual Patient is a unique system that allows students and pharmacists to develop and hone their communication and prescribing skills in a way that allows them to get real time feedback from a patient and learn from their mistakes. Our latest addition on allergic rhinitis will prove extremely useful to community pharmacists facing an influx of people suffering from allergies over the summer months.’

The feedback that the Virtual Patient provides can be aligned with formal learning objectives or national healthcare standards, to train learners for a range of real-world clinical scenarios and the Virtual Patient programme can be used on any standard computer to provide a patient on demand, so learners can use the system in a way that suits them.

The team at Keele University that developed the virtual patient are currently working on a £50,000 project to develop four Virtual Patients for Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The university will use the characters on their new undergraduate pharmacy programme.

The team has also developed a virtual doctor to help in training pharmaceutical sales representatives. This system can be used in a classroom setting or for distance learning via the internet.

Malaria, Mosquitoes and Man – Breaking a Deadly Cycle

Malaria, Mosquitoes and Man – Breaking a Deadly Cycle

mosquito Malaria kills a child every thirty seconds in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to recent estimates.

It is a huge problem currently threatening over 40% of the world’s population and still on the increase. The infection causes more than 300 million acute illnesses and at least a million deaths annually, and is recognised as a major factor impeding the development of some of the poorest nations.

Past strategies to kill off mosquitoes with insecticides failed as they developed resistance; just as malaria itself has developed resistance to some of the drugs used to control the disease.

Researchers at the Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine at Keele University are focusing their efforts on trying to break the transmission cycle through which the disease is passed on, by studying the complex relationship between the parasite and the mosquito itself.

Paul Eggleston, Professor of Molecular Entomology, School of Life Sciences, Keele University, said: “We have growing problems with insecticide resistance – we now have mosquitoes which are resistant to every class of insecticidal compound that we can throw at them, the parasites themselves are becoming resistant to all of the drugs we can use to try and tackle the disease. So we’re starting to think about this complex set of interactions that take place between the mosquito and the parasite and whether there are ways within that set of interactions that we can tackle the transmission cycle itself.”

At Keele they think one method by which this is done is a means known as "programmed cell death", so they are investigating how this is triggered, and whether that action could be enhanced.

Professor Hilary Hurd: “If we can understand more about the biology and particularly the molecules involved that are critical to maintaining the cycle then we can try to interfere with those molecules perhaps by manipulating the mosquito genetically so that a key molecule is produced in more abundance or is not produced at all and upset this delicate balance between infection and survival.”

The aim is to engineer a mosquito which is simply incapable of transmitting malaria. The ultimate vision is to replace natural populations of malaria carrying mosquitoes in disease endemic areas, with a “genetically modified mosquito” incapable of carrying the malaria parasite, and freeing large sections of the world’s population from the daily tragedy of young lives lost to this deadly disease.

Breath of Life: A new Diagnostic Technique

blowing down tube A revolutionary breath analysis machine is going on trial in a clinical environment for the first time. The invention of Professor David Smith and Professor Patrik Spanel from Keele University's Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine, in Staffordshire, is a revolutionary technique known as SIFT-MS, which works by measuring trace gases or metabolites present in the breath.

It is so sensitive that it is capable of detecting a single molecule amid several billion molecules of air, infinitely more sensitive than a standard breathalyser used for alcohol testing.

The technique has two major advantages over other ways of diagnosing illnesses: it is non-invasive, the patient simply breathes into a tube, making it particularly useful in paediatric medicine; and the results are available online and in real time, so the doctor can get a read out immediately.

Professor Smith said: "The development of the instrumentation and technology has had to take place through the analysis of the breath of volunteers. This is a critical thing you have to do anyway but with a new building we now will have the facility to bring in patients, sick patients, in labs which are properly prepared to receive patients and then to do on line real time analysis on the breath and hopefully diagnose particular disease states."

And Professor Patrik Spanel added: "Already we can detect maybe 10 different metabolites present in breath of people like ammonia, asotome, isoprene, or some metabolites that are a clear marker of some disease like hydrogen cyanide and even these can actually serve as valuable markers of various conditions when they are elevated outside the normal range."

Said Professor Smith: "The two main areas that our resident paediatricians in this area are interested in are asthma and cystic fibrosis in young people. So what we'll be doing now with a new facility here to bring the children in and to look at the breath metabolites online and in real time and to look for molecules that are indicative of these diseases. The idea being that if you can do that simply and non-invasively you can monitor therapy. You can give them the appropriate drug for therapy and watch whether or not the disease is diminishing. This is the essential point about doing these tests now with this instrumentation online, it's straightforward, it's non-invasive."

While clinical use is still in the early stages, breath analysis devices could be seen in every GP's surgery, as a standard means of diagnosis.

X-rays and Alzheimer’s: lighting the way forward for neurodegenerative disease research

Dementia and affects over 400,000 people in the UK, no single factor has been found to cause the condition but during the course of Alzheimer’s disease 'plaques' develop in the structure of the brain, leading to the death of brain cells. These plaques are deposits of proteins which accumulate in the spaces between cells and interfere with the cell’s ability to communicate. 

Work recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease  (JAD) investigates how these plaques form, and whether their formation is connected to metal dysmetabolism in the brain. “We’re looking at why the peptide beta-amyloid deposits in the brain,” says Dr Chris Exley of Keele University, lead investigator for this research. “When it does so, it forms these so-called plaques that can lead to or cause the death of brain cells. The concentration of beta-amyloid is lower than its solubility so it shouldn’t deposit… so why does it? We’re looking at whether metals have a role to play here.”

alzheimers The image to the left shows spherulites formed under near-physiological conditions in vitro. The “Maltese Cross” pattern can be clearly observed in the single spherulite images a,b and e-f. Images c and d show a group of spherulites within a matrix of amyloid beta. The scale bar is 50 microns across. The team used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence to examine these spherulite-rich regions of AD tissue and generated copper maps, overlaid with light microscopy images identifying the location of spherulites. The results showed an increased density of spherulites in regions where copper concentration is higher.

Over the years a lot of evidence has been collected showing subtle differences in trace metals in the brain between people who experience a normal ageing process and people who develop a neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Synchrotron X-rays provide sensitive techniques to collect additional information about where the metal ions are distributed in brain tissues and what form they’re in.

Chris and his team have been using Diamond’s Microfocus Spectroscopy beamline (I18) to study post-mortem tissue from the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD tissue). The highly focused intense beam of X-rays generated on I18 enabled the team to look at sections of tissue to identify their chemical composition on the micrometre scale.  “We were concentrating particularly on areas of brain tissue that are rich in micrometre scale spherical structures, called spherulites,” explains Chris. “Under a polarizing microscope these spherulites show a characteristic “Maltese Cross” pattern of light extinction. Nearly identical structures were observed in sections of Alzheimer’s disease brain tissue. This raises the intriguing possibility that spherulites are the in vivo form of what have been called senile plaques in post-mortem tissue.”

“We are very intrigued by these results,” says Chris. “They suggest that the organisation of spherulites into such highly ordered structures probably involves metals, most likely copper or aluminium. The next step is to figure out exactly what role these metals play. For example, does the metal act as a nucleation site? Or does the metal bind to the fibrils and reorganise them? If we can understand how plaques form, we can start to look at how the process might be prevented”

Environment and Sustainability

Wind Energy Solution Helps UK meet KYOTO targets

wind turbine Keele's Applied and Environmental Geophysics Group (AEG) have helped resolve the impasse which has prevented 40% of UK renewable energy being developed.

In order to meet, and in fact exceed, Kyoto targets, the UK government has set a challenging target of reducing the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050. The development of renewable energy, especially wind power, will be an important contributor to the success of that policy.

Some 40% (in excess of 1 Gigawatt), of this wind generation capacity, was planned for the southern uplands of Scotland. However, the United Kingdom seismic monitoring site, which constitutes our component of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty compliance for nuclear testing, is situated at Eskdalemuir near Langholm in the Scottish Borders. The Ministry of Defence therefore placed a precautionary blanket objection to any wind farm developments within 80 km of Eskdalemuir in case this compromised our capacity to detect distant nuclear test and breached our agreement under the CTBT. This effectively removed at least 40% of the UK renewable wind resource identified by the DTI.

Because of our previous, unique experience in monitoring seismic vibrations from wind turbines in the UK, the Applied and Environmental Geophysics Group of the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences, led by Professor Peter Styles, were asked by the MOD, the DTI and the British Wind Energy Association to investigate whether there was a solution to this impasse. By carrying out a detailed programme of seismic and infrasound measurements in the vicinity of several wind farms in Scotland we were able to identify the characteristic frequencies and mode of propagation of seismic vibrations from wind turbines and develop a model for the integrated seismic vibration at the Eskdalemuir site which will be created by any distribution of wind farms.  By setting a noise budget which is permissible at Eskdalemuir without compromising its detection capabilities, we have demonstrated that at least 1.6 GWatts of planned capacity can be installed and have developed software tools which allow the MOD and planners to assess what further capacity can be developed.

The MOD have now lifted the 80 km exclusion and any further wind farm proposals will be assessed against criteria established by this study.

Running Fuel Cells on vegetable and animal waste

Fuel cell Fuel cells are attracting tremendous interest because of their huge potential in terms of future sustainability of our energy use. They offer very significant environmental advantages, combining significantly higher efficiency with negligible emissions of highly polluting sulphur- and nitrogen oxide and residual hydrocarbons, and very significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, compared to conventional power generation. Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) offer potential advantages in terms of efficiency, flexibility and cost over other types of fuel cells because of their tolerance to carbon monoxide, their increased resistance to poisons and impurities in the fuel and because their high operating temperatures allow the possibility of running the fuel cell directly on natural gas and other practical hydrocarbon fuels, catalytically processing the fuel directly within the fuel cell, which both increases efficiency and reduces complexity.

Professor Mark Ormerod and his research group at Keele have been working on solid oxide fuel cells for over ten years, with a particular focus on research leading to the development of SOFCs that can run directly on practical hydrocarbon fuels. In recent years, much of the group’s research has focussed on the possibility of using biogas, whether produced from domestic and industrial waste, animal waste or vegetable matter, as a possible renewable fuel source for SOFCs. The Keele group has demonstrated that it is possible to run a solid oxide fuel cell both indirectly and directly on different forms of biogas, over a wide compositional range, converting the methane present into electrical power and useful energy, even when the biomass and biogas is depleted in methane.

Thus at methane contents at which conventional heat engines would have long since stopped working, the fuel cell is able not only to function but to produce energy from poor-quality biogas, which is presently disposed of by simply venting wastefully and detrimentally to the atmosphere. Thus solid oxide fuel cells potentially offer a way of generating useful renewable energy from waste matter with very significant environmental benefit in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Professor Ormerod’s group’s current research is directed towards utilisation of different forms of biogas, including chicken and pig slurry, farm waste and landfill gas, and studying the effect of variable composition of the biogas and the tolerance to high levels of sulphur, ammonia and other impurities present in some forms of biogas.

Incorporating sustainability

sustainability logo Building sustainably involves new types of requirement and new stakeholder groups in the building process.
This causes numerous problems as sustainability takes on an increasing importance worldwide. For example, an apparently straightforward design change to reduce heat loss can have unexpected knock-on effects affecting ventilation. A more subtle example is deciding where each profession’s responsibility ends: what should be decided by the sustainability expert, and what by the structural engineer?

Clarifying and systematising requirements is difficult, and is a familiar problem in software development. In safety-critical software systems such as aircraft flight systems, failure of the system could kill people. Despite this, requirements were typically incomplete and/or incorrect. Research found that a key issue was human cognition: stakeholders forget to mention requirements, or have difficulty articulating requirements, for predictable reasons rather than because of random error.

The research of Dr Gordon Rugg, Institute for the Environment, Physical Sciences and Applied Mathematics, has involved developing better ways of eliciting and checking requirements. He is about to apply these methods to sustainable building. One focus is the earliest design stage, using techniques such as laddering to clarify systematically what stakeholders want and why they want it.  Another is ensuring that sustainability is systematically incorporated into requirements.  A third is cultural issues: incorporating knowledge from other cultures with different insights into sustainability, identifying the role of sustainability in our own culture, and facilitating understanding between the very different professional cultures involved in sustainable building

Corrosion Probe

The maintenance of large concrete structures, such as tower blocks and motorway bridges, requires effective survey techniques. One of the main causes of structural failure is corrosion of the steel reinforcing bars embedded within the concrete. Current survey techniques for detecting corrosion are either invasive or indirect, providing only a measure of the likelihood that corrosion may be occurring; all are relatively slow. Areas determined to be at risk are stripped of concrete and repaired by way of precaution even though some are ultimately found to be sound. Unnecessary surveying and repair causes additional disruption, pollution and cost.

concrete tester The Detectors and Testing Group have worked with representatives of the concrete repair sector to develop a novel hybrid electromagnetic technique that allows the direct, definitive detection of corrosion on reinforcing bars embedded within concrete, or other non-ferrous materials, using a non-destructive and rapid method. In addition, this can be used in situations where other methods are not viable. The work has been supported by the EPSRC, industry and government departments both in the UK and elsewhere in the EU, with financial backing totalling in excess of £500,000. The Corrosion Probe detects the presence of rust; future modifications will allow more detailed analysis of the nature of the corrosion.

A company, SciSite Limited, has now been spun out from the university, with financial support from AWM, and uses the new Corrosion Probe to provide a survey and consultancy service to the concrete repair sector.  The petrochemical and heritage building sectors are also showing keen interest.


SuperWASP – Finding extrasolar planets

The search for planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System (extrasolar planets) is one of the most competitive and exciting fields in modern astronomy. Only about 200 extrasolar planets are currently known, and many questions about their formation and evolution remain unanswered.


Astrophysicists at Keele are playing a key role in a world-class project to find extrasolar planets by monitoring hundreds of thousands of stars every night. The Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) is a consortium of UK universities and observatories that has built and operates the SuperWASP instruments in the Spanish Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma and at the Sutherland station of the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Funding for the Sutherland Station came from a successful SRIF bid by Keele, who built and operate the instrument.  The extremely wide field of view of SuperWASP, 2000 times greater than a conventional astronomical telescope, combined with its ability to measure brightness very precisely, allows it to view large areas of the sky and accurately monitor hundreds of thousands of stars every night.  When sufficient observations have been made, searches for changes in brightness are made by sophisticated custom-built software.

Stars which show the characteristic 1% dip in brightness lasting a few hours every few days are followed-up using observations on larger telescopes to confirm the presence of a planet. Observations in collaboration with astronomers in France and Switzerland were used to confirm the first two planets discovered by SuperWASP in September 2006. This result was widely reported in the national and international media.

Keele’s astrophysicists are also part of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) consortium. This groundbreaking project enables astronomers from an international consortium of institutions, to study more closely the lives and deaths of stars, and the origins of the universe. The gigantic telescope, with its 11-metre-wide mirror, is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

Keele astrophysicists also make use of telescopes in space, including the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory.

A Substellar Jonah - the brown dwarf that was swallowed by a red giant and survived

Dr Pierre Maxted, iEPSAM, Astrophysics, and colleagues from the Universities of Hertfordshire and Leicester, have discovered an unusual white dwarf star – the binary star WD0137-349, which may have a dull name but has an exciting past.

brown dwarf

The star was already known to be a white dwarf – a dense object about the size of the Earth but 100,000 times heavier. They are formed when a star like the Sun dies. This white dwarf was observed as part of a programme to find close binary white dwarfs, i.e. those with a companion star that orbits them every few hours.  WD0137-349 showed signs of having an exceptionally low mass companion, so Dr Maxted applied for and was awarded two hours of Director’s Discretionary Time on the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

This conclusively showed that the companion is a brown dwarf – a ‘failed-star’ 20 times less massive than the Sun. These objects are extremely rare, fewer than 1/200 white dwarfs have a brown dwarf companion of any sort and this is the first example of one in a close binary. The properties of WD0137-349 show that it formed when the brown dwarf ploughed into the outer layers of a red giant star about 70 times larger than the Sun. The shock waves generated threw off the outer layers of the red giant to reveal the white dwarf in the core.

Keele Astrophysicist in discovery of Red Giant and two Red Dwarfs

Red Giant Keele astrophysicist, John Taylor, is a member of an international group of European, Australian and American researchers who have reported on the discovery of a unique system of stars in a paper published in the Science magazine.

The object, officially labelled HD 18106 but dubbed Trinity by the research team, is one of the brightest stars observed by the NASA Kepler planet-hunting space telescope. Whilst seemingly single, it is a complex triple system in which three stars reside in a very special geometry, showing mutual eclipses as each of the stars passes behind or in front of the others. The most luminous object is a giant star, around which a close pair of two red dwarfs orbit with a period of 45.5 days.

John was responsible for analysis of the data from the Kepler satellite, which was difficult due to the huge differences between the three stars. Whilst the giant star is over three times the mass and twelve time the size of the Sun, the two red dwarfs are both smaller and cooler than our Sun and so are hard to detect.

"This is one of the most challenging objects which I have ever worked on," said John, "and if it were not for the Kepler satellite we would never even have found the two red dwarf stars in the first place."