From blast-off to bees

By supplying gases to leading research facilities and universities, BOC is enabling critical work that advances our understanding of the world – all while investing in a growing sector.

BOC’s gases: potentially helping to answer life’s big questions (Pexels)

When sending millions of euros worth of cutting-edge technology into space, you really don’t want to be taking any chances. So, when testing the components of spacecraft, satellites or any sensitive flight hardware, scientists and engineers must recreate the rigours of space here on earth. They do this in places like the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), the UK's leading space technology facility and part of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in Oxfordshire. And Linde helps them do so. 

RAL Space is just one of the many leading research facilities, universities and labs throughout the UK to which BOC (Linde’s UK operation) supplies scientific gases. The University and Research sector is a growing source of revenue for the company: “When I started this job 18 years ago, this was a six-million-pound business,” says Colin Middleton, Key Customer Manager, UK Universities & Research at BOC. “But we looked at it closely and saw great potential in an exciting sector,” he adds. It’s now worth just shy of 21 million pounds. 

By being a reliable supplier of high-quality gases, Linde/BOC plays a small but vital role in enabling research and the advancement of science in many different projects across many different disciplines – with far-reaching implications and benefits. Here are just a few.

STFC RAL Space: Supporting science to infinity and beyond 

Now there’s plenty humankind is yet to find out about outer space – hence the ongoing missions – but there are some fundamental things we do already know. It’s close to a perfect vacuum; and it can be cold. Very cold. Creating “very cold” in a lab calls for cryogenic gases – liquid nitrogen to be precise. And that’s where BOC comes in. 

“Over the past few years our Nitrogen installations have been instrumental in the work carried out in the RAL Space testing facilities,” explains Debbie Lingard, Customer Development Specialist for the university and research sector, BOC. The liquid nitrogen is used to cryogenically cool thermal vacuum chambers and climatic chambers in which the durability of space-bound instruments or components is put to the test. It’s also used to provide a purge to critical instruments in the so-called clean rooms: keeping them free of any contamination – even a single speck of dust.

Such testing has played – and continues to play – a key role in some truly fascinating projects: the development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for one. The JWST is a massive international collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and will succeed the Hubble Space Telescope. Its purpose? To explore the formation of the first stars and galaxies by looking at light from the early Universe and hopefully help to understand the evolution of our solar system.

But RAL Space is not only interested in looking outwards from earth to space, but also inwards – from space to earth. Satellites are central to our communication, navigation, weather and climate monitoring – the list goes on. RAL Space was recently awarded 99 million pounds from the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to develop the National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF) – offering additional world-class satellite testing facilities under one roof. Here, researchers will assemble, integrate and test space payloads and satellites, ensuring the UK remains a world-leader in space technologies for decades to come.

The Quadram Institute: Understanding life back on earth!

Meanwhile back on earth, BOC is also sending its liquid nitrogen to the Quadram Institute: a brand new, state-of-the-art food and health research and endoscopy centre in Norwich, England. Developed as a partnership between the Old Institute of Food Research, the University of East Anglia and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, its mission is “to understand how food and the gut microbiota are linked to the promotion of health and the prevention of disease, with an emphasis on diet- and age-associated diseases."

One of the vacuum chambers being installed at RAL Space’s R100 facility. (STFC RAL Space)
The brand spanking new Quadram Institute: helping us live longer and healthier lives. (Quadram Institute)

And again, BOC’s gases are supporting that mission: “Our new nitrogen installation helps to run the analytical machines that analyse plasma and urine, and also helps to store the unique human tissue and cell lines,” explains Debbie Lingard. It may not be headline-grabbing involvement, but again; it’s all about the bigger picture. “This centre could genuinely help us extend our longevity, eradicate food allergies and give us a longer productive life span,” adds Lingard.

The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects: Breeding healthy honey bees

From human health to bee health: BOC’s liquid nitrogen is creating a buzz at the University of Sussex. “Today’s honeybees face a greater challenge from disease than ever before,” explains Professor Francis Ratnieks from the university’s Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI). “The biggest threat being Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), which can wipe out entire colonies,” he adds. An added challenge is the fact that DWV can be transmitted by Varroa mites – parasites which themselves live in honey bee colonies and feed on the blood of pupae. “Thankfully, honey bees have a natural defence against these diseases,” explains Ratnieks. Well, some of them do. 

Ratnieks is referring to so-called hygienic behaviour – a genetically determined trait whereby worker bees “sniff out” the infected larvae and dispose of it. His team discovered that those colonies which do “clean up” have 10,000 times less DWV than those that don’t. The trait, however, is highly variable: not all bees do it. Breeding from colonies that do however, will produce disease-resistant bees: the problem is telling which do and which don’t. BOC’s liquid nitrogen provides the solution. 

“Using liquid nitrogen, we freeze-kill a small circular section of sealed brood (the larvae and pupae) within the hive,” explains Ratnieks, “By taking photographs a few days apart, we can calculate the amount of dead brood that has been ‘cleaned’”. If that’s more than 95% then those bees are fully hygienic.  Simple? Yes. Effective? Yes. Significant? Yes. 

Honeybees’ role in agricultural pollination is worth an estimated 200 million pounds in the UK and a whopping $20 billion in the US each year (much of that coming from the pollination of almond crop, California’s most valuable farmed crop.) This research not only benefits the bees but the beekeepers – as well as anyone who enjoys their cereal with almond milk in the morning.

Back to business

As mentioned, it’s not all about the bottom line – nor the glamour of being associated with space exploration. For BOC it’s about delivering sustainable mutual benefits. “By supporting science, we help UK research grow into fledgling and hopefully large-scale UK business,” says Middleton, “and sustainable mutual benefits lead to sustainable shareholder value.”

Supplying scientific gases: a small step for Linde, a giant leap for the advancement of science.

BOC’S gases are helping to breed healthier honey bees: good news for everyone! (Pexels)