Harwell cryogenic scientist John Vandore explains why Oxford is the icy heart of his universe.

IT is something of a surprise to think that the International Cryogenic Conference which took place at the Examination Schools in Oxford from September 3-7 has never happened here before.

Cryogenics (science involving very low temperatures) is a classic enabling technology behind the scenes in almost 20 per cent of the UK economy – food, healthcare, energy, science and space – and is a domain of particular strength here in Oxfordshire.

In the 1930s, a group of low-temperature scientists at Berlin University was enticed to Oxford by the head of the Clarendon Laboratory (an associate of Winston Churchill who became Lord Cherwell).

The group carried on doing brilliant low temperature science at the Clarendon for many years, out of which came the university’s first spin-out company in 1959 – Oxford Instruments, started by [now Sir] Martin Wood, and now based at Tubney Woods.

They were joined by another Martin (Wilson) who came from Rutherford Laboratory on the Harwell Campus, where he had literally written the book on how to design a superconducting magnet: Martin was effectively technology transfer on two legs, and he came to Oxford Instruments to help commercialise superconducting magnets, which operate at very low temperature, using liquid helium at only four degrees above absolute zero (nearly 300 degrees below the temperature of the air we breathe in summer).

MRI scanners were developed using superconducting magnets, and the Siemens factory in Eynsham continues to produce more superconducting magnets for MRI scanners today than anywhere else in the world.

Over the past 50 years, the university, Harwell Campus and Oxford Instruments have been like fountains of people, products, technology and companies, most of which have 'landed' nearby in Oxfordshire – giving rise to an exceptional concentration of cryogenic expertise – but some of which have reached the other side of the Earth.

Indeed, if you visit any low temperature lab on the planet, you have a strong chance of finding either a product made here, or someone who worked, studied or trained here.

The International Cryogenic Engineering Conference was established with the help of Kurt Mendelssohn (one of the émigré who came to the Clarendon in the 30s).

The first ICEC was held in Tokyo in 1967, and came to Brighton the following year.

After that, it was held every two years, alternating between Europe and Asia, and returning to England every ten years until 1998 – but never to Oxford.

The ICEC Conference is now held jointly with the ICMC [“M” for Materials] – and the 'Mendelssohn Prize' is awarded at each conference to outstanding contributors in the field, Sir Martin Wood being a previous winner.

Following a bidding process not unlike the Olympics, this year’s conference was secured for Oxford in a process going back around five years, with competition from Sweden.

The week began in the Examination Schools (the main conference venue) with short training courses, the Annual General Meeting of the Cryogenics Society of Europe, and a Welcome Reception in the Town Hall.

The Sheldonian Theatre was the venue for the opening ceremony, and addressed by Professors Shipsey (head of physics at the university), Geddes (director of technology at the STFC Research Council) and Ed Vaizey, MP for Wantage and Didcot, with presentation of the main ICEC and ICMC Awards, including the Mendelssohn Prize (this year to Professor Fons de Waele from the Netherlands).

In total 493 delegates registered for the conference, with more than 350 papers – the most being submitted from China, followed by India then UK.

The UK topped the league for delegates, followed by China.

About 30 exhibitors took part, some local including AS Scientific from Abingdon, ICEoxford from Witney as well as Oxford Instruments – and the exhibitors gave a reception in the Examination Schools on one of the evenings.

The remainder of the conference took place in the Examination Schools, with a farewell dinner in the town hall.

Friday was devoted to technical visits – one to the university, one to local industry (Oxford Instruments and Polar Technology in Eynsham) and one to Science Vale, calling at Culham and Harwell.

Delegates generally loved visiting Oxford, and the historic buildings used for the event.

To ameliorate the high costs of travelling around the world to get to the event, some student college rooms were reserved for accommodation; those who booked a room in New College were surprised to find it had been 'new' in 1397 – and delighted in having breakfast in a dining hall they associated with Hogwarts in Harry Potter! (Indeed, many wanted to return for another stay with their families).

This was a once-in-a-generation – if not lifetime – event to have on our doorstep, and earned congratulations from many delegates.

Indeed, Oxford deserves congratulations for providing such an attractive and welcoming venue – even the weather behaved perfectly!

To find out more about John Vandore's work at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory go to cryox.co.uk or stfc.ukri.org/about-us/where-we-work/rutherford-appleton-laboratory