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My Cardiff

Professor Mike Rowe OBE

Professor Mike Rowe spent 43 years working at Cardiff University and is now an Honorary Professor at the School of Engineering.

Professor Mike Rowe OBE

Professor Mike Rowe OBE

I arrived at Cardiff in 1965 from Bristol University with a background in nuclear physics, having spent previous years searching cosmic rays for sub-atomic particles. I took up my very first employment in the Welsh College of Advanced Technology as an Atomic Energy Research Fellow and joined a research group led by the late Professor John E. Parrott.

The project was exciting – researching materials for use in thermoelectric generators which convert heat from decaying isotopes into electrical power. The devices were intended for application in long-life cardiac pacemaker batteries. My job was to make the materials more efficient in converting heat into electricity. I achieved this through the use of sub-micron size powder to control the electrical and thermal properties of the material – a procedure today called nanotechnology. The project was successful and in 1968 I obtained a PhD in physics - the first to be awarded by what had now become the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology.

During this period Professor Jack Bristow was Head of Department, an acknowledged expert in microscopy . He was a formidable man whose word was law and who called staff by their surname. On one occasion when I was focusing an optical microscope to view a thin section mounted on a slide, a voice called out “Rowe- let me show you how to obtain focus.” Moving me aside he pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead and proceeded to rack down the microscope objective lens right through the glass slide and sample - both shattered into pieces on the floor. “There”, he said “now it is in focus” and marched away puffing at his unlit pipe.

By chance the improved materials I had developed during my PhD work were of considerable interest to NASA for use in thermoelectric generators, which provided on-board power to their deep space missions such as the Voyagers. Several visits to the United States were made during the following years. On one such visit I was invited to move to the US. There were many attractive aspects in moving to California, but none matched the Cardiff camaraderie - so I declined.

I continued to publish the results of my research.and subsequently the fine-grain size thermoelectric material technology developed at Cardiff was further refined at a research facility outside New York and integrated into NASA’s thermoelectric generator programme. In 1986 I received a Doctor of Science from the University of Wales in recognition of my work in developing improved semiconductor thermoelectric materials.

Following the unprecedented increase in the price of oil during the early 1980s and an awareness of problems associated with global warming my attention turned to using thermoelectrics in recovering waste heat. The high point of my career from a research perspective was an award in 1993 of £1.8M (at the time the largest single award to Cardiff University researcher) from the Japanese Government to develop a thermoelectric generator able to produce electrical power from warm water. The prototype generator was first demonstrated on GMTV powering a television using waste bath water with me explaining the technology whilst sitting in the bath! The generator was later shipped to Japan and displayed to the United Nations at the Kyoto summit as an example of Japans contribution to combating global warming. This pioneering research at Cardiff was the forerunner of current world-wide efforts to employ thermoelectric technology in the recovery waste heat.

In the 2007 Queen’s New Year Honours I received an OBE for services to technology and on the first January 2008 retired from the School of Engineering as an Honorary Professor. It is an unsalaried role with which I am very happy as it enables me to enjoy the University’s academic facilities such as the libraries and to continue my current research into waste heat recovery from vehicle engines. I continue to support thermoelectrics within the School of Engineering and actively promote Cardiff’s World class expertise in this green technology to a wider audience through invited lectures at International Conferences and Symposia.

Finally – it may be a cliché, but if I had my time again I would not change anything during my 43 memorable and happy years in Cardiff. It’s a great University.

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