Nelson meets nanotech: How futuristic technology is conserving history

A team from the University of Southampton is using nanotechnology to support the conservation of HMS Victory in Portsmouth.

nC˛ , an engineering consultancy at the University of Southampton, is working with the National Museum of the Royal Navy to investigate the use of nanotechnology to preserve Vice Admiral Lord Nelson’s naval ship for decades to come, protecting it from fungus and the destructive deathwatch beetle.

Nanotechnology involves working with extremely small particles called nanoparticles, which are between 1 to 100 nanometres wide (about 1000 times smaller than a human hair). These nanoparticles have unique properties that can enhance the quality of materials, like wood.

The project’s goal is to infuse new oak wood timbers used within HMS Victory’s conservation with nanoparticles to prevent fungal growth - a common issue in historic wooden structures - and understand how the infused wood might interact with other materials used within the conservation.

You can hear Rachel talking about the project below.

Diana Davis, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, explained: "We’re undertaking a 10-year programme to replace the external and internal planking, to ensure that HMS Victory is weathertight. It’s crucial for us to take an evidence-based approach when selecting the best materials for this, and nC2’s research is pivotal in this regard."

Rachel Triggs , Senior Consultant at nC˛, said: "HMS Victory is the oldest commissioned warship in the world, so she is really special to us here on the south coast. The goal of the conservation project is to make sure that she can last at least another 50 years, and to achieve this we must prevent water damage and fungal decay."

Rainwater inside HMS Victory’s woodwork causes fungus that attracts the deathwatch beetle. With a lifespan of up to 13 years, the beetle burrows into the wood, laying eggs as it goes. The larvae then burrow further, creating a crisscrossing tunnel system that severely threatens the integrity of wood.

The nC˛ team has created bespoke tests to look in detail at the nanoparticle-treated wood, to see how the particles behave when in contact with other conservation materials such as glues, paints, sealants, and metal fasteners.

Rachel continued: "There aren’t technical standards out there for assessing how nanoparticles behave in a very old, wooden warship. So, we created bespoke tests to simulate the environment that HMS Victory is exposed to, to make sure that we are getting an accurate picture of how these particles behave alongside the other materials present.

"The results have been surprising, with some of the materials in contact with the nanoparticle-treated wood behaving in a way that we had not predicted.

"The research work performed by the National Museum of the Royal Navy has shown that nanoparticles have real potential for reducing fungal growth in wood. However, our work has shown that care needs to be taken in the use of nanoparticles where there are critical interactions with other materials.

"The museum will use the results to make informed decisions as to the best options for HMS Victory’s conservation."

Dr Fernando Alvarez-Borges , Mechanical Engineer at the University of Southampton’s µ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre, used his expertise in X-ray imaging to look at how metal fastenings reacted when applied to nanoparticle-treated wood.

He said: "I have visited Portsmouth many times and it’s been incredible to see our work being put into practice. You can walk around HMS Victory and see the maintenance work taking place, and it’s really rewarding knowing that our research is behind that."

You can find out more about the work nC˛ and µ-VIS are doing to support the HMS Victory Conservation project here.