Careers Physics World  February 2017

Once a physicist: Owen Byrne

Owen Byrne is the founder of Donard Bikes, which produces hand-made carbon-fibre bicycles

How did you get interested in physics?

Originally, I wanted to do engineering or architecture or something like that. I wasn’t particularly good at physics. But I kept persevering with it because, since I wanted to do engineering, I kind of needed it – the only way I was going to get onto a university degree course was by having physics and maths. Then in the last couple of years of school I had a particularly good teacher who actually got me interested in physics. I became more interested in the theoretical stuff and understanding how things worked at a deeper level, not just how to build things. I did my undergraduate degree in physics at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, and then I did a PhD on high-temperature superconductors. I studied the way electrical current flows in the material and how it distributes around defects, using optical microscopy and magneto-optics.

Did you ever consider an academic career?

Not really. After I finished my PhD, it felt like it was about time to go and get a proper job! My PhD used a lot of microscopy, so I ended up getting a job in a company that made confocal microscopes. I worked in software testing there and later I co-founded a software testing company focusing on the digital TV market. We ran for about 10 years before I decided to move back to Northern Ireland and start making bikes.

How did you get interested in cycling?

I’ve always had an interest in cycling and bikes. I did a lot of cycle racing when I was at university and I also worked in a few bike shops, so it’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. Before I started Donard Bikes, I went on a couple of courses to learn how to build bikes, and after a while I decided to set up my own company.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work?

It’s been extremely useful in terms of understanding the carbon fibre I use to build the bikes – how it works, its properties, the properties of the resin – and in understanding the forces at play on a bike when it’s being used. Actually, in some ways it’s my physics background that makes my work possible because if I didn’t have that background, it would have been extremely difficult. There are two ways to make carbon-fibre bikes. One is the mass-manufacturing way, which is to put the carbon in a very complex mould, in maybe two or three pieces, and then glue the pieces together to make the bike frame. But small-scale builders like me do what is called tube-to-tube building. In some ways this is similar to how steel bikes used to be made: you’ve got a set of individual tubes (in this case made of carbon fibre) that are bonded using aerospace adhesives, and then the joints are reinforced with additional carbon fibre. This method allows me to customize the geometry of the frame and properties such as the stiffness and strength of the tubes so I can change the performance of the bike to suit a particular rider or application. A lot of physics and maths goes into the work of art!

What have you been working on recently?

The big project last year was that I built a bike for a local event called Lap the Lough. It’s a leisure bike event that circumnavigates Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles, and the organizers and some other people involved came up with this idea of building a special bike for the event. Since then, I’ve been working on improvements to the techniques and processes I use for carbon building, and building some steel bikes. I’ve recently managed to get my steel frames to pass the international safety tests for bike frames. I’ve been working on Donard Bikes for about a year and a half, so it’s still quite early in the company.

Any advice for today’s students?

Keep an open mind when it comes to your career. My experience has been that, having studied physics, the way you think about designing experiments is a really useful skill in the workplace. It helps you to analyse what’s really going on when you have a difficult problem to solve, or when you need to work out how to monitor or improve some aspect of a product or on a process. These skills can be applied to so many different areas, from technical work to management, so you don’t have to pick a particular career path – there’s a huge number of possibilities.