Nina F. Thornhill (b. 1953)
British innovator of tools and approaches for a more sustainable operation of large-scale production plants
Affiliation: University College London and Imperial College London
“You can find anything you want in data, but whether it is meaningful requires one to understand the processes behind the analysed systems.”
Nina Thornhill is a British physicist and control engineer. She is mainly known for her innovative approaches and tools for process monitoring and the detection and diagnosis of persistent faults in large-scale industrial systems, such as chemical plants. Her practical and effective methods have reduced the use of raw materials and energy, increasing the efficiency of the production facilities and making them significantly more sustainable.
A predecessor of big data and Industry 4.0
Long before the current era of big data and artificial intelligence, Nina Thornhill researched data analytics. In 1984, the same year as the 3.5 floppy disk was introduced, she was doing data-driven monitoring of fermentation processes.
Computers were introduced into the process industry in the eighties, and computer-based systems replaced analog instruments. As a result, problems and malfunctions in the plants were suddenly not so easily discovered, and there were issues with poorly tuned controllers and equipment problems. The situation sparked interest in the academic community, and Nina Thornhill was one of the researchers taking on the challenge of improving the situation in the production plants. Some of her early and most significant research involved the development of time-series analysis, control loop performance assessment, valve stiction analysis, and oscillation detection – all focused on optimization for industrial value.
Later on, she made significant advances in plant-wide data analysis and was one of the first researchers to combine the chemical, mechanical and electrical subsystems of a plant, resulting in increased automation and efficiency of industrial practices – the beginning of what is now known as Industry 4.0 or Smart Process Manufacturing.
Cooperation with industry key to success
Many of Nina Thornhill’s key scientific achievements came about as a result of secondments and sabbaticals at various industrial institutions. For example, during her 23 years at University College of London, Nina Thornhill spent two years with BP Oil and BP Chemicals and six months as an academic visitor at ABB Norway Corporate Research Centre. She also visited ABB Corporate Research Centre in Poland on several occasions.
The Royal Academy of Engineering and ABB recognized her excellence in combining academic research and industrial relevance and her interest in collaborative technology transfer projects. Subsequently, they funded her chair of Process Automation at Imperial College London in 2007. In 2010, she became a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2019, Nina Thornhill received the Nordic Process Control Award for her contributions to research and significant contributions as a coordinator of several European Marie Sklodowska-Curie projects, bringing together industrial and academic partners to train early-stage researchers in the field of process automation and control.
Background and life
Early interest in engineering
Already at an early age, Nina Thornhill was intrigued by technology. At age ten, her father, who was a big influence on her, took her to a nuclear power station he designed. The walk through one of the reactor halls excited her, and the memory remained throughout her childhood. Nina Thornhill decided to become a physicist.
In 1976, Nina Thornhill received her undergraduate degree in physics from Oxford University. She then joined Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Britain’s largest chemicals and pharmaceuticals manufacturer at the time. Her interest in engineering, automation, control, and data analysis commenced. She was one of the first employees to have an online computer attached to an ICI instrument, which inspired her to continue working in online data and analysis.
Struggled with maths
In 1983, she left ICI to study for a master’s degree in control systems at Imperial College London. She has described her second round of studying as quite different from her first. In particular, she had a completely different comprehension of mathematics. “As an undergraduate doing physics, I struggled quite badly with mathematics, especially if it was abstract. If it was applied to something, I could do it. If it was maths by itself, I could not do it. I had no mental model at all. Then, when I went back to Imperial College, somehow I was suddenly very good at maths. I didn’t do any maths for six years. And then suddenly I could do everything. It is extraordinary; it is intuitive in my brain without me knowing. So now I’m quite good at maths.” After her master’s degree, she went back to the industry to work as a control systems engineer for British Aerospace.
A few years later, Nina Thornhill returned to academia, becoming a lecturer at the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University College of London. She stayed at the department for 23 years, becoming a professor in 2003. In 2007, she received the ABB/Royal Academy of Engineering Chair of Process Automation at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London.
A supportive supervisor who enjoy work
Besides research, Nina Thornhill has always had a great interest in education. At Imperial College London, she set up the master’s program in process automation, instrumentation, and control, of which she was the director. She has also served as the director of undergraduate studies at the Department of Chemical Engineering and has devoted her time to several foundations endorsing scholarships to engineering and research students. She has put pride in performing administrative duties and making improvements to facilitate teaching for the academic staff and improve the education of the students.
Her colleagues define Nina Thornhill’s work approach as one of critical questioning, never forgetting the bigger picture, and always being problem-solving oriented. She herself said: “I never felt that I was struggling to do my job or had doubts if it was the right job for me. On the contrary, I always really enjoyed it. I think I have been extremely fortunate.” Furthermore, she has emphasized that she never felt discouraged or bullied for pursuing a career in engineering as a female. Instead, she felt encouraged, in particular by a senior manager at ABB in Norway. He reassured her to do things she was not entirely confident to try, something that Nina Thornhill has since attempted to transmit to her students, encouraging them always to aim as high as they can.