Barbadian physicist Dr Arden Warner talking about his work devising technology for the environmentally friendly method of cleaning up oil spills. (Picture by Reco Moore.)
THERE WAS A TIME when Arden Warner could not picture himself as a budding physicist blazing a trail in the competitive arena of science in the United States.
Today, the 52-year-old US-based Barbadian, originally from Eagle Hall,
St Michael, is attracting attention to himself and his work as a physicist at America’s Fermi National Accelerator Lab, and to his private exploit developing a non-toxic way to clean up oil spills.
“My interest in physics developed when I was in Combermere in third or fourth form,” Warner told the SUNDAY SUN last week after delivering an inspirational address to students of his alma mater on their speech day.
“That year when I was 13 or 14, I did very badly in school and I remember my mother laid into me heavily. I spent that summer really thinking about me as a person and I spent the time reading.”
Stirred by his mother’s reaction to his poor application to schoolwork, Warner said: “I started looking at my interest rather than the interest of the school, and I discovered physics.”
Growing up in Eagle Hall, where his mother operated a rum shop, the young boy was exposed to the life of the village and during the years he shared school life with other boys at Wesley Hall Boys’ School, the idea of high science never entered his mind. It all changed during that summer holiday.
“I discovered that I wanted to know things that could only be answered by becoming a scientist.
“I have spent the rest of my life so far trying to understand the things around me and I see the world around me differently now.”
At 18, after graduation from Combermere, he migrated to the US with his mother and there began his quest to find the answers he sought.
He first received the Minority Access to Research Career Scholarship to City University of New York and did a combined degree in physics and engineering at Columbia University.
This gave him access to the US National Laboratory and the Department of Energy Laboratories, where he got involved in research in particle accelerators (the large machines commonly called atom smashers, normally used to study fundamental particles in nature).
His internships at the world-renowned Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre and at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York led to him receiving a fellowship to graduate school to pursue his PhD in Physics.
Warner has been working as a particle accelerator physicist with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, America’s premier lab for particle physics in Illinois, which placed him in an ideal position to explore his knowledge when the US Department of Energy was looking for solutions to help in the clean-up of a major oil spill.
The spill in 2010 was caused by a break in the Deepwater Horizon pipeline, which leaked an estimated 3.19 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the worst oil spills in US history.
“At that time the Department of Energy looked for solutions among the scientists at the national labs that could help, and I, on the urging of my wife, got involved in thinking about the idea and I came up with an idea for cleaning oil spills using magnetisation.”
He explained the process he discovered the night he went into his garage and shaved some iron off a shovel and mixed those filings into a bit of engine oil. Then he applied a small magnet to the solution and tried to move it, and it worked.
Hence was born the idea of the “magnetic wand” for application to an oil spill clean-up. It is a method, he said, that has no detrimental effects on the environment, unlike other oil clean-up methods, and can be used on the next major oil spill.
He has received US patent approval on the method and has had expressions of interest from all over the world.
Warner now balances his job at Fermilab with his continuing work in the private company he has set up to further develop the technology. He has given a few lectures and talks on his work.
When he addressed the students at Combermere, his message was clear: think of what you want to do, keep your focus and go after your goal.
He said: “That summer changed my life and Combermere changed my life. So by the time I left Barbados I was really interested in physics. Did I think in Barbados that I would ever become the physicist I am today? No, not at all.
“But I recognise now there was a point where it was impossible and a point when it was quite possible. The difference between the two was time and exposure to the right people.”
He also acknowledged the role that chance played, but he said: “I told the students, ‘If I did it, you can too’.”
Warner was one of 50 Barbadians recognised for their contributions and achievements last year with the award of the Barbados Jubilee Honour, which marked the 50th anniversary of Independence.