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Academy invests £22 million to support research in emerging technologies

05 October 2020

The Royal Academy of Engineering has announced that eight engineering academics at universities across the UK are to receive support from its largest research funding scheme – the Chairs in Emerging Technologies.

A total of £22 million has been allocated to support these innovative researchers and global leaders in their fields whose projects made it through the rigorous selection process in the face of stiff competition. 

Research being funded this year includes the development of electronic textiles; multifunctional composites that could revolutionise sectors from aerospace to portable electronic devices; and machine learning techniques that could improve the sustainability of the chemical industry and help to reduce the £20 billion of waste produced globally during the manufacture of medicines.

Other projects will use novel materials in semiconductors to improve energy efficiency; find new ways to deal with nuclear waste; and improve the delivery of clean drinking water and wastewater treatment in rural communities. Our future healthcare also stands to gain from the development of new biosensing technology platforms.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “When I see such exciting projects as these, I am genuinely heartened and optimistic about the engineering talent we have working in this country and the critical role our engineers can play in helping to tackle global challenges. These visionary engineers and the projects they will be working on are outstanding examples of why the Academy places such importance on supporting excellence in engineering as part of its strategy to achieve a sustainable society and inclusive economy that works for everyone. We expect great things of them all and I’m confident they will deliver results that will benefit the economy and society as a whole.”

The Chairs in Emerging Technologies scheme is made possible through funding from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The eight Chairs and their research projects are:

Professor Stephen Beeby, University of Southampton
Electronic textiles engineering: towards invisible and ubiquitous wearable technologies

Professor Beeby will develop electronic textiles into a practical platform technology for wearable applications and beyond. His research will exploit printed active materials, flexible circuit technologies and textile engineering to integrate sensing, electronic and energy harvesting/storage functionality within a single textile. This will create reliable e-textile systems that are invisible to the user and require minimal intervention for a range of health and work-related applications.

Professor Emile Greenhalgh, Imperial College London
Structural power and multifunctional structural materials

Professor Emile Greenhalgh will develop structural power composites, which are mechanically load-bearing materials that can also store and deliver electrical energy. These multifunctional composites are a completely new way of using structural materials, heralding an emerging technology that could revolutionise sectors such as aerospace, automotive, portable electronics and infrastructure. If successful, such ‘massless energy’ could ultimately consign conventional batteries to history.

Professor Jonathan Hirst, University of Nottingham
Machines learning chemistry

Professor Hirst will develop machine learning techniques to help chemical engineers and chemists make their manufacturing processes more sustainable. Working with scientists at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Sustainable Chemistry, Professor Hirst aims to build interactive machine learning models of sustainability that can be used early in the discovery phase by researchers in the pharmaceutical sector and related chemical-based industries.

Professor Martin Kuball, University of Bristol
Ultra-wide bandgap emerging power electronics for a low-carbon economy

Professor Kuball wants to develop a new class of semiconductor power electronic devices using ultra-wide bandgap materials such as gallium oxide, boron nitride and aluminium nitride. Thanks to the outstanding properties of these materials, the new devices will be compact, highly versatile and energy efficient. This new generation of power electronics is the key to transforming a wide range of real-life applications from data centres and motor drives to electric vehicle chargers to smart grids.

Professor Bruno Merk, University of Liverpool
iMAGINE – a breakthrough technology to make more out of spent nuclear fuel

Professor Merk aims to develop an advanced nuclear technology to turn spent fuel, currently declared as nuclear waste, into an asset that can be used as fuel for future nuclear reactors without the expensive reprocessing technologies currently used at Sellafield. His innovative approach could significantly reduce the cost of nuclear energy, reduce the amount of nuclear waste for disposal and create a valuable net-zero energy resource for future generations. He will work with key industrial stakeholders and government institutions to develop this technology.

Professor Douglas Paul, University of Glasgow
Single-chip cold-atom systems: a quantum navigator in your mobile phone

Professor Paul aims to develop cold-atom atomic clocks, accelerometers and rotation sensors that can be manufactured on single silicon chips and used for navigation without relying on satellites. Laser light is already used to slow atoms down by quantum processes and reduce their temperature close to absolute zero, enabling accurate atomic clocks and quantum sensors. However, present systems are large, heavy and expensive and his research aims to develop chip-scale quantum navigators that can fit inside a mobile phone and could enable resilient position, navigation and timing systems for all forms of transport.

Professor William Sloan, University of Glasgow
Off-grid water biotechnologies

Professor Bill Sloan will develop new technologies to simultaneously tackle the most pressing global water problems and help decarbonise the water industry. Some 35% of the world's population, most of whom live in rural communities, lack access to either improved sanitation or safe drinking water. The western, centralised model for water supply and treatment is too energy- and capital-intensive to deliver sustainable solutions. Professor Sloan will harness the bioprocessing power of microorganisms to deliver clean drinking water and treat wastewater in rural communities using low-energy, sustainable, off-grid technologies.

Professor Molly Stevens FREng FRS, Imperial College London
Multidimensional Target-Agnostic Sensing (MTAS): the next generation of biosensors

The Stevens Group is very active in the development of bioengineering strategies for the biosensing and regenerative medicine fields. Professor Stevens aims to develop next-generation biosensing technology platforms, including a new MTAS platform. Working closely with clinical and industrial partners, her research will enable applications in point-of-care diagnostics, disease profiling and monitoring of biotech processes.


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