Imperial academics win €11 million ERC funding


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Seven Imperial academics have won prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants worth 11 million euros.

Academics in Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Physics and the Business School, were rewarded in the latest wave of Starting Grants – worth around €1.5 million each.

ERC Starting Grants recognise talented early-career scientists who show potential to be research leaders and have a scientific track record showing great promise. Across Europe the ERC awarded 408 grants, worth in total €603 million, as part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

Vice-Provost, Professor Nick Jennings, said: “Congratulations to our seven academics who have been recognised with these highly prestigious awards. These researchers have all shown the ability and ambition to be future leaders in their field.

“Imperial was one of the top recipients in Europe of these greatly sought-after grants – demonstrating our research excellence and standing among the world’s very best institutions.

“These projects, and many others in our research portfolio, involve close working with partners in Europe and we know that such international collaborations improve research quality. That is why we are supporting and encouraging colleagues to keep applying for new European grants, as we campaign for continued access to European research programmes after Brexit.”

Dr Qilei Song, Chemical Engineering - Flow batteries 

Qilei Song, Chemical Engineering
Dr Qilei Song is working on next-generation batteries for power grids 

Dr Qilei Song is researching next-generation cost-effective redox flow batteries – large energy storage devices that could power cities.

A typical flow battery consists of two tanks of electrolytes which are pumped past a membrane held between two electrodes. The membrane separator allows ions to transport between the tanks while preventing the cross-mixing of the electrolyte solutions.

Dr Song will design and manufacture next-generation low-cost ion-selective membranes, based on nanoporous polymers with well-defined porosity and ion-conductive functionality. Highly conductive and selective membranes will improve the efficiency and lifetime of flow batteries for energy storage.

A redox flow battery which could be scaled up for grid scale energy storage.

Dr Song said the research could help accelerate developments in renewable energy, mitigate climate change and solve the mismatch between intermittent supply of renewable energy and the variable power grid.

The project will involve collaborations with researchers at Imperial, University of Edinburgh, University of Cambridge and institutions in the EU and China.

Dr Song, who described the research as a ‘dream project’, said: “This grant will enable me to expand my team and move into new areas to pursue ground-breaking fundamental research in renewable energy conversion and storage.

"Our research will have a great impact for the development of renewable energy such as solar and wind power as well as the hydrogen economy, and contribute to sustainable development in Europe and the World.”

Dr Camille Petit, Chemical Engineering - Photocatalysts

Dr Camille Petit
Dr Camille Petit is developing photocatalysts to help tackle climate change 

Dr Camille Petit is aiming to diversify our energy portfolio by converting COinto a valuable fuel by using sunlight.

Dr Petit will develop a radically new class of photocatalysts – materials which absorb light and trigger a chemical reaction. Dr Petit says that photocatalysis is one route towards converting CO2 into chemicals and aligns with the UN development goal: achieving environmental sustainability.

Dr Petit said: “Greenhouse gases, such as CO2, accelerates global warming and climate change. We aim to convert CO2 into a valuable fuel using sunlight, a renewable form of energy.

“This project focuses specifically on unveiling the photochemistry of a poorly understood photocatalyst, porous boron nitride, and learn how to control its properties.

“This award is a great recognition of my group’s research over the past few years.

"We are very excited to receive this grant as it will give us the time and resources needed to explore critical research questions related to advanced materials for solar energy production, questions that have really sparked our curiosity in recent years.”

Dr Cláudia Custódio, Business School - Economic growth

Dr Cláudia Custódio will measure the economic effects of relaxing financial constraints 
Dr Cláudia Custódio will measure the economic effects of relaxing financial constraints 

Dr Cláudia Custódio has won a grant to measure the economic effects of relaxing financial constraints. Dr Custódio will analyse Portuguese firms to provide better understanding of the channels through which financing and informational frictions operate to impact firm performance and economic growth. 

Dr Custódio – who is collaborating with the Bank of Portugal and the Lisbon School of Economics & Management (ISEG) – said: "A big challenge faced by researchers is to estimate and measure the extent to which these frictions impede growth.

"Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are firms for which informational frictions are expected to be particularly high and access to financing constrained. At the same time, these firms represent an extremely large part of the European economy.

Dr Custódio added: "This grant is an important milestone in my career and great recognition that the research me and my colleagues are producing at the Business School and at the finance department is world-class.

"More importantly, it will allow me to study in a very comprehensive way what are the real economic effects of relaxing financial constraints, and to understand how by facilitating the access of small and medium sized firms to financing can promote economic growth."

Dr James Owen, Physics - Exoplanet evaporation

Planet evaporation
Dr Owen is studying the atmospheres of distant planets. Picture credit: NASA

Dr James Owen will learn about the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system by building the first global models of exoplanet evaporation.

Planets close to their parent star are vulnerable to evaporation, where UV and X-ray photons heat up their upper atmospheres to close to the escape temperature, causing them to lose mass.

Dr Owen says we currently have a very limited theoretical understanding of how these planets' atmospheres may evolve.

Dr Owen said: "Modern astronomy has truly entered the exoplanet era. We have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars and they show a large diversity and the majority are unlike the planets we have in our solar system. One of the goals for the next decade is to use new telescopes to study their atmospheres.

“Since many of the planets are close to their parent star, they are highly irradiated, heating up a planet’s atmosphere causing it to escape into space and ‘evaporate’.

"We currently do not understand this process well enough to predict which planets can retain their atmospheres over billion-year timescales and what they'll look like.”

Dr David Labonte, Bioengineering - Insect mechanics

Ant cutting
Dr Labonte is investigating the biomechanics of how ants feed on plants. Picture credit: Dr Sam Fabian

Dr David Labonte – whose grant is worth €2 million –  will investigate the mechanics of how insects, such as leaf-cutter ants, feed on plant material such as leaves and fruit. This work could pave the way for the development of new crop protection strategies.

Dr Labonte – who will be closely collaborating with Dr Severin Dressen at the Zoological Garden in Wuppertal, Germany – said: “Much as you would eat a banana differently from a nut, many insects adjust their feeding strategy when feasting on plants of different mechanical properties.

“Insects may even completely neglect one plant in favour of another, if they find it easier to process mechanically.

We will explore how leaf-cutter ants interact with plants to understand the role of biomechanics in determining the ants' food preferences, foraging behaviour and feeding performance."

Dr Lorenzo Di Michele, Chemistry - DNA nanostructures

Dr Di Michelle is creating a 'toolbox of DNA nanostructures'

Dr Lorenzo Di Michele is aiming to construct synthetic micro-robots, also known as ‘artificial cells’, that display behaviours normally associated with real biological cells. These synthetic agents could have an impact on several technological contexts, from diagnostics and therapeutics, to the detection of environmental contamination, to the production of biomaterials.

Dr Di Michele – who will collaborate with the University of Cambridge and institutions in Italy and Belgium – explains: “We all know DNA for its central role as the carrier of genetic information. However, a lot of research also goes into the use of DNA as a building material to construct nanoscale objects with precise shape and functionality.

“These 'DNA nanostructures' can be designed to perform some of the tasks normally carried out by the molecular machines present in biological cells, as well as to mimic some of their structural elements.”

Dr Di Michele said his project NANOCELL will create a toolbox of DNA nanostructures that mimic several elementary mechanisms of biological cells, and then put them together to construct synthetic micro-robots.

Di Michele – who first moved to the UK to pursue a PhD as a part of the EU-funded Marie Sklodowska-Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) – added: “It is a massive honour to receive this award. I now have the means of working towards my most ambitious research objectives.”

Dr Thomas Ouldridge, Bioengineering - Synthetic Systems

Dr Ouldridge will build a molecular copying system from scratch, a simple version of natures most important machines
Dr Ouldridge will build a molecular copying system from scratch. Natural counterparts, such as the ribosome illustrated above, are amongst nature's most important machines.

Dr Thomas Ouldridge will investigate how the information carried in polymer templates can be copied into other "daughter" polymers. Processes of this kind - such as the copying of information in DNA into RNA and proteins - are vital to life.

Dr Ouldridge says he will bring together theoretical physics and experimental bio-nanotechnology strands of his research to better understand the basic principles of the process and then guide the construction of simple synthetic copying systems in the lab.

Dr Ouldridge said: “Copying of the information carried in polymer templates like DNA is vital to life. Despite this fundamental importance, and the engineering potential of copying motifs, we do not understand the basic principles of how copying happens in nature and cannot build minimal synthetic copying systems for ourselves."

“The project will both provide an insight into a crucial mechanism of life, underlying both today's living organisms and the primitive life billions of years in the past, and lay the groundwork for engineering synthetic systems with the key cell-like functionality of information propagation.”

Daring scientists

The ERC-funded research will be carried out in 24 countries, with institutions from Germany (73), the UK (64) and the Netherlands (53) to host the highest number of projects.

President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: “Science knows no borders and that talent is to be found everywhere. It is essential that, for its future successful development, the European Union keeps attracting and supporting outstanding researchers from around the world. At the ERC we are proud to contribute to this goal by supporting some of the most daring creative scientific talent.”



Stephen Johns

Stephen Johns
Communications Division

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