Boundary-pushing research projects boosted by President’s Excellence Fund

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Gloved hands holding a tray of COVID-19 vaccines in a freezer

One project aims to break the vaccine cold chain

Projects making nanomagnetic computers, sustainable packaging, improved vaccine carriers, and cut-and-paste chemistry have won up to £250k each.

Four teams have received funds from the Excellence Fund for Frontier Research (EFFR) this year which are awarded as part of the College's strategic aim of acting courageously.

The awards are designed to support research ideas that are potential breakthrough programs and which could put the College in a leadership position. Teams receive up to £250,000 to kick-start their research projects.

“Some of the most powerful scientific discoveries have come about unexpectedly, by brilliant, creative people thinking outside the box,” said Imperial’s President Professor Alice Gast. “That's why we want our researchers to be able to pursue the new and the risky. This fund gives our academics the freedom and support to act courageously and innovatively.”

Making nanomagnetic computers

Maximising computer power, especially the process of storing data, currently uses a huge amount of energy – computation is and forecast to reach 30% of global energy production by 2030.

Illustration of four tiny magnets bathed in laser lightConventional computers rely on physically moving particles (electrons), causing vast amounts of energy to be wasted during their movement. Systems using nanomagnetics are an attractive alternative, as information is transferred as a wave with no exchange of physical particles, meaning they could be in principle 100,000 times more energy efficient than standard electronics.

Researchers in the Department of Physics have recently discovered a new way to write magnetic bits with a low-power laser. They will use the grant develop the technology and use it to explore new forms of computing, including neurally inspired computing hardware to accomplish tasks currently performed with artificial intelligence software.

The project is led by Dr Will Branford and Professor Rupert Oulton from the Department of Physics.

Cut-and-paste chemistry

Modern synthetic chemistry allows the creation of molecules with desired properties and structures, which are useful in fields including drug discovery, medical imaging, materials science, and catalysis. However, complex compounds can take many steps to create, meaning even simple swaps, such as replacing a carbon atom with a nitrogen atom, can require repeating the entire synthesis with modified chemical building blocks.

Illustration of molecules in ring shapes, with one being targettedNow, researchers from the Department of Chemistry are looking to borrow ideas from gene editing to make the process much more efficient. Like CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to selectively replace a single gene in DNA, the team will develop synthetic methods to selectively add, delete or replace any atom (or group of atoms) in any molecule at will.

They are pioneering a new approach to ‘molecular editing’ by developing reagents used to edit aromatic ring systems, which are common in drug discovery and materials science.

The project is led by Professor Mark Crimmin, Dr James Bull, and Dr Becky Greenaway from the Department of Chemistry.

Recyclable plastic films

To target the ever-growing problem of global waste, more and more plastics are being sorted and successfully recycled in the UK – to the tune of 1.6 million tonnes per year.

Plastic film going down a chuteHowever, the materials and plastic recovery facilities that do this are unable to effectively sort plastic packaging films. It is estimated that at least 400,000 tonnes per year of flexible plastic packaging films leak into the environment.

Since the primary functions of plastic packaging is to aid transportation and to help preserve products longer, the complete elimination of flexible plastic packaging is not practical, so researchers argue that the only solution is materials substitution. This means moving away from fossil-derived resources and develop flexible plastic packaging films solely from renewable resources, like lignocellulosic biomass.

This requires a multi-disciplinary approach, so researchers from the Faculties of Engineering and Natural Sciences will team up to receive £250,000 over three years. They will use the funds to develop lignocellulosic biomass-based flexible packaging films, and to design ionic liquids to act as a green solvent for biomass processing.

They will examine how to maximise the technological and economic feasibility of producing them at scale so that these renewable packaging films can compete with fossil-derived counterparts.

The project is led by Dr Koon-Yang Lee (Department of Aeronautics), Professor Tom Welton (Department of Chemistry) and Professor Niall Mac Dowell (Centre for Environmental Policy) and supported by the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering.

Unlocking access to vaccines

Most vaccines, like the ones currently available for COVID-19, are biologically derived, which means they must be stored at low or very low temperatures throughout the supply and distribution chain. Without this system of refrigerators and freezers, known as the ‘cold chain’, vaccines could become less effective and less safe.

A team distributing vaccines in ThailandHowever, setting up and maintaining cold chains is expensive and can lead to people in lower-income countries missing out on vital vaccinations.

A collaboration between researchers in the Departments of Materials and Chemical Engineering will receive £250,000 over two years to develop a packaging system that helps vaccines stay ‘stable’ at room temperature. If successful, their approach could help to unlock access to vaccines in developing nations.

They will use the funds to look at whether nanoporous vaccine packaging, called nano-packaging, could enable these vaccines to be stable under ambient conditions through confinement effects.

The project is led by Dr Robert Hoye in the Department of Materials, working with Dr Peter Petrov (Department of Materials), Dr Rongjun Chen (Department of Chemical Engineering) and Professor Jerry Heng (Department of Chemical Engineering).


Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications Division

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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications Division

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415

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Molecular-sciences, Research, President, Vaccines, Sustainability
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