Imperial College London

Imperial researchers win four ERC Advanced Grants

Imperial researchers win four ERC Advanced Grants

£6.5m will help scientists tackle big issues - <em>News</em>

By Lucy Goodchild and Colin Smith
Tuesday 4 May 2010

Developing a theory to predict the effect of environmental change on ecosystems and using a new kind of physics to give microchips more memory are two of the aims of four new European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants awarded to researchers at Imperial College London.

Imperial’s four ERC Advanced Grants, worth over €7.5 million (£6.5m) altogether, will fund important and high quality research across the College. Scientists working in the areas of physics, mathematics, biology and engineering will be tackling some of today’s big issues, such as data storage and the effects of climate change.

Understanding ecology and evolution

Professor Tim Coulson, from the Department of Life Sciences, will be working on a theory that joins together ecology and evolution. For example, for a type of ground squirrel called a marmot, environmental change has led to an increase in both population size and in the average size of the animal. Biologists frequently observe these simultaneous changes, but they are difficult to predict.

Professor Tim Coulson

Professor Coulson will use his ERC Advanced Grant, of more than €2 million, to develop a new theory in order to better predict the consequences of environmental change on natural populations. He will then test the theory using data from laboratory and field studies.

“I’m interested in this area because it is challenging, because it is big picture science and because it is a little contentious. I think it is necessary to challenge existing paradigms when they clearly are inadequate to answer a specific question,” said Professor Coulson. “By the end of this grant, I hope to have a better understanding of the natural world than I currently do - I’m motivated by increasing understanding. We currently do not have a good feeling for how populations will respond to environmental change; I want to achieve deeper insight into its effects.”

Analysing how fluids behave

Developing mathematical models to analyse the way fluids behave when they come into contact with other fluids and solid surfaces, on the microscopic level and on a large scale, will be the focus of Dr Serafim Kalliadasis’s work, using a new €1.3 million ERC grant. Dr Kalliadasis is keen to understand these complex ‘interfacial flows’, because they are involved in a wide variety of natural phenomena and technological applications, from gravity currents under water and lava flows, to heat and mass transport processes in engineering applications.

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Dr Kalliadasis, from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology, said: “The way in which fluids behave at interfaces and interact with solid boundaries is extremely complex. Understanding it demands a synergistic approach based on a balanced combination of theory and computations at the crossroad between applied mathematics, fluid dynamics, chemical physics and stochastic processes, never attempted before in the field.

“Ultimately, we hope that our models will greatly assist researchers and engineers involved in controlling and optimising processes and devices, ranging from microfluidics, which looks at fluids constrained in micrometre-scale spaces, to biological settings, for example the problems of microprinting and of directing biological cell populations along ridges of liquids,” he added.

Listen to the audio interview above to hear about other research that Dr Kalliadasis is working on.

Solving complex mathematical problems

Solving complex mathematical problems linked to string theory and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is the aim of Professor Simon Donaldson’s research, funded by a €1.5 million ERC grant. As well as funding the research, the grant will support two PhD students and two postdoctoral researchers.

Professor Simon Donaldson

Professor Donaldson will use complex numbers, which have a ‘real’ and an ‘imaginary’ part, in algebraic equations which describe high-dimensional shapes, much as a circle can be described by an equation. This ‘algebraic geometry’ can be applied to problems involving space and time.

Professor Donaldson will also be using mathematical analysis to prove the existence of solutions to partial differential equations related to the geometry of these shapes, some of which have evaded mathematicians for decades. One such unresolved problem is a variant of Einstein’s equation in General Relativity.

“With the grant I hope to prove there are solutions to these partial differential equations,” said Professor Donaldson, from the Department of Mathematics at Imperial. “The grant will do even more than that – it will enable us to attract some bright young people to train and work with us at Imperial. We hope we will interest some of the best young mathematicians from around the world.”

Developing microchips that can store more data

Professor Russell Cowburn has been awarded €2.8 million to work on ‘spintronics’, with the aim of developing new microchips that can store thousands of times more data than today’s microchips. Spintronics is a field of science focused on using and controlling the spin of electrons to store, process and receive information. Today, devices such as computers do this by controlling the electrical charge of electrons rather than their spin.

Professor Russell Cowburn

Currently, data is stored in microchips in active components that lie on the surf ace of the silicon chi ps. Professor Cowburn hopes to develop chips that hold many active components stacked on top of each other, allowing more data to be stored in the same sized chip.

“I am very excited about this grant, as it takes us from researching a new kind of fundamental physics to potential commercialisation of the end product. We’re essentially starting with a physics that hasn’t even been discovered yet and ending up with something that could be used in your iPod,” said Professor Cowburn.

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