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Research rising to meet Global Challenges


Minister to announce £47 million investment in leading engineering research projects

New innovative engineering projects and an international partnership between the UK and US, announced today, will bring leading engineers and scientists together to address some of the major engineering challenges facing the world.

Funding for the projects will be announced by the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, at the first Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) in London. The event is organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering and is proudly supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and other partners.

Five Frontier Engineering projects will receive £25 million in total, the successful applicants cover a range of topics that align with the themes of the Global Grand Challenges Summit.

In addition, four large grants to UK universities, totalling £20 million, will go to projects that also match the Summit’s themes of Resilience, Health, and Technology & Growth. They will develop new diagnostic tools and therapies in health, explore the use of hexagonal structures in technology, and improve urban infrastructure planning and modelling.

Lastly, a new call for proposals from UK and US teams to research provision of clean water for all will have between £1-2 million to allocate. This will be issued via collaboration between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Mr Willetts said: “Over the last two centuries engineering innovations have transformed lives, but we still face global challenges like tackling climate change, improving healthcare and meeting basic needs, like access to clean water. This significant investment recognises the vital role that the UK research base can have in providing solutions to these challenges.”

EPSRC’s Chief Executive, Professor David Delpy said: “The issues being explored at the Global Grand Challenges Summit highlight how important it is for the UK to fund engineering research in these areas and work with colleagues worldwide to develop both the people and projects to meet the demands of the twenty first century.”

The five successful applicants for Frontier Engineering Awards are:

• Scaling up synthetic biology – led by Imperial College London – Grant ref EP/K038648/1 aligns with GGC themes of Technology & Growth, Enriching Life
• Nature inspired engineering – led by University College London (UCL) – Grant ref EP/K038656/1 aligns with GGC Sustainability theme
• Synthetic biology applications to water – led by Glasgow University – Grant ref EP/K0388885/1 aligns with GGC themes of Resilience, and Technology & Growth themes
• Individualised multiscale simulation – led by the University of Sheffield – Grant ref EP/K03877X/1 aligns with GGC Health theme
• Simulation of open engineered biological systems – led by Newcastle University – Grant ref EP/K038648 aligns with GGC themes of Sustainability and Enriching Life

Large Programme Grants

Four grants have been awarded to:

1. Professor Chris Rogers, University of Birmingham – Assessing the underworld – an integrated model of city infrastructures – This project builds on the earlier Mapping the Underworld project. It will involve academics from the Universities of Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Southampton, Newcastle University and NERC British Geological Survey.

It also includes institutions in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and the US among its sixty three partners. Key players in utilities, construction, sensing and mapping have pledged an additional £17 million support in cash and in-kind contributions.

Grant value £5.9 million. Grant reference EP/KP021699/1

2. Professor Ffion Dunne, Imperial College London – Heterogeneous mechanics in hexagonal alloys across length and time scales – This project aims to improve understanding, performance and application of hexagonal material systems used by the aero, energy and defence sectors.

It will involve academics from the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester. Industrial partners include Rolls-Royce, SERC and Westinghouse who will provide an extra £1.4 million support in cash and in-kind contributions.

Grant value £5 million. Grant reference EP/KP034332/1

3. Professor Sandy Cochran, University of Dundee – Sonopill: minimally invasive gastrointestinal diagnosis and therapy – This project will explore the use of ultrasound imaging and therapeutic capabilities deployed in a capsule format in the gastro intestinal tract. It will involve academics from the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University.

Grant value £5 million. Grant reference EP/K034537/1

4. Professor Alan Murray, University of Edinburgh – Implantable microsystems for personalised anti-cancer therapy (IMPACT) – This project seeks to develop sensory chips to be implanted in cancerous tumours to guide radiotherapy and ultimately act as a chemotherapy delivery device.

Grant value £4.2 million. Grant reference EP/K034510/1

Notes to Editors

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

Frontier Engineering projects background information
Imperial College London; Scaling up synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is a renewable resource with the potential to revolutionise the way we manufacture a host of consumer products from materials and energy to food and medicine. Current synthetic chemistry techniques use fossil resources. By using synthetic biology techniques for rapidly tailoring biological systems in manufacturing the team at Imperial will research more environmentally-friendly production mechanisms using cells.

The team will work with industrial partners on real-world applications in therapeutics and chemicals manufacturing and find the best way to translate laboratory discoveries into operating industrial production processes.

Developing biofactories will require the team to invent new technologies to underpin the manufacturing process, such as new biologically based sensors to monitor production processes, and to produce new more robust production cells that can tolerate the high levels of compounds they make and new microreactors and/or compartmentalisation strategies for using enzymes when whole cells are not required. Because the transition process will not happen overnight Imperial will develop intermediate production methods combining biological and chemical catalysts. Cells and proteins will be engineered to be more robust in the presence of chemicals and solvents need to be less toxic to proteins.

The research will test the new technologies on healthcare in the manufacture of medicinal compounds and therapeutic proteins. The research goals are to make simpler, more cost effective, point-of-care manufacturing systems using a combination of platform technologies: enzyme microreactors, specialised cells, and biosensors.

The second target is to produce bulk chemicals without the need for petroleum inputs. The team will adjust manufacturing techniques for renewable inputs such as biomass and to develop new processes that use biology and/or environmentally friendly chemistry to do the conversions. Synthetic biology has never been attempted on such a large scale. The challenge will be to adapt their parts, devices, and systems to operate at this level.

The overall outcome will be novel, cost effective, energy efficient, and sustainable routes to therapeutics and chemicals.

University College London; Nature Inspired Engineering

Evolution over the eons has made Nature a treasure trove of clever solutions to sustainability, resilience, and ways to efficiently utilise scarce resources. The EPSRC Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering will draw lessons from nature to engineer innovative solutions to our grand challenges in energy, water, materials, health, and living space.

Rather than imitating nature out of context or succumbing to superficial analogies, research at the Centre will take a decidedly scientific approach to uncover the fundamental mechanisms behind desirable traits, and apply these to designing and synthesising artificial systems that borrow the traits of the natural model. These systems – desalination membranes, fuel cells, catalysts, adaptive materials, or built environments – thus gain the same desirable characteristics as their models in nature – cell membranes, lungs, trees and bacterial communities – with the associated extraordinary performance, such as scalability, robustness, and material and energy efficiency.

Based at UCL, the Centre aims to be a world-leading, national resource that welcomes broad UK and international participation. Using theory and simulation assisted rational design, complemented by experiments, synthesis and testing, the Centre unites a highly interdisciplinary team of researchers. Contributions may come from genetics, computer science, chemical and materials engineering, architecture and beyond. Collaborations with a wide range of industrial partners allow us to accelerate the translation of research findings into practice.

University of Glasgow; Delivering New, More Sustainable, Water Engineering Technologies Using Synthetic Biology

In the Developed World, the engineers of the industrial revolution bequeathed us magnificent water infrastructure. But it is now aged, faulty, expensive to maintain, costly to run, energy guzzling and, consequently, unsustainable. In many countries water demand will exceed supply by an estimated 40 per cent within 25 years and one-third of humanity, predominantly in the Developing World, will have half the clean water required for life’s basics. Therefore, water supply and treatment is a vitally important Global challenge and it is imperative that engineers bring the most up-to-date science to bear on the task of delivering new, more sustainable, water engineering technologies. Nowhere is the science base changing quicker than in biology, with synthetic biology pushing the boundaries of the discipline beyond what we previously thought possible. Thus synthetic biology is an exciting and potentially transformative scientific endeavour that promises solutions to broad range of problems in medicine, sustainable resource management and energy production.

At the University of Glasgow a team of biologists, chemists and engineers are collaborating to take fundamental breakthroughs in synthetic biology from the lab into engineering solutions for water supply and treatment.

A broad spectrum of synthetic biology approaches, from cloning genes into existent organisms to developing minimal cells supporting plasmid vectors and protein expression machinery and even evolving inorganic ‘life’, will be deployed to better understand the biology of existing water technologies and to develop radically new solutions. The research team’s vision for deploying synthetic biology solutions in water engineers has emerged naturally from on-going collaborations supported by EPSRC, including EPSRC fellowships for four of the investigators, which have provided the perfect platform for radical thought. The Frontier award will allow the vision for more sustainable water engineering to be achieved through research at a frontier in fundamental science, in sustainable resource management and in engineering science.
University of Newcastle; A New Frontier in Design: The Simulation of Open Engineered Biological Systems

Newcastle University has assembled a unique team of Engineers, Computer Scientists, Biologists and Mathematicians to open a new frontier in Biological Engineering.

Biological Resources, especially microbiological resources are the last unexploited frontier in engineering and key to the nascent field of Engineering Biology. But engineers are trapped between the narrow certainties of microbes in the laboratory they can manipulate but not deploy and the raw power of the open microbial world where there are thousands of species we can deploy but not easily and predictably engineer. In particular, biological engineers have struggled to create new designs efficiently and predictably because each new idea must be trialled in large scale experiments that can have huge costs and uncertain outcomes. The team’s vision of theory base simulation will allow it to work its way from single cell events of births, deaths and selection to the emergent system level properties of billions upon billions of individuals exploiting naturally occurring or even novel synthetic organisms to make cleaner water more cheaply, new consumer products or perhaps new materials or new ways to control corrosion or fouling in the oil and shipping industry respectively.

University of Sheffield; Engineering Problems- Application to the Individualised Simulation of the Musculoskeletal System

The musculoskeletal system is an amazing part of our body, which makes possible in all vertebrates incredible speed, strength, and agility. A good part of how bones and muscles works can be in principle explained in engineering terms. In practice however, this turns out to be incredibly challenging, primarily because all processes are interconnected across radically different space-time scales.

So for example, how the central nervous system coordinates the activation of the different muscles as we move can be well described from a biomechanical point of view at the whole body scale. How bones resist (or fracture) under the action of internal and external force can be accurately described at the organ scale. How bone mechanical properties vary from point to point in our body can be explained in detail at the bone tissue scale.

How such tissue changes structure and composition over time because of diseases such as osteoporosis, or simply because of ageing, can be well described at the cellular scale. But all these things do not happen one independently from another; on the contrary they are all coupled one to another.

To accurately model a human musculoskeletal system in engineering terms, we need to be able to capture simultaneously processes that happen from the cellular scale (1/100,000th of metre) to the whole body scale (1 metre). The aim of this EPSRC Frontier proposal is to develop the technologies that will make all this possible. This builds upon techniques developed under EPSRCs programmes such as Control and Systems Engineering.

The impact on healthcare could be tremendous: total healthcare expenditure in the UK has doubled from 2000-2010 to a staggering ten per cent of GDP. Of these costs those associated to the ageing population have the lion’s share and will increase in the future; among age-related conditions, those associated to the musculoskeletal system (osteoporosis, arthritis, back pain, bone metastases, etc.) produce a considerable socio-economic burden.

Reliable engineering model of each individual patient will make possible to predict with excellent accuracy how a certain disease will develop, or what would be the effect of a certain treatment; such technologies will be used by the doctors, but also by the biomedical industry to develop better and safer products at lower cost.


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